Women's hockey offers few monetary or social rewards, but on the bright side it is full of badasses.

“Are you coming?” she asks. “On Saturday?”

The question is pointed in a particular direction, but it’s meant for the whole dressing room. Unfortunately, sans context, nobody knows what exactly it means, and the response is a mixture of open confusion and distracted fidgeting. On the far wall, a dark-haired woman with a thin face looks up from her sock-taping and asks the question everyone is obviously thinking: “What’s Saturday?”

“The Furies game. At the ACC.”

“Ohhhhhhhh yeah,” says the room, immediately buzzes into five or six distinct discussions about the game. We all got the email, with its faintly proud, faintly pleading subtext: we’ve got this big game, please please please come out, we need a crowd, we need to show the Leafs they made a good decision, we need to matter, just this once.

“I thought that was next weekend?”

“Nope, it’s this Saturday.”

“You know, I’ve never been to the ACC.”

“Really? You should go. It’s… nice.”

“You should go to support them; they’ll never get to play there again. Dream come true.”

“It’s free anyway.”

“The games are usually out at the Mastercard Centre. Ten bucks, not bad.”

“How’s the level of play?”

“It’s good. It’s fast.”

This entire situation is odd. The women I play with aren’t fans. They don’t watch hockey, unless it’s other matches in their own league or other teams in the same tournament. They love the game, of course, but they love in their own bones and muscles, not mediated by pixels and popcorn. Those mythical hockeyists who don’t give a fuck about the NHL? I have met them and they are me. Or, maybe me twenty years from now, after I’ve reconciled myself to life on the margins of hockey.

But this game is different. This game- the Toronto Furies vs. the Alberta Hockey Club of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League- they’ll go just to watch, despite the fact that it won’t be nearly as good as the NHL, despite the fact that no touted prospects or potential draft picks are playing. This game will meet absolutely none of the criteria that regular hockey fans tell me are absolutely essential for making hockey worth their time and attention: the highest level of play, world-class superstars, blood and thwacking. By the standards of those who won’t even deign to grace the AHL with their presence during a lockout, this game barely even counts as hockey. But the women I play with, who would barely turn around if the Leafs were in the playoffs on a television right behind their heads, will come out to watch the Furies.

Maybe it’s a sense of social duty.

Maybe it’s just because they’d like to see women’s hockey that almost, sort of, matters.

***

Saturday night, the concourse of the ACC is full of daughters. They run around between the sections in twos and threes and whole teams in identical jerseys proclaiming them the Etobicoke Dolphins or the North York Storm. Usually a hockey crowd is heavily male, groups of dudes accompanied by distracted girlfriends, groups of boys shepherded by weary moms. This is an utter inversion of that standard, where dads struggle vainly to corral herds of giddy little girls and boyfriends sit ignored at the ends of long rows of debating women.

Is this empowering, I wonder, or is it sad? At a men’s hockey game you will see women there on there own, fans in themselves, their presence not driven by any male pressure. Women’s hockey, though, doesn’t seem to attract any unaccompanied men. There are no groups of bros here just to watch. What men there are, I can’t help feeling, are only here out of a sense of duty to some female in their lives. The truism holds: women will consume things that are made for men; men will not consume things that are made for women.  Or, in this case, by women.

In fact- and this is a harsh generalization but I’m going to make it anyway- men don’t give a shit about women’s hockey. Well, maybe at the Olympics, during the gold medal game, for about half an hour, and eventually segueing into a debate about how maybe it shouldn’t be in the Olympics at all. Revised generalization: men give a shit about women’s hockey once every four years in a vaguely skeptical way.

There are various wishy-washy reasons for this, that men of a good liberal sensibilities who are afraid of sounding sexist will tell you: it’s more obscure, harder to find, not as well publicized, etc etc. But that stuff is just dissembling.  The underlying fact is that women’s hockey is just not as good. And, in fact, most hockey dudes seem really, really well informed about exactly how not good it is. Every guy I’ve ever talked to about the subject can reel off the same series of examples of the inadequacy of female hockey. The Canadian women’s national team has to play boys’ midget AAA teams for even competition. The best female hockey player in the world barely survived on a Swedish minor league squad. Manon Rheaume was a publicity stunt. Blah blah blah, whatever, moral of the story: every woman you ever thought was good wasn’t really that good, every group of women who seem good against other women are nothing compared to men.  The same excuse that people give for not caring about the KHL, AHL, and CHL applies ten times over to any hockey a female might play: it’s beneath our exalted tastes to pay attention to such things. It’s just too bad.

What’s worse than the attitude, though, is that it’s true.  Women’s hockey, judged by the standard of men’s hockey, is not as good. What’s worse still is that there’s no getting around that fact. I like to live as much as possible inside my own fantasies of a post-gender world, but hockey doesn’t let me have that. Hockey doesn’t care about the equality of women’s intelligence, effort, or humanity. It stops at the inequality of our bodies. For the record, I believe that it is possible that a woman might someday be good enough to play in the NHL. The major female disadvantages are access and size, but if girls’ participation in the game was brought up to boys’ rates, eventually there’d be a muscular, ass-kicking woman six feet tall who might have the talent to succeed on her own merits. But the odds against her would be fantastic, and even under the best of circumstances, there’d likely never be more than one or two. For the most part, the best female players will always have to content themselves with second-class (more like eighth-class) status simply by virtue of their body size, and that necessary deficiency, in turn, will always mean less money, less attention, and less opportunity. There will never be functional gender equality in hockey playing.

