(Content warning: post and links discuss harassment, assault, sexual assault, rape, murder, domestic violence, and sexism)
For as long as I can remember, there was just one answer: Bobby Orr’s defense partner.
Like most little kids, I wondered what my parents had wanted to be when they grew up. My mom repeated over and over that she wanted to be Bobby Orr’s partner. Not Bobby Orr, the superstar, but simply to play the game she loved in the presence of greatness. Now as an adult who eagerly anticipates every Erik Karlsson shift, I have a better understanding of that desire.
My mom never played organized hockey of course. Born in the late-50s, she played road hockey but was of an era of girls who were forever on the sidelines when the teams started keeping score and using real equipment. Not only was organized hockey too expensive for my grandparents, a little girl playing minor hockey with the boys was unthinkable in the small town and time she grew up in.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved hockey, just like my mom. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to play hockey, just like my mom. I accepted that I couldn’t because there were no girls’ leagues anywhere near my hometown. In fact, as a little girl, I had never seen women’s hockey. The inaugural world championship was held when I was six years old and again two years later, but we had limited TV options and it wasn’t exactly on anyone’s radar. Girls weren’t in commercials about hockey and my love of the game was deemed unusual by more than one elementary school teacher and by many of my classmates.
When I was nine, the region got its first girls minor hockey league and my parents signed me up.
It was glorious.
But it wasn’t easy. Less than 300 girls played in that first season and several municipalities around the region were at best skeptical of the possibility of success and at worst actively contributed to its failure. In the local paper some openly questioned what we were trying to achieve. Women would never make the NHL or earn a living from hockey so what was the point of trying? As if potential millions or a chance at stardom were the only reasons to play or as if Manon Rhéaume hadn’t just played a preseason game for Tampa Bay. What they meant, and some actually said, was why are we wasting even a small amount of resources on girls’ hockey if it’s not going to lead to significant male achievement. I’m sure there were girls who wanted to play whose parents felt the same way. We were on the fringes.
Ice time was hard to come by as towns, boys’ leagues, and men’s leagues refused to share the ice or offer times appropriate for children. They argued that they should receive preference because they had seniority. And they had a point, the boys’ league in my hometown had been running and using rinks in town since the mid-50s and men’s beer leagues were common. But to use that as part of their attack required these men to ignore the systemic issues which prevented girls from playing and organizing for decades. As I look back as an adult more than 20 years later, I find myself even less sympathetic to their concerns. Men’s leagues who refused to give up post-dinner playing slots and municipalities who bowed to their wishes resulted in eight-year-olds playing well into the night. The preferential treatment they received would have been fine if those towns consisted solely of adult men, but they didn’t and still don’t.
We live in society with one another. Ideally, this means we consider how our actions and needs impact others. When I’ve played sports as an adult, I understood the late night time lots. As an adult I was able to make it to games on my own and didn’t need supervision. Yes, there are constraints on adults’ time too, but there are only so many hours in a day and so many sheets of ice available. Equitable solutions aren’t without some sacrifice. Children, so often seen as a burden and inconvenience by society deserve the same considerations as the adults who pay the bills.
The resistance to sharing arena space was about sexism, plain and simple. Couched in arguments about fairness and loyalty, men who saw hockey as their past time and theirs exclusively, did what they could to make girls know they weren’t wanted. There were occasions when men’s league teams found out a group of girls would be using the same dressing room after them and they made their feelings known. On many occasions we entered dressing rooms soaked in alcohol, or with urine all over the floor and benches, or with waste smeared on the walls. More than once with all three. We were jokingly told to “enjoy the room” when this happened. At the junction of arena corridors and dressing room doors, sometimes our two different groups would intersect. Lewd comments, explicit gestures, and mocking laughter were common greetings. This didn’t happen at every game and every practice but it wouldn’t have happened at all if we’d been more like them.
It didn’t last, but we did.
These things just seemed normal about playing hockey, but quickly we experienced them less and less. There were a few reasons for the change. Our numbers kept growing. More and more girls signed up to play and loved it. Our little sisters joined us. Our towns got used to us. Women’s hockey got a boost of both visibility and credibility in the mid-90s when the IOC announced women would play for gold in Nagano in 1998. Scholarships to colleges and universities followed. What seemed destined for failure in the early 90s was a sure thing several seasons later.
