Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - Preston Rivulettes - 1930's
One on One Turning Point

Preston Rivulettes - 1930s

3 JUNE 2014
A baseball team that formed a hockey team, the Preston Rivulettes throughout the 1930s lost just two of 350 games played during that decade until war brought an end to their dynasty. (Hockey Hall of Fame)
When hockey historians discuss the greatest women's hockey teams of all time, various configurations of Team Canada and Team USA are mentioned in the same breath as...the Preston Rivulettes.

The Preston Rivulettes?!?

Absolutely! Prior to the Second World War, this team from Southwestern Ontario was virtually unstoppable.

The town of Preston, Ontario hasn't existed since 1973, when the towns of Preston and Hespeler, the hamlet of Blair and the city of Galt were amalgamated to form the city known today as Cambridge. While it is unclear exactly how the Preston Rivulettes hockey team was originally formed, it is generally agreed that in 1930, members of the Preston Rivulettes girls' softball team was discussing activities in which they could partake during the winter months and someone suggested hockey. Two members, Nellie Ranscombe and Helen Schmuck chatted with Fanny Rosenfeld, better known as 'Bobbie,' who had a sports column targeted to women in the Toronto Globe and Mail, and who was already starring in multiple sports, including hockey. Rosenfeld encouraged the girls to form a hockey team.

The Preston Rivulettes were inducted into the Cambridge Sports Hall of Fame in 1996. (Hockey Hall of Fame)
Nellie was already quite a good player, having played shinny on a pond near her home, but none of the other girls on the softball team had ever played organized hockey before, yet they accepted the challenge and at the first practice at Preston's Lowther Street Arena, nine members arrived, ready to form a hockey team. The owner of the arena, Herb Fach, coached the team, which was comprised of inaugural members Nellie Ranscombe in goal, Marg Gabbitas and Toddy Webb on defence and sisters Helen and Marm Schmuck at forward along with Nellie's sister Hilda Ranscombe. Pat Marriott, Myrtle Parr and Helen Sault, were the alternates. In 1931, this squad debuted in the Ladies Ontario Hockey Association, a league that had been in operation since 1923. Other teams in their division that season were from Guelph, Hamilton, Kitchener, London, Port Dover, Stratford and Toronto, all cities or towns in Southwestern Ontario. In that first season, the Rivulettes beat London for the championship of their division, and then defeated Pembroke for the LOHA championship and, ironically, the Bobbie Rosenfeld Trophy. Preston's Prestonian reported, "The remarkable performance of the local girls' team has caused considerable comment among the local fans who have followed the great game of hockey for years. Organized as a team only a short time ago, inexperienced and unnoticed, made their way with ease through all opposition, at that without losing a game to bring this additional honor to Preston."

Socks worn by Hilda Ranscombe of the Preston Rivulettes during the 1930s.
Through the ensuing decade, the Rivulettes played approximately 350 games, losing but two and tying just three. They won the LOHA's Bobbie Rosenfeld Trophy ten years in a row, were six-time winners of the Romeo Daoust Cup as Eastern Canadian champions and went on to win the Lady Bessborough Trophy as the Dominion Women's Amateur Hockey Association champions on four occasions, although that number is deceiving.

Gloves worn by Hilda Ranscombe during the Preston Rivulettes domination of women's hockey in the 1930's.
While the team won its contests with relative ease, women's hockey struggled to find a solid foundation during that decade. Due to the Great Depression, financing was constantly a challenge. The players were unpaid and had to pay for travel and expenses on their own. In 1933, the Rivulettes were edged by the Edmonton Rustlers for the national championship, yet the Galt Reporter wrote that the Rivulettes had "placed this town on the sports map." In 1934, the two teams were to meet again for the championship, but the Rivulettes were unable to secure financing to travel west to Edmonton in order to face the Rustlers again and defaulted the championship to Edmonton. In 1935, Preston defeated Winnipeg Eatons for the inaugural Lady Bessborough Trophy, donated to the national champion in women's hockey. In 1936, the Rivulettes again were forced to default the championship due to financing, this time to the Winnipeg Olympics. In 1937, the Rivulettes defeated the Winnipeg Eatons for the Lady Bessborough Trophy, winning it again in 1938 and 1939 against teams from Winnipeg. Alas, there was no champion in 1940 as both Preston and the Winnipeg Olympics defaulted.

Hilda Ranscombe led the Preston Rivulettes to six Dominion championships and it was her fame that enabled a women's league to flourish in Ontario and for women's hockey to become popular right across the country. (Hockey Hall of Fame)
Because the Rivulettes were so dominant, many ladies' teams refused to join the LOHA because they believed there was no chance of competing. The league decreased in size until Bobbie Rosenfeld, who had become league president, decided to form an 'A' and a 'B' league, with teams allocated by their skill level.

Icetime was also at a premium, and often, the women's games were pushed aside by men's teams. In 1938, for example, the LOHA semi-final between the Preston Rivulettes and the Cobalt Northern Marvels had to be rescheduled because the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) took precedence. This, in spite of the fact that on most occasions, the Rivulettes outdrew men's games.

Preseton Rivulettes sweater worn by Hilda Ranscombe during the 1930s.
In 1939, the Preston Rivulettes were invited to Europe for an exhibition tour to demonstrate their skills against men's teams, but the outbreak of World War II forced the cancellation of the tour. By 1940, the mighty Preston Rivulettes were forced to fold when government-imposed gas rationing curtailed travel.

By 1940, the earliest golden era of women's hockey came to a conclusion when the Preston Rivulettes folded. Not only had financial considerations taken their toll, but so had the Second World War, as several members of the team took up their roles in the war effort. In addition, several team members found new priorities as newlyweds and new mothers.

Through their decade-long existence, several women besides the inaugural members represented Preston on the Rivulettes, including Marie Bielstein, Ruth Dagel, Eleanor Fairgrieves, Violet Hall, Gladys Hawkins, Fay Hilborn, Norma Hipel, Sheila Lahey, Winnie Makcrow, Dot Raffey, Midge Robertson and Elvas Williams.

Although they existed for but ten years, the legacy of the Preston Rivulettes is immense. They were inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in 1996 and into the Cambridge Sports Hall of Fame a year later. Perhaps even more notably, they opened doors for women's hockey by demonstrating that the women's game could be played as skillfully as the men's game, and could draw substantial fan support. They will be remembered for their dominance; regarded justifiably as one of the greatest women's hockey teams ever assembled.

Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and Online Features for the Hockey Hall of Fame.