Some of these daughters are going to be very disappointed.

***

The style of play is different. The woman in the locker room who called it “fast” must have been one of those who never watches the NHL, because this is noticeably slower than the men’s game.  The lack of body contact gives it a smoother feel. Bodies don’t get stuck jammed up along the boards nearly as much, and there are none of the abrupt jump-cuts in the flow of play left after an open ice hit.  The teams retain possession longer and pass extravagantly, tic-tacing the puck back and forth with remarkable agility. Aesthetically, even-strength play in the CWHL looks more like what I’d think of as a power-play style in the NHL; they cycle like the fucking Tour de France.  It could be reflective of a talent disparity- the Furies seem to be a much better team than Alberta HC- but I suspect it has to do with the lack of reliance on body strength to either hold or take possession. Strategy seems to be more dependent on keeping the puck away from the sticks of others rather than keeping it on your own. (N.B.: I may be dead wrong about this).

It’s not good.  I know it’s not good, I guess, but I’m enjoying it anyway. The footspeed isn’t there but the puck speed is.  I can see plays being developed more cleanly and executed more fluidly.  I’m starting to think this is worth watching, that I could learn something about hockey from this- not just lady-hockey, but all hockey.  I’m starting to feel like this is, you know, a real, legitimate part of the game.

I ask Julian, “What’s the highest level of men’s league team you think they could beat?”

He thinks for a minute.  ”They could probably beat the Typhoon, I think.”

My heart sinks.  The Typhoon are a Taiwanese beer league all-star team.

***

In hockey, a vagina is an asterisk. It means you’ve achieved whatever you’ve achieved according to a lower standard. The best *women’s team in the world. One of the best *female players ever. She’s pretty good, *for a girl. The asterisk that gets applied to the top level, where men are unquestionably superior to women, seeps down through the sport to everything else, as if the boys are so steeped in their vicarious macho that they assume themselves to be better than any woman at any and every detail of the game. Men who, even in shinny, won’t pass to anyone with a ponytail. Men who won’t listen to women’s commentary on the sport. Filtered through the layers of the culture, the fact that women cannot play as well becomes the reason that there are virtually no women in television commentary and precious few in high-level print media. It becomes the reason that many ordinary women don’t even bother trying to play with ordinary men. From our smaller size and lighter frames derive a whole set of biases and prejudices that resonate far beyond the elite level of play where they are actually relevant, putting an asterisk on all of us, everywhere. The best *woman on our team. One of the best *female hockey writers. The difference between the best men in the world and the best women in the world, unchecked and uncriticized, becomes the justification for our marginalization throughout the sport. No matter how much women play, none of us have ever really “played the game” in the way that counts.

***

Women have been playing hockey since there was hockey, but it’s always been hard.  Back in the Victorian beginning, the men disapproved, bishops and ministers warning of how the game would corrupt our delicate feminine souls and turn us away from home and hearth.  Now, at the postmodern end, the disapproval has largely evaporated with evolving gender roles only to be be replaced by a disinterest that is no less toxic, and it’s hard still.  As reported in the Toronto Star, the entire Canadian Women’s Hockey League operates on a budget of $700,000 per year.  The Maple Leafs’ sponsorship of the Furies, the huge game-changing investment that represents a massive windfall for women’s hockey, is good for $30,000 per year.  The Leafs could dig $30,000 per year out of their collective couch cushions.  Meanwhile, the Furies get no salary and still have to cover some of their own expenses on road trips.  They can’t pay their coaches without a charity fundraiser. Elite men’s hockey kills itself in a battle over billions of profit while elite women’s hockey battles every day for the thousands it takes just to survive.

Behind me, a little girl- maybe seven, maybe eight, the age where you can still wear pigtails with ribbons unironically- is chattering a mad play-by-play at her extremely patient mother. Oh, that was a hook. It was a hook because she put her stick around her and went like THIS. Now they have to kill the penalty. See, they have one less person than the other team, so they need to get the puck out of the zone. Why are they still carrying the puck? Uh-oh, they should get back quickly now… I can hear her chair squeaking as she bounces in it. She’s wrapped in her own jersey, something in Leafs colors with a different logo and a big white 13 on the back.

I wish, for a second, her mom would say, honey, you know, there’s no purpose to this. All this stuff you’ve learned, all this money we’ve spent, it will get you fuck-all in this life. There’s no mansions in your future, no adoring multitudes, there’s no glory for you at the end of the hockey rainbow. If you are very, very lucky and very, very good and they don’t decide to eliminate the sport entirely, maybe someday you will get to play for your country. Maybe, if you’re one of the very, very best in the world, you will get ten games in your whole life where more than a hundred people cheer for you. But mostly, if you do this, it’s going to cost you more in time, money, and pain than you will ever recoup.  You’re going to have to pay your own way and get little in return save the love of your teammates, the pride of your parents, and the joy of playing. That better be enough.

But she doesn’t say that, and maybe, if I had to look straight at that little girl and tell her how it is, I wouldn’t either.  Women’s hockey lacks so much.  It lacks nearly everything that an average NHL fan would say defines the sport.  The only way it survives at all is through a pure love of the game and a stubborn solidarity, the irrational enthusiasm of thousands of hockey-playing daughters protected by the sheer will of thousands of hockey-loving mothers.

Comments (42)

  1. I wonder how much of what you see is a Canadian/Toronto thing, influenced by an abundance of (male) players and old biases.

