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.