In a few short years, girls’ hockey became naturalized.
For a long time, hockey had been a defining feature of Canadian boyhood. Hockey’s cultural centrality in Canada still remains, but now reflects the experience of being any child in this country. The connections between Canadian identity and hockey can be problematic and still exclude some but it’s been opened to a lot more kids in the two decades since I started playing. It’s much harder to ignore young female fans now; however, to know that there have always been girls who have liked hockey, I need only ask my mom. Girls are featured in commercials about hockey, as part of the introductions on HNIC, and stand with NHL players on the ice before the anthems. We see them on Hockey Day in Canada broadcasts. There are still challenges facing girls who want to play hockey and yes, some are gendered. Others are issues of discrimination also faced by boys, like the economic cost of playing the organized game. But there are clearly defined roles for girls in hockey and these roles include playing the game and watching as a fan.
But what happens when those girls become women?
We’ve had a few generations of girls who have grown up playing hockey, cheering for female hockey stars, and advancing their careers by playing in college. The game continues to grow among girls and women. In Canada, female registration in minor and rec hockey has grown almost 1000% since the 1990-91 season, about the same time I started playing. Even after the 90s onslaught of new teams and leagues, female registration still increased 59% between 2001-02 and 2012-13. And yet mainstream hockey culture still actively discourages female fandom and resists cultivating spaces of inclusion.
The reasons are many. For starters, it’s a matter of representation. There are still not enough female sports reporters and women in sports broadcasting fewer still. Privileging male experience and frequent and extreme harassment of women in sports media contributes to keeping women out. Hockey’s contempt for women is seen in the NHL’s (and minor and junior leagues) atrocious handling of issues of violence against women and sexual assault. It’s illustrated plainly in hockey marketing and media.
Many men who love hockey hate what they perceive as the intrusion of women into their domain.
We continue to brand fandom space as male. Male fans create “man caves,” male-only bastions of fandom that suggest sport is the sole purview of men. Perhaps most insidiously, these spaces imply that women are to be escaped from and that the place to do that is in sports fandom.
Hockey culture reinforces the centrality of men at the expense of women. Women exist on the fringes, the periphery, marginalized by the toxic masculinity that is pervasive in fan culture.
The fact that there have always been women who love hockey is frequently erased. The strides girls have made in hockey have not translated to greater visibility for women. The rise of women’s leagues like the CWHL and NWHL, which have led to an increase in online coverage of the women’s game, haven’t altered how these same networks cover issues impacting women in the larger hockey world. The rise in girls’ organized hockey has not corresponded with an increase in or diversified roles for women in the sport.
The girls who feature in TV ads, whose perspectives and love of the game are centered as children are pushed to the periphery of advertising as women. Beer commercials seen during hockey games show women in crowds or as sexual objects, but rarely as the focus of the ad. Gambling commercials depict men hanging out and joking with other men, as the sources of hockey expertise and the possessors of sports guts. Women are pushed to the fringes.
The most visible female labour in NHL hockey are the female-dominated ice girls/crews, which also represent the margins of employment in hockey. Ice girls aren’t valued as labour, and labour, both paid and unpaid, impacts the extent to which women can participate in the sport, both as players and fans. While both men and women do valuable, unpaid work every day, the division of this labour is still unequal. The demands of raising children and running a household impact our fandoms. Many women just want a break to watch the game too.