    Out here in San Jose, we frequently mix girls/boys in house leagues and in adult leagues. The travel teams often play each other. I’ve never heard of a kid not passing to the girl – they are more often happy to have the girl on their team, because due to growth rates, she’s probably bigger and potentially more serious about the game (the
    girls jr Sharks teams also tend to be nationally pretty good).

    In the adult leagues I’ve played in out here, it’s the same thing – a meritocracy. Nobody cares.

    Having grown up in TO, it’s true that it is the “center of hockey”, but at times I think that also means it’s the center of all that is wrong with hockey too.

    • Gotta agree with Pete here. I learned to play as an adult and only play in men’s leagues. I’ve found them to be very helpful and play me equally. A lot of the women I play with who learned as girls (in the U.S.) also learned and played on coed teams. Is it that rare for rec leagues to be coed in Toronto/Canada?

      • And for the little girls, like the little boys watching NHL games, 99% would never make a professional league. That’s not the reason to play, ultimately. It’s to experience team work, work ethic, etc. etc. Work hard enough and you can provide yourself with a great college education. That’s true for young fans of both genders. There is a purpose.

      • No, there are lots of coed leagues
        I have only played co ed, it seems to keep anyone from being ridiculously aggressive, and the meatheads who play rec like its the NHL stay away because “ew, girls”.

        • My men’s league team at the B level has 4 girls! Kind of amazing even to me. There’s no lack of passing going on. That sort of thing existed when I first became old enough to skate men’s league, but for the most part that attitude came from the handful of old-timers still playing. As they’ve aged out, things have become more inclusive.

    • A lot of the underlying facts of what you say can’t be argued. The general public doesn’t care about women’s hockey. There aren’t many options for talented women to advance in the game aside from the Olympics, some paid leagues in Europe, and of course, 4-years of college scholarships. In the end, more money is put in than is ever earned.

      What is missed by this post is why we play. I never had any delusions of playing in the NHL (Manon played her one game when I was in Jr. High, and by then I already knew that wouldn’t be me). I don’t know many girls who thought that they would break that barrier when they were growing up. I did know many who played well and had their educations paid for, which was a good return. Some others went on to play in Europe, often working as nannies to supplement the little income that brought. Still, more than those women who got scholarships or went overseas, I know women who got new lives. When I was growing up playing hockey, there really wasn’t women’s hockey until I was in my early teens. I’ve had the chance to see it grow and mature into being its own unique scene. The days of matching warmups and bus rides to tournaments chaperoned by parents are long gone, but what has replaced them is something wonderful.

      I can’t speak for all cities, but everywhere I’ve played women’s hockey has been as much about community as it was about the love of the game. Teammates very quickly become friends – family even. Weekly pickup skates and games turn into parties in the locker rooms after. Birthdays and holidays are celebrated – stories swapped. I have seen women from my background – who grew up skating with the boys from an early age – patiently work with women who have just laced up skates for the first time, giving their own time (which in hockey = money) to make sure that anyone who is interested in the game can develop enough skill to comfortably find a lower-level team to start playing with.

      It’s, more often than not, the most nurturing and supportive environment many of the women I skate with encounter from day to day. Away from jobs, and away from family, it becomes all about them and their passion for the game. You’re being generous when you say the men come to watch out of a sense of obligation – most, like my husband, stop coming after a couple games. That’s fine – it’s not about them and what they think of our skills. Many of the women I skate with love playing because it gets them away from the men in their lives for a few hours! Still, there are usually fans in the stands even at the lowest rec level. There are women from other teams that we play against (we generally all know each other and sub for other teams often, so it’s a community), there are young girls from teams coached by our skaters, and there are female friends who love seeing women do something kick-ass and don’t care if it’s not NHL speed.

      Sure, it’s not good by any professional standard, but for other reasons it’s great. I think your follow up post needs to ask female hockey players whether or not the care what people think of them. I think you’ll find that most aren’t even thinking about that. They just want to play and not be criticized/ridiculed for doing that they love.

  2. I would just like to say, Ellen, that I think you’re far too defeatist / chipped on the shoulder here.

    Okay, so women don’t have a professional league. All of the girl hockey players out there just learning the game aren’t going to reach the NHL. That’s sad, sure, but I don’t think that’s the point of hockey. Sure, all of the girls with NHL dreams are going to be disappointed, but 99.9% of the boys out there with NHL dreams are going to be disappointed, too. Being a professional is not why we play hockey.

    I think this sentence – “But mostly, if you do this, it’s going to cost you more in time, money, and pain than you will ever recoup. You’re going to have to pay your own way and get little in return save the love of your teammates, the pride of your parents, and the joy of playing. That better be enough.” – is true for ALL of us, no matter your sex. To me, it IS enough.

    • Agreed wholeheartedly. I still remember my 18th birthday, when some little part of me knew what the rest of me, and everyone who’d ever seen me play, had known since I was 12: I wasn’t getting drafted by an NHL team.

      So what? The game’s still fun 20 years later, as I pass along my love for it to my 9 year old son, who will never play in the NHL either.

    • I agree with this completely. I started playing hockey at 22. I’m never going to go anywhere with it, it’s cost me a lot of money (I am poor and a goalie), and it has caused me no end of trouble (it has been the cause of more than one large fight with my wife). All that being said, I adore hockey. It’s one of the best things in my life, which is why my wife still puts up with it (she eventually realized that if I don’t play for a while, I get real grumpy and am no fun to be around).

