Yesterday I purchased The Hockey News’ recent special publication, The Best of Everything in Hockey. The magazine features 57 categories upon which a “panel of experts” voted. Categories include everything from “Best All-Around Player” and “Best Shooter” to “Best P.R. Team” and “Best Arena Food”. So, fans of the women’s game are no doubt asking, what do they have to say about the best of the best in women’s hockey?
The sad answer is: not much.
In fact, women are featured in only two of the 57 lists. The “Best Women’s Player” (as opposed to the “Best All-Around Player”, a category that is clearly assumed only to include men) is at least included, though not exactly prominently highlighted. The list is presented 39th out of 57, after such critical categories as “Best Grinder”, “Best Shootout Move”, and “Best Linesman”. Thankfully, the women’s hockey is featured more highly than “Best Mascot” or “Best Hockey Song”.
What’s the other list that features women, you ask? Why “Best Cheerleaders”, of course.
While this marginalization of the women’s game, not to mention women in general, is pathetic, I do need to make an acknowledgement: there is very little women’s hockey for The Hockey News and other hockey media to cover. Aside from the annual World Championships and 4 Nations tournament, and of course the quadrennial Winter Olympics, elite level women’s hockey in North America is limited to the six-team Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) and NCAA and CIS university competition. This leads to a chicken-and-egg argument, where media can cite lack of interest as the reason for ignoring women’s hockey; yet women’s cannot grow in popularity without adequate media exposure.
I find it hard to believe that powerful media entities like TSN, CBC, and The Hockey News – to say nothing of local and national newspapers – could not drum up significant interest in women’s hockey. After all, these are financially powerful tastemakers that have significant marketing clout. Giving exposure to incredible athletes such as Hayley Wickenheiser or Angela Ruggiero, and drumming up television and print interest in the CWHL, would lead to increased viewership of and exposure for women’s hockey and possibly allow a professional or semi-pro league structure to develop. If hockey became a legitimate career option for women, more of them would choose to stay in the sport after their NCAA or CIS careers and elite players could focus more extensively on their physical and skill training – both of which would significantly raise the quality of the game, and open up room for expanding the league beyond its current six teams.
But back to The Hockey News. The publication claims to “provid[e] the most comprehensive coverage of the world of hockey” – yet it is overwhelmingly focused on the NHL, and virtually ignores the existence of elite women’s hockey. Men’s junior hockey, and even retired players, get more coverage than the women players in the world. And its atrocious coverage of females in The Best of Everything in Hockey confirms its marginalization of women’s hockey. Sadly, The Hockey News does not at all stand out from the crowd for its minimal female coverage, which is a phenomenon seen across major sports media outlets such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN. I suppose the fact that they included a “Best Women’s Player” category at all is a tiny sign of progress.
I intend to explore how and why women’s hockey is marginalized in much more detail on this blog, and with reference to the large bodies of sociological research on the ways in which men’s and women’s sports are socially constructed in particular ways. But for now, I simply wish to offer some of my own suggestions for advancing media coverage of and growth in women’s hockey:
- Increase television coverage of women’s hockey. CBC seems like the best bet here, because as a public broadcaster it is accountable to the Canadian population – if a significant number of Canadians demanded more equitable sport coverage, it would have no choice but to listen. Furthermore, it is among the best in the world at producing hockey and could easily add women’s hockey programming to its usual Saturday Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts. CBC coverage would give a major shot in the arm to women’s hockey and would publicize it to a wider range of Canadians.
- Expand the CWHL to more Canadian and American markets. Surely there are at least 12 cities that could support a women’s semi-pro team. If competition from NHL hockey is considered too challenging, consider mid-size cities with strong hockey traditions such as Halifax, Saskatoon, Duluth, or Rochester.
- Create more opportunities for women to continue their hockey careers following the completion of university or college. The NCAA and CIS provide female hockey players a chance to compete at a high level, but without professional or semi-pro league structures in place many athletes will not continue in the sport.
- Actively work against the representation of women’s sporting worth being tied to their physical appearance and their support of male’s athletic pursuits. Media cannot stop teams such as the Dallas Stars or Edmonton Oilers from employing cheerleaders. It can choose not to celebrate these roles, and to provide more representations of skilled, strong, and talented female athletes in its sport coverage.
Sadly, I am not expecting these suggestions to be implemented any time soon. However, I do think they are worthwhile ideas that need more frequently to be inserted into discussions of women’s hockey. The status quo does not represent the natural way of things – rather, it represents the ongoing historical development and normalization of particular values that become dominant at certain moments. This means that the status quo can change and that it is possible to successfully advocate for more equitable and just circumstances.
Hopefully a progressive renegotiation of the status quo of women’s hockey is successful in the near future.