Albertine Lapensée (“Miracle Maid”), hockey player (born 10 August 1898 in Cornwall, ON; date and place of death unknown). Albertine Lapensée was arguably Canada’s first female hockey superstar, one of a number of women players who dominated the sports pages in Central Canada from 1915 to 1918, during the First World War. Lapensée’s superior hockey skills led to speculation over her gender, which continued into the 21st century.
Albertine Lapensée burst onto the sports scene as a 17-year-old playing for the Cornwall Victorias, who never lost a game with her in uniform. Journalists lavished superlatives on her play, and her most common nickname in English newspapers was the Miracle Maid. The French papers preferred “L’etoile des etoiles.” A half-dozen goals in a game was not unusual for her, and her best game was 15 goals in a 21–0 win. The papers claimed she could score at will.
Little is known about her early life; Lapensée, one of eleven children, was born in Cornwall on 10 August 1898 to Phillippe and Matilde. A newspaper profile of Phillippe published in 1940 is the only published account of her early life: "One of his children, the famous Albertine Lapensee, counted the greatest female exponent of hockey on the continent, learned to play the game with her brothers and other boys on small creeks and ponds in the East End, proving that it did not require swell surroundings to produce a great player." (Cornwall Standard Freeholder, 18 March 1940)
Lapensée was only a teenager when a hugely successful women’s league began in Montréal in December of 1915. The Eastern Ladies’ Hockey League (ELHL) was the brainchild of a Montréal promoter named Len Porteous. Faced with a drastic drop-off in business at the Jubilee Arena in east-end Montréal, he formed a four-team women’s league to sell more ice time and tickets. The League became an overnight sensation. By the end of their first season, they were renowned throughout central Canada and the northeastern United States. The ELHL made women’s hockey “All the Rage,” as one newspaper headline proclaimed, and teams sprung up from Québec City to the Ottawa Valley.
Lapensée would likely have been only 17 when she tried out for the Cornwall Nationals, who soon changed their name to the Victorias (commonly known as the “Vics”). Her astonishing skills went unrecorded until the Vics soared to prominence in the winter of 1916 by easily beating the best teams from Montréal and Ottawa. According to records printed in newspapers in Montréal and Cornwall in 1916–1917, the Victorias were truly, as the headlines put it, "invincible". According to those unofficial accounts, the Vics went 46 games without losing and outscored their opponents by almost 200 goals; Lapensée alone scored two-thirds of the team's total. On 18 March 1917, the Montreal Star wrote that, "It was apparent she could score any time she wanted to."
|Number of Games||46|
|Record||45 Wins–0 Losses–1 Tie|
|Goals Scored by Lapensée||150|
Not long after, Lapensée started to demand a share of the revenue she was helping to generate before playing. She was criticized by the Montreal Star for being a ‘prima donna’. Lapensée soon retired at the age of 18 and disappeared. Although one report alleged that she had died in New York in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 (see Influenza), this has never been confirmed, and the profile of her family published in 1940 indicates that she was still alive at that time.Lapensée’s fame spread and she was featured in lucrative exhibition games in Cleveland, Boston and New York. In February 1917, Montreal’s Le Devoir claimed she had achieved “une popularité sans égale dans le monde du hockey” [popularity unequalled in the world of hockey].
Controversy and Myth
Lapensée’s accomplishments as an early female hockey star are impressive and important. However, controversy over her gender, and a persistent myth of an alleged sex-change operation, make the story even more interesting.
Lapensée was so much better than her rivals, that opponents at the time accused her of being a man. But after team officials and the Montreal Star vouched for her, the controversy passed until after her retirement from competition.
Following her retirement from hockey in 1918, Lapensee largely disappeared from the historical record. However, a persistent legend took hold that she had undergone a sex-change operation in New York and returned to live as a man in Cornwall. The official history of Cornwall (1983) and a profile on women’s hockey by Library and Archives Canada represent this story as fact, although it has little credibility.
Historical documents support that Lapensée was born female, and that she continued to live as a woman after her retirement from competitive hockey. Census records for the Lapensée family repeatedly listed Albertine as a daughter, both at the time of her birth and in subsequent decades. Her mother’s 1929 obituary does as well, as does the 1940 profile of the family, which lists Albertine as one of the surviving children: “Mrs. Albert Schmidt (Albertine), of New York City, she who made the Victoria Ladies’ Hockey Club, and Cornwall, famous as a player in 1916” (Cornwall Standard Freeholder, 18 March 1940). The profile indicates that Albertine Lapensée married a Mr. Albert Schmidt of New York, and was living as a woman as late as 1940. There is no credible evidence that Lapensée ever had gender reassignment surgery, and such operations were not performed in North America until the 1960s.
Except for those two documented, magical seasons, Lapensée’s life remains largely a mystery. However, her sporting achievements from 1916 to 1918 were impressive, and she merits recognition as one of Canada’s great athletes. Lapensée was a hockey star in an age when women were only just beginning to play competitive team sports, a true pioneer of women’s sport. (See also The History of Canadian Women in Sport.)