      Hockey should be played for hockey’s sake. If anyone, of any age, of either sex, plays hockey to be rich and famous, they will be sorely disappointed. Less than 1% of boys who play ever get paid to do so. Well less than that ever gain any sort of fame doing it. Honestly? A woman has a much better chance statistically of playing for a major team of some sort. Granted, the high level isn’t as high as the NHL, but they would be much more likely to play for, say, a national team.

      In any case, here in Dallas, we are perfectly happy to have women on our beer league teams. Girls play on boys’ teams as well. There is a women’s only league here, but most of the women I know dislike that league(granted, I know them because they DON’T play in that league). Of course, we have a lot fewer preconceptions about hockey down here in the south.

      Women’s hockey will never be what men’s hockey is. That is because the NHL will always be faster and better than high level women’s hockey. That is simply a reality. On the men’s side of things, leagues that aren’t the NHL also have problems getting attention and being relevant. I think it’s much more an issue of there just not being enough room in the sports scene for more than the top league to matter. The fact that it’s women is irrelevant next to the fact that it’s not the NHL.

  3. But if you love to play, and to watch, does it matter if it doesn’t “mean” anything? After all, the NHL doesn’t mean anything in the abstract, either, without the fans and the commentators and the money machine.

    I think one of the things with womens’ hockey is maybe that people have to learn to watch it differently. It’s not the same as what we’re used to watching, without the bodychecking and the crashing and banging. But I also don’t think it’s “worse” in the sense that lower levels of mens’ hockey is – it’s not, as far as I can tell, full of missed passes and bad turnovers and terrible failed saves. It’s still skilled play, and can potentially be appreciated as such in its own right. They might not get far against a mens’ team that can knock them down, but that’s not the game they’re playing; amplified electric guitars can drown out a trained opera singer, but that doesn’t mean that the opera-singer has “failed”.

    I guess – I feel like I understand where you’re coming from, and it pisses me off that womens’ sport is so rarely taken seriously. But I don’t think it’s inevitably that way. Maybe no woman will ever get to play for the Stanley Cup, but that doesn’t mean they can’t win fans and play hockey worth watching. Maybe in time men will get over their prejudices and realise that watching or reading or listening to women do stuff is worthwhile. Have you ever read Joanna Russ’ “How To Suppress Womens’ Writing”? It blows my mind and makes me angry and it gives me hope. That although this is still an argument we’re having, it’s one we can maybe win some day. That although the CWHL isn’t the strongest, and although the Leafs’ money is chump change, it’s a start. This year they can pay their coaches with that money, and fundraise for something else. Maybe in ten years, it’ll be easier.

    I have to hope – but I do think there’s some cause.

    • …also if maybe sometimes you posted about women in hockey, that would be totally awesome. Posts about the Amazons! Isobel Stanley! Manon Rhéaume! Hayley Wickenheiser (who, I’m sorry; a minor league Swedish team, sure, but how much better does that make her than like 99% of the dudes in the world?)! Marguerite Norris! I would be all over that.

      I mean, if you wanted.

      • Shannon Szabados, who except for international play has played her entire career against men! (And won the best goalie award in her final year in the AJHL. I obsessively read about 20 articles about her yesterday.) Although personally I would like just as much to see this kind of writing coming from men because unfortunately that’s one of the better ways to reach wider audiences.

        re: whether meaning has meaning: I think what is meaningful is system and structure and opportunity. There are huge systems in place funneling boys and young men and sorting through them to find the best ones at hockey and a lot of those systems involve a lot of difficult choices. The decision to send your kid away at 15 or 16 to play major junior, to maybe get a horrible injury and probably not get the best high school education and be away from the family … is already a pretty loopy decision if you know that there’s a chance that he might one day be earning hundreds of thousands of dollars because of it; if you know that there’s no chance of that, the decision becomes even more skewed. So “women’s hockey isn’t as good as men’s hockey” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, since at every moment since those kids were 8 or 10 or 12, maybe, if they’re very good and they play somewhere where there aren’t enough boys to fill out a roster, they were shunted into a different decision-making track with completely different end goals. Not that most of the boys in the boys’ system don’t, eventually, end up in pretty much the same place; but it’s shaped differently.

  4. Very touching and true. I so appreciate your perspective and writing. Thank you.

  5. As someone who played hockey, who helped create her own all-female hockey team when there was none, who was skating at the same time Manon Rheaume got to shine with the Lightning, let me tell you this. Things have changed in the past 20 years. Things have gotten better. It may only be in increments thus far, but better is still better.

    How do I define “better”? When I played, women’s hockey was not a gold medal sport in the Olympics. NHL teams were not sponsoring women’s hockey teams – even if it is only chump change. Women were not doing color commentating on any kind of hockey. Not even college games like Cammi Granato does now. There were no women in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

    Sure, there can be room for vast improvement, but that’s up to the women to demand it.

    • Exactly. We’ve come a long way from where things were at when we were little girls coming up skating with the boys. I remember one day when I was about 7, changing in front of the stalls on the floor of a rink bathroom, a woman washing her hands told me Cami Granato used to change there. Can you imagine today’s Olympians changing in those conditions?

  6. Okay, I suddenly care a lot more about my college’s women’s team. I’m a girl toying with the idea of starting to play hockey because I love it so much, and this has made me realize that if I want there to be somewhere for me to play, I’d better start supporting other women in the sport. Thank you.

  7. Ellen, great article as always, but it took all the way to your last two paragraphs before you got down to the nut of it. It _is_ all about irrational enthusiasm. “Irrational enthusiasm” is exactly what “love of the game” is made of.