When hockey appears in a novel, on a TV show, or in movies it’s rarely about a woman playing or a women who are fans. This kind of representation continues to grow for girls but remains elusive for women. Women are often depicted as secondary characters, such as wives are girlfriends, without the same depth and agency afforded the male leads. A lot of the time, women are typically depicted as hockey moms. There’s nothing wrong with that role and women who volunteer their time to coach, as team moms, and to drive to every practice and game help keep minor hockey going. But the stereotype just doesn’t capture the many ways women enter hockey and the diversity of ways their love of hockey manifests. There are parents at the rink who behave in negative and detrimental ways, but hockey moms in particular are singled out and endlessly mocked as intense and crazy. Not only is this ableist, it plays into dated tropes of the hysterical woman. It also serves to marginalize both the contributions of women in hockey and also their love of the game. Women who love the game are crazy, men who love the game are passionate fans, so the belief goes. When female points of view are present and central in media like novels and movies, these works are derided and their importance minimized. Romance novels featuring hockey plots and players are dismissed in part because they disrupt the belief that the male gaze is the default perspective of hockey fans. Good romance novels are, at their core, explorations of consensual female sexual desire and are mocked, in part, because of this fact. Again, women are pushed to the perimeter.
Existing on the margins of a sport is dangerous. When that existence replicates the marginalization experienced in life more generally, it’s threatening, hazardous, and deadly.
Many male fans think discrimination in the game has decreased in recent years. To think discrimination is slowly leaving the game, one must ignore the gendered discrimination that’s rampant in the hockey played by boys and men. Many male fans see objections to the NHL’s handling of cases of domestic violence and sexual assault in its midst as abstractions and secondary concerns. Some refuse to acknowledge domestic violence and sexual assault at all. But violence and sexual assault are part of the lived experience of many women and many female hockey fans. Domestic violence and sexual assault are taking many women who love the game from us.
When I was a teenager there was one girl I played with for a few seasons in a row. She was an average player but an exceptional person. A positive force in the dressing room, she was always smiling and friendly. She volunteered at tournaments and was always at the rink. She continued playing in women’s leagues and added coaching to her volunteer commitments in adulthood. She mentored young girls and older women who were learning the game. We played hockey together and worked at the same store. We were friendly but didn’t hangout outside of those spheres and I lost touch with her when high school ended. She continued to live in the area, playing hockey and volunteering. Several years later her ex-boyfriend stalked and harassed her before murdering her. She was 27.
I want so much for her death to be an example of an extreme, but it’s not. It’s the tragic end of a straight line which begins in our society and our game with the erasure of women. The line is shorter than you think. That we resist seeing every day, common examples of sexism as examples of discrimination and as contributing factors to this violence helps perpetuate it and obscure solutions. She was unique in life and we are lesser for her loss but in death she joined a vast sisterhood of women terrorized by men.
When I think about what happened to her and some of the other girls – now women – that I played with, the violence they experienced from the men in their lives, it’s hard to draw a line separating the toxicity of hockey’s masculinity from that of the country’s. Hockey’s masculinity is synonymous with Canadian masculinity. Both versions of masculinity erase women and jeopardize their safety. It happens at our rinks and in our communities. The stereotypical good Canadian boy loved by Don Cherry and his cohorts, plays a physical game, through pain, adheres to an antiquated code designed to humiliate and eliminate difference, and above all, he is a character guy. But with shifting attitudes and the pervasiveness of social media, it’s getting harder and harder to hide the criminal, violent behaviour of hockey players.
They’re not all good guys. Some abuse, some assault, some rape. Virtually all the others stand with their teammates. Sometimes we characterize NHL and NHLPA inaction as silence on the issues facing women, as silence on violence against women and sexual assault. But inaction is anything but silence, inaction loudly proclaims that goals, wins, and television contracts are more important than women’s safety and women’s lives.
The issues hockey fans are now beginning to confront aren’t new but it’s the first time many male fans have received any pushback on attitudes and behaviours that harm women. Girls deserved space and a role in this game and hockey and its fans have adapted. That some men who refuse to make space for women have accepted girls because they want their daughters to have every opportunity seems likely. It’s not the respect girls deserve, but it has resulted in increased acceptance. That these same men can’t acknowledge women who love hockey is due at least in part to the changes that reality requires. It would require acknowledging women as people deserving of respect because they’re people and not because they are daughters, sisters, mothers, wives, girlfriends, sexual objects, or because they have a relationship of some kind with men. When girls started to organize, our leagues were peripheral parts of hockey culture and as a result we were subject to abuse. Until women’s experiences are recognized as central to hockey culture, they will continue to exist on the dangerous margins of the sport with serious consequences.