Red Barons Alumni continue to have impact 50 years later

In 1969, a ragtag group of female hockey players formed the Red Barons team, helping to revive the women’s game in the Kingston area. More than five decades later, they are still having a big impact on the sport.

All were welcome. It didn’t matter whether you had never held a hockey stick before (some hadn’t) or skated for a university women’s team (some had). Or what age you were (from 9 years and up).

“The team was comprised of anybody and everybody,” recalls Annabelle Twiddy, one of the organizers of the original team.

At the time, there were no opportunities for girls or women to play in the Kingston area. One of the team founders, Cookie Cartwright, had spearheaded the return of the women’s varsity team at Queen’s in 1960. She even pushed other schools, including the University of Toronto and Western, to develop teams so that Queen’s would have someone to play against.

However, when she graduated and became a practicing lawyer in Kingston, there was no place to play. Twiddy and Cartwright decided to put a team together, naming it the Red Barons after a character in the Snoopy comic strip. It wasn’t easy. They had to fight to get ice time at city arenas and raise money to travel to play against other women’s squads.

With help from coaches like Bob Weatherdon, the top players built up the skills of the newcomers. “Bob didn’t see any difference between experienced and inexperienced players,” Twiddy says. “He just saw people he could help.”

Soon the team, bolstered by several outstanding university players, was traveling to women’s tournaments across the continent. They captured both the Ontario and North American championships in 1975; one year later they won the North American title again.

In the mid-1980s, the team decided to end its successful run. There were other opportunities for women and university players now had a full schedule, with little time to play with the Red Barons. They deserve credit for revitalizing the game in Kingston, providing the scaffolding that would later see the establishment of the Kingston Ice Wolves and other female-only teams.

A couple of former Red Barons still play on age 60-plus squads. “That shows you how far women’s hockey has come – that there are teams dedicated to specific age groups,” Twiddy notes.

Fifty years later, both former players and community members started to reflect on the huge contribution that the Red Barons made to the sport. The Kingston Historical Society requested a presentation about the history of the team and a solid crowd turned out to learn more.

Filmmaker Dave McCallum happened to be on hand for the presentation and thought it would make a great documentary. He sprang into action, interviewing former players and gathering archival footage from home videos. He mixed that in with modern-day shots of a local girls team, who take it for granted that females can indeed play hockey.

The documentary, Born at the Right Time, was shown in March at film festivals in both Kingston and Belleville.

“I think the Red Barons are local heroes who deserve to be recognized for the barriers they tore down around Canada’s national game,” McCallum says.

“In the 1950s and 60s, girls were told that hockey was a game for boys,” he notes. “But these girls and women came together on a rink at 6 am in 1969 and changed the game forever in Kingston.”

In 2019, the Red Barons organized a 50th reunion, with more than 40 former players turning out. “It says something about what a cohesive group we were that so many women attended the event,” Twiddy says.

Not only was the reunion a lot of fun, but it proved to be a powerful force to celebrate women’s hockey and support the game for the future. The women created a $25,000 fund with the Community Foundation of Kingston and Area to help the winning Kingston-area high school team to travel to play in the eastern Ontario finals. The first grant was made in March.

“We’re so excited to be able to encourage players who are still in high school to achieve their hockey dreams,” Twiddy says.

Meanwhile, the Original Hockey Hall of Fame had embarked on a mission to honour the late hockey historian Bill Fitsell by presenting an award in his name to two graduating players at the Carr-Harris game between Queen’s and RMC. Two board members at the Hall, Janean Sergeant and Diana Drury, suggested a similar award for a graduating player on the Queen’s women’s team. They felt it would be appropriate to name the award in honour of the Red Barons. The inaugural Red Barons Award was presented in February to Shelby Sly for on-ice skills, academics and community leadership.

In addition, the Red Barons alumni worked with the city to plant a tree and install a plaque honoring the team outside the Kingston Memorial Centre. It stands near a monument dedicated to those who lost their lives during the two world wars.

Today, women’s hockey is thriving. There are teams for young girls throughout the area. The Queen’s Gaels take on squads across the province in Ontario University Athletics play. And, of course, the Canadian Olympic team has captured five Gold medals since the women’s sport made its debut in 1998.

“The game has come a long way,” Twiddy says. “Some of it is on our shoulders as Red Barons, but some women came before us and made a huge contribution as well.”