    I am a self-confessed nut for hockey, and have been ever since four-year-old me was being hauled off to AHL games by my grandpa. I love going to see the local junior team as much as the (much more seldom) outings to the NHL arena. A rabid, starry-eyed fan-in-the-stands, I.

    But the best spectator experience I have ever had pales by comparison to the experiences I have had on the ice. I may be an old slow fat lady who got her start way too late, but still. When I sit in the stand watching the men play, I may be loving it, but my fan-dreams are dreamt on their behalf. When I get to hit the ice and try my own hand, all the dreams are in the first person.

    So, yeah–which is better: watching the cooking show, or eating the food yourself? I know which one I vote for (even if I still like to watch the cooking show).

    It has not always uniformly been this way. There was a time when womens’ pro hockey was the best game in town (admittedly, because all the men were off in trenches at the time). Albertine Lapensee is a name you probably know. The Preston Rivulettes ditto. They’d make good reading for some future one of your history essays.

  8. “But mostly, if you do this, it’s going to cost you more in time, money, and pain than you will ever recoup. You’re going to have to pay your own way and get little in return save the love of your teammates, the pride of your parents, and the joy of playing. That better be enough.”

    This is true for virtually every single person, male or female, who participates in any sport. If you’re playing a sport because of the financial gains you may achieve you have virtually no chance of ever reaching a level to realize those gains.

    As for the popularity of women’s hockey, and women’s sports in general, I think it has a lot to do with what skills make a particular sport more enjoyable to watch. For me women’s hockey will never be as enjoyable because the primary appeal is the speed of the game. The physical aspect of the men’s game is also appealing, but the speed is really the big draw for most people IMO. However, when sports emphasize different aspects the gap narrows. Women’s tennis is often more enjoyable than the men’s game as the ability to simply overpower on the serve isn’t as pronounced. The same goes for volleyball. Women’s figure skating has an element of grace and flow that seems to be lacking in men’s figure skating, where power seems to be at a premium. The point being that at least for me it’s not about male or female, it’s about which one is more entertaining.

  9. Good points. I, however, do see the slow progress women’s hockey has made. I was the one girl in my hockey school class as a 9 year old just when they LET girls in. I saw the first Worlds. I’ve been to a 4 Nations Cup, a WC in Winterpeg and an Esso Championship in Sarnia (to see Shannon Szabados). The difference in ach tournament has been impressive as has the development of girls leagues.
    These are players that play for love of the game and while their dreams may not carry them to $s, they can and do, still aspire to be the best they can be.
    I’d rather encourage each and every little girl to continue to aspire, to reach as high as they can, because that is how we come to even have a sniff of the women’s league we have now. One that even earns chump change support from the NHL.
    We can remove that asterisk only by continuing to try.
    I play like a girl and I’m proud of it.

  10. For males it is literally 99.99% (1 in 10,000) that will not have an appreciable NHL career. Only 6 in 10,000 will have ANY kind of professional hockey career.

    • EDIT: For males it is literally 99.99% (1 in 10,000) that will have an appreciable NHL career. Only 6 in 10,000 will have ANY kind of professional hockey career.

      • Math challenged today. Third try:

        For males it is literally 0.01% (1 in 10,000) that will have an appreciable NHL career. Only 6 in 10,000 will have ANY kind of professional hockey career.

  11. You’re one of my favorite sports writers (no asterisk).

    • Yup. This is right. I don’t bother reading 99.9999% of male writers. Ellen, I now try to read 99.9999% of the time. Except for the Bobby Orr thing. A man has limits.

      • haha. I actually liked the Dump In article, but i knew immediately there would be a lynch mob for that one.

  12. Originally posted as a comment to a comment – my mistake!

    A lot of the underlying facts of what you say can’t be argued. The general public doesn’t care about women’s hockey. There aren’t many options for talented women to advance in the game aside from the Olympics, some paid leagues in Europe, and of course, 4-years of college scholarships. In the end, more money is put in than is ever earned.
    What is missed by this post is why we play. I never had any delusions of playing in the NHL (Manon played her one game when I was in Jr. High, and by then I already knew that wouldn’t be me). I don’t know many girls who thought that they would break that barrier when they were growing up. I did know many who played well and had their educations paid for, which was a good return. Some others went on to play in Europe, often working as nannies to supplement the little income that brought. Still, more than those women who got scholarships or went overseas, I know women who got new lives. When I was growing up playing hockey, there really wasn’t women’s hockey until I was in my early teens. I’ve had the chance to see it grow and mature into being its own unique scene. The days of matching warmups and bus rides to tournaments chaperoned by parents are long gone, but what has replaced them is something wonderful.
    I can’t speak for all cities, but everywhere I’ve played women’s hockey has been as much about community as it was about the love of the game. Teammates very quickly become friends – family even. Weekly pickup skates and games turn into parties in the locker rooms after. Birthdays and holidays are celebrated – stories swapped. I have seen women from my background – who grew up skating with the boys from an early age – patiently work with women who have just laced up skates for the first time, giving their own time (which in hockey = money) to make sure that anyone who is interested in the game can develop enough skill to comfortably find a lower-level team to start playing with.
    It’s, more often than not, the most nurturing and supportive environment many of the women I skate with encounter from day to day. Away from jobs, and away from family, it becomes all about them and their passion for the game. You’re being generous when you say the men come to watch out of a sense of obligation – most, like my husband, stop coming after a couple games. That’s fine – it’s not about them and what they think of our skills. Many of the women I skate with love playing because it gets them away from the men in their lives for a few hours! Still, there are usually fans in the stands even at the lowest rec level. There are women from other teams that we play against (we generally all know each other and sub for other teams often, so it’s a community), there are young girls from teams coached by our skaters, and there are female friends who love seeing women do something kick-ass and don’t care if it’s not NHL speed.
    Sure, it’s not good by any professional standard, but for other reasons it’s great. I think your follow up post needs to ask female hockey players whether or not the care what people think of them. I think you’ll find that most aren’t even thinking about that. They just want to play and not be criticized/ridiculed for doing that they love.

  13. I was there Saturday. Sure the hockey was a little sketchy. Toronto was far superior and controlled the play – but it was still fun.

    I also have to point out that there were 4 little boys in Leafs jerseys sat a few rows in front of me who enjoyed the heck out of the game. When you see a group of 9 year olds watching the game you can’t help but lose the cynicism you may have brought with you. These kids idolized the hockey players in front of them. One little guy was standing in the isles mimicking every move that the goalies would make, from butterfly saves to drinking from their water bottles. It was a great night for all of the hockey playing girls in the audience who got to see some great skill, and to cheer for a team in the ACC lower level wearing blue. The women played their hearts out – and anyone there would have to acknowledge that it was a great thing for the MANY kids in the stands to see.

  14. I think the problem that’s specific to hockey is that inherently, because of the costs and infrastructures involved, it’s not a huge sports in terms of participation.
    Therefore, most people who follow hockey and spend money to watch it, except maybe in Canada, and possibly even in Canada, have not played it or maybe on occasion.
    So the bond most people form with the game, is not through recreation, like with basketball or soccer. It is through actually witnessing the pro version. They get exposed to it, and they stick with it because of the hits, the speed, the spectacle itself.
    You just have to look at non traditional hockey countries where the pool of practitioners is very low, even there hockey can manage some surprisingly high attendance numbers.
    The problem is that, if it’s the raw spectacle of a sport that draws you in, instead of a more sentimental and social bond, then it becomes hard to transfer a similar degree of enthusiasm from the more spectacular available version of the game, to a significantly less spectacular one, like women’s hockey.

    I see a lot of women here who argue that it’s not a problem, and popularity is not an issue, and they play for the love of the game.
    However, if women’s hockey teams are funded, like in US college hockey, despite being a money pit, it is a problem.
    NCAA hockey exists largely because of Title IX.
    Some colleges refuse to fund a men’s team, because they know they would virtually have to create a women’s counterpart to it, and the costs of the women’s team alone sink any hope of making hockey a break-even venture for their institution.
    I find it hard to accept the idea that “even if nobody cares, it’s OK because “we do it for ourselves”.
    If you are subsidized despite not having any chance of offering any return on investment, and not being of any interest to the community, why are you subsidized?
    I guess the answer if equality. But when the equality rights of a few are an impediment to what a greater number needs, like in US college hockey where more colleges would have men’s teams, it’s wrong IMO.

    • What you’re saying really only applies to college. I would say about 20% of all women playing either currently play college or have played college. The rest skate on their own dime – nothing is subsidized about it. They do it because they find it rewarding and they enjoy the experience.

    • “Some colleges refuse to fund a men’s team, because they know they would virtually have to create a women’s counterpart to it, and the costs of the women’s team alone sink any hope of making hockey a break-even venture for their institution.”

      Yeah, this is not true. The limitations on forming men’s hockey programs are start-up costs (equipment/jerseys, staff, etc.), cost of venue or worse, cost of building a venue, and, as you rightly mentioned, concerns about popularity helping to curb some of the costs of maintaining the team. These are very high costs that need to have some evidence of yielding a return.

      Title IX has long established that you don’t have to create a same sport women’s team, nor do you have to do equitable spending on a sport for women when creating a men’s sports team. Regardless, schools are not going to invest thousands and thousands of dollars on some obligation, and there are not widespread protests against schools for lack of a women’s hockey team.

      • While they don’t technically have to fund the women’s version of the same sport, in most cases, it is in practice the only way to achieve it.

        When the CHA conference folded, they explicitly cited Title IX as the reason why several colleges interested in starting a varsity team would not actually join.
        Title IX is absolutely an impediment.
        Syracuse has a women’s team but no mens team. How do you explain that if not because of Title IX? Even school officials don’t deny it.
        While hockey is a costly sport, it is in fact one of the few NCAA sports that does generate a fair amount of revenues in a number of schools.
        However, a large part of those revenues are offset by the women’s team.

        Look at the attendance for women’s hockey even in Upper Midwest and New England powerhouses that draw real well with the men, they draw flies for the women. Like literally 10 times less. Rampant chauvinism can’t alone explain such a huge gap.
        Plenty of decently ranked and storied schools don’t even break the 300 barrier, and that’s all free tickets.
        When Hockey East staged a double header at Fenway Park, the mens game filled the venue with 40K, and while the womens game was opened to all those who had tickets for the men, the stadium was empty for the women.

        And it’s not just in NCAA. A couple seasons ago, St. Mary’s University wanted to disband their hockey program for women, because the revenue generated by the womens team was too “negligible” in the own words of a school official.

        • CHA still exists, first of all, but it’s a women’s hockey conference now. The stipulations of the CHA at the time that the men’s division folded were not universal to NCAA; if you wanted into the conference, you had to have a women’s team after 2002-03. Teams in the conference pre-2002-03 had a grandfather clause. Blaming Title IX passes the buck for poorly conceived programs that made the choice to try to enter the conference of their own free will.

          Honestly, this sounds more like a political diatribe against equality legislation than a sensible critique. “Women’s college hockey generates less revenue”…I can work with that. “NCAA hockey is going down because of the burden of moral obligations propagated by Title IX”…I cannot.

      • Just to clarify my comment because it may not have been worded very well.
        I think that NCAA hockey holds a much more crucial role for women’s hockey than it does to men’s hockey.
        Since there is no real pro avenue for women, many pursue the sport in the long haul because it allows them to get an education.
        Most top players from either Canada or the US have capitalized on the college system.
        If it wasn’t there, I think a large part of the impetus of competitive women’s hockey in North America would be lost.
        Hence I do believe that indirectly, a large part of the competitive women’s hockey pyramid is funded or “pulled up” by spendings on NCAA womens teams that are done mostly in the name of public morals.

        Since sports that hold drawing potential at the NCAA level are few, and creating a mens hockey team requires the same approximate number of atheltic opportunities for women, most institutions will also bank a women’s hockey team, especially considering that the very few women’s sports that actually draw are often already served at that point.

    • Your point about colleges assuming they’d need to fund a women’s team along with a men’s team is wrong.
      Title IX is about overall funding in athletic departments, not on a sport-by-sport basis. There are schools with a men’s lacrosse team but no women’s lacrosse team and vice versa (Colorado University, for example, only has a women’s team. University of Denver only has a men’s team). In fact, Syracuse University only has a women’s hockey team.
      I think this is a common misconception about Title IX, though.

      I myself only started playing hockey after discovering the joy of professional hockey when I was 18. I decided to join a local women’s team during my first year of college in a mid-atlantic US state, NOT a hockey hot bed. I’ve played with women at both ends of the spectrum from not being able to skate to having played their entire lives. The deal we get on dues for the year is actually pretty good compared to a lot of other teams. We know we’re not “going anywhere” with our hockey. But it’s about the familial atmosphere of the locker room and 4th periods. It IS about the love of the game for women in rec leagues as much as it is for men. They put in the same, if not more, of a monetary investment for the year. I often find that while there’s always those one or two guys in beer leagues that treat every game like it’s an NHL playoff game, you don’t have that in women’s leagues. Yes there’s intensity and a competitive edge to a lot of the players, but we don’t throw fits if we lose. It’s about fun and hockey. Not trying to fulfill our fanciful dreams of moving up the ranks.

  15. While Ellen briefly touch on it, one issue that is not emphasized enough is the advantages that men have over women in their access to resources and support from the earliest ages. Increasingly boys and girls are being segregated from a young age, with the boys working with the best coaches from the very beginning. If this is happening, in addition to the differences in ice time and organization of leagues, all the way through minor hockey and on into junior hockey, there is going to be a difference between the products of these two systems. This doesn’t account for the entire difference, but it is something important to acknowledge.

  16. Someday, I hope a generation of women moves past “compare contrast and compete” and just gets down to the simple act of… creation.

    I’m a man, played and coached and loved hockey all my life, and – without fear of contradiction – I can say men have run it into the ground. It bores the snot out of me. How it’s played, how the NHL works, it’s enormously fake Winter Classic, even it’s new “stars” – the Crosby’s and Stamkos’. Plus, I just plain don’t like how it’s played. Blah.

    Whereas with women…. ahhh. I coached a women’s team from 1983-86. A team that had never won a game. By their 3rd year, they won everything they touched. Every. Single. Game. How did they do this? Simple. They were more creative than any team I’ve ever seen or coached. They enjoyed the game more than any team I ever saw. They created plays and moves, they laughed their asses off, they created entire new rituals and a new hockey culture, and they were unafraid.

    They were un-fucking-afraid.

    I am so tired of men who are afraid of the weight of hockey culture. Maybe all culture, I donno.

    It’s good for women to get in and compete – on a “level laying field” – fine, sure, great, dandy. Same as in any other field – fine, sure, great, etc. ad nauseum.

    But really… for me… that’s not the thing. Basically, I don’t give a rat’s about the latest man to do well at exactly the same thing everybody else did. And if there were women able to compete with Dave Steckel? Gee. that would be a great story. For about 15 minutes, same as in any other field. But for someone who loves the game…. it’d still a bit stale. Sorry, but I just don’t much care about Dave Steckel, or Diane Steckel either.

    I guess I’d just like to see women to create. To bring to the game who they really are. To play it and change it and make the whole thing different, better. More fun. More flexible. More exciting. More…. whatever the fuck they want.

    And if they want to be Dave Steckel, well… that’s great, and I’m rooting for them, and I hope people buy their sweaters and all. But I’d much prefer it if they could take the game and MAKE the came into something different.

    Which is a bit how you write, Ellen. It changes things, it’s not quite how men would cover hockey. And thank God for that. Because…. it’s better. So, I hope you enjoy it. And do more of it. And from time to time, maybe write about the ways that women do hockey differently, and their ideas on how it could change further. And who knows… sometimes really good writers can change things that the players on the ice can’t.

  17. How ’bout this, the more girls play hockey, the more women play hockey, the higher the chances of increasing the number of people watching women play hockey, the higher the chances of someone creating a professional league for women playing hockey. And once that has happened you’re homefree. I know to hard core NBA fans perceive the WNBA to be a joke but still FHL or WNHL or something that doesn’t have a letter meaning for “female” or “women” is somtheing great.

    The NHL started in just the same way, so did MLB, NBA and NFL and every other professional sports league for that matter. BTW, it worked in tennis, you have a shot.

    Personally, I enjoyed watching the female olympics hockey teams way more than the male olympics hockey teams. Much more free flowing, just as nasty.

  18. Let women hit, first of all. It’s a stupid limitation, based on antiquated ideas about gender, and it reinforces the ideas of people that want to say that women couldn’t be competent if hockey was integrated. It might take a generation or so, but then integrate leagues at least through high school, and stipulate that the leagues have sufficient grievance processes to ensure that women are being given the opportunity to tryout and otherwise have a vehicle for effective action against sexism.

    That’s probably the most effective way for this to happen. Now remember that it would require all the various youth hockey leagues and high school associations to agree to it; it might be more feasible to see the transformation start with the major hockey organizations like USA Hockey and Hockey Canada. Regardless, you start to get an idea why I share Ellen’s pessimism.

    • Sorry to be late to this conversation; it’s very interesting. I’m not sure if I DO want there to be hitting in women’s hockey. I LIKE the fact that it’s a more skills-based game, frankly. I know that as a Philadelphia hockey fan, I am probably the rarest living being on the planet as someone who isn’t fond of hitting in the sport, but the fact that there is no body checking in women’s hockey makes it more skills based, and a hell of a lot more MENTAL fun to follow. When I see too much hitting or fights breaking out in an NHL game, I feel like I want to snap my fingers in front of the guys’ faces and remind them that there’s a game going on, and to settle their BS in the parking lot afterwards instead of wasting my time and money.

      Also, I think part of the issue with no body checking in women’s hockey is that it’s an international sport, and it would make it too problematic for teams where they can’t field a ton of 6’2″ tall women.

      I don’t know, though. I might like women’s hockey with hitting and serious checking, and I don’t know why it’s not permitted. Many of the women and young girls who play it play in boys’ leagues and get used to it anyway, so I’m not sure it shouldn’t be there. I’m just not sure that I really WANT to watch great women players reduced to bright-light-averse suicide-prone middle-agers who can’t count to 15 with their socks on.

      And I frankly don’t think it will make a difference in how many people (viz. men) watch the game. It strikes me as if it’s an excuse. “I would LOVE to watch the game, but there’s no hitting!” So they add hitting. “I would LOVE to watch the game, but now there’s no fights!” Then, “I would LOVE to watch the game but there’s no this or that.” And on and on.

      What it all comes down to is, “I would love to watch women’s hockey, but there’s no penises.” Seriously. No matter how many tweaks and twiddles are made to the game, it’s women and men won’t watch. I’ve seen this runaround given too many times not to see it coming this time.

  19. A friend of mine played hockey when she was young. She is built large, tall, bulky, strong, imposing (with an amazing smile!) and was apparently really good at hockey.

    She got kicked off the team when the other parents complained that they were worried she was going to hurt their kids (which she had not done).

    So, it seems that even when a girl comes around that IS big and tough enough to content she isn’t allowed to.

  20. So I KNOW this is US specific, but let me play a numbers game for a minute. According to USA Hockey, IF I know how to read: 10.7% of all adult players are female. But 15.7% of all adult players total come from Michigan, my home state. And yet, 1.1% of those adult, Michigander players are females.

    I will keep this simple: I’ve played for less than a year. That is is probably a contributing factor to my suckitude. I know there are at least two women’s only leagues- both play when I have to work, and won’t add you unless you have a friend on the league. The only hockey I know is playing with 18 boys and 1 other girl. AND I SUCK.

    Undoubtedly part of this is a learning curve. Or being too cautious due to gender norms. Or simply that I’m out of shape. But I will say this- when I was first learning, I skated four times a week for 3 months. I invited my father out, who hadn’t skated since 1994. HE LAPPED ME TEN TIMES. I’m 5’6″, he’s 6’1″. Ellen, it pains me to say this, but our bodies betray us.

    Excellent article, painfully true.

  21. Our son works for the women’s team at a Division 1 school in New England. So basically I’m familiar with the women’s game. I can’t argue with this article. But I’ve witnessed the positives that come from playing the women’s game.

    The first time that I witnessed a higher level women’s game, it reminded me of the first time that I watched a men’s Olympic game, It was uncluttered and precise. It was appealing to my eye. I still preferred the clutch and grab NHL game. (What did I just say?) But it was still eye catching.

    So when our son started working for the women’s team I already had an appreciation for this type of game. My appreciation grew exponentially as I got to know the team members. These young women are some of the nicest, funniest, happiest people that I know. Why are they this way? Because they appreciate the opportunity that they’ve earned.

    This university is well funded and these women have the best of everything to help them succeed. You’d be a fool not to appreciate this gig. Believe me when I say life is good if you’re a member of this team.

    The fact still remains that the game of hockey enabled these women to play the game that they love, and they have access to an education worth about $200,000. A small percentage of these women play professionally in Europe after graduation. Professionally may be a strong term. They’re fed and housed and all hockey costs are covered. But hey, traveling through Europe playing hockey in your early 20′s Why not?

    If you’re a woman will you ever make a liveable salary playing hockey? No. If the phone rings and a university offers you a full ride to play hockey for them are you happy? Yes.

    At the moment this is the best option for women. It’s an excellent option. Is it easy to get a full ride at a major Division 1 school? Nope. It takes hard work, dedication, natural ability and some puck luck. So practice, practice, practice!

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