Trophies Matter: Women’s hockey and the politics of memory

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It’s Friday night. I worked all day, had a 5:30pm tournament game, and came home from the rink to a text that read: “Why are the CWHL trophies on sale? Disgusting.” So here I am, at 7:30pm, hungry and rage-y, poking the keyboard because, as Kirsten Whalen wrote for the Victory Press on April 20th, “Everything is terrible.” And the only way I know how to deal with terrible is to write (or play hockey but I just did that). Not only is everything is terrible, it continually seems to get worse! One would have thought that the closure of the CWHL was the bad news, turns out that was the tip of the ice berg.

The CWHL teams have been auctioning off their jerseys and other leftover merchandise in an attempt to pay off their financial debts. At least, that’s what we think is going on because we still have no idea what those league financials looked like. Today, the CWHL included all 9 of the league trophies to the auction block, including the Angela James Bowl and the Jayna Hefford Trophy. The goal of the auction is to raise $35,000 and the starting bid for both the Angela James trophy (awarded to the leading point scorer each season) and the Jayna Hefford trophy (for the league MVP) is $15,000 each. You can get yourself a nice Coach of the Year trophy for a mere $1,000. The fact that these trophies are being included is a pretty big hint at how much debt the league was/is facing.

The gut wrenching part about seeing these trophies go up for sale as if they are regular commodities and not historical and cultural artifacts is because it’s possible that a big part of women’s hockey history could be erased. Yes, I understand that historical artifacts are auctioned off all the time and often for very large sums of money, but that usually happens when that history already exists somewhere publicly. For example, a private buyer can add a Picasso to their home collection and it doesn’t really affect public access to the memory or work of Pablo Picasso because galleries, books, and courses are already dedicated to his contributions to art history. We cannot say that public memory exists for women’s hockey. We are writing that history every day and we are fighting to have women included on selection committees and induction lists; therefore, those trophies need to end up in a public archive.

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Historian and professor, Bruce Kidd, wrote in 1996 that the sports halls of fame “play a strategic role in the public remembering and interpretation of sports,” (p.328) but that the Hockey Hall of Fame “is a disappointing example of effective ‘public history'” (p.328). That is largely because the HHOF is a corporate entity and not one dedicated to public education (Updated clarification: In Phillips [2012] taxonomy of halls of fame, the HHOF is delineated as a corporate museum because it (1) employs more marketing and PR staff than museum professionals; (2) public education is not a high priority; (3) it uses its platform to influence public opinion and thus serves as a form of advertising; and (4) relies heavily on collective nostalgia as a way to counter marginalized or contested histories). Thus, if people want the HHOF to step up and buy these trophies no amount of public pressure will work if they don’t want to do it. I’ve also heard through the grapevine that the HHOF may have a bunch of cool artifacts that would help tell a much more comprehensive story of hockey but it chooses to keep those goodies hidden away. Why would they do this? I’m not entirely sure but if it’s true it speaks to the power of its ability as a private entity to control public narratives.

In 2013, Brittain, Ramshaw, and Gammon wrote an article about the lack of value given to Paralympic athletes, and by extension their underrepresentation in public sporting memory. They contend:

Despite being the second largest multi-sport event in the world after the Olympic Games and having had a profound impact upon people with disabilities and the attitudes towards them by non-disabled members of society, the Paralympic Games have been all but completely overlooked as an important aspect of sporting and social heritage. A large part of the reason for this is the dominant discourses pertaining to disability, sport and heritage which all, in their own way, marginalise disability sport and the Paralympic Games as unworthy of inclusion. The discourses are so strong that they have even convinced athletes with disabilities and people working in disability and Paralympic sports that their history is unworthy of recording leading many to simply throw away historical items including medals. (p.183)

We have successfully convinced para-athletes that they are socially worthless and we are on the brink of doing the same with women’s hockey players in Canada. To commemorate groups of people publicly is an act of advocacy and a recognition of their humanity and citizenship. One of the reviewers for my forthcoming book actually suggested that my chapter on the public memory of hockey was not necessary, but I respectfully disagreed and this moment makes me feel a little vindicated in standing my ground because the fact is that the politics that surround the memory of hockey in Canada are…pretty shady.

Some scholars argue that public memory is a human right and a matter of justice. Does sporting history fit into that category? Sometimes. Arguably, the right to memory speaks to a sense of belonging and is central to a functioning democratic society (Lee & Thomas, 2012). And in a functioning democratic society, media is necessary for keeping organizations accountable. Media play a role in helping to curate history and to defend democratic accountability. The media frame our perceptions about certain events, people, places, and help to mark particular instances as worthy of collective rememberance while also helping to relegate other memories to oblivion. So where is all that mainstream media that was hanging around a few weeks ago? Where are all those CBC reporters that were so keen to tell the story of the death of the league but neither its life nor aftermath? Sadly, it remains those who have been here all along telling the story of women’s hockey — in good times and bad. This is not only a sad moment in women’s hockey history, but I argue an unjust one as well.

UPDATE 1: A GoFundMe page has been created by Jared Book and Kirsten Whalen in an attempt to try and reconcile this mess. Check it out if you are interested: https://www.gofundme.com/preserving-womens-hockey-history

UPDATE 2: The Angela James Bowl was removed from the auction as of April 28th.

Works Cited

Brittain, I., Ramshaw, G. & Gammon, S. (2013). The Marginalisation of Paralympic Heritage. International Journal of Sport Heritage Studies, 19(2), 171-185.

Kidd, B. (1996). The making of a hockey artifact: A review of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Journal of Sport History, 23(3), 328-334.

Lee, P. & Thomas, P. N. (2012). Introduction: Public media and the right to memory: Towards an encounter with justice. In P. Lee & P. N. Thomas (eds.), Public memory, public media, and the politics of justice(pp. 1-22). New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan.

Phillips, M., G. (2012). Introduction: Historians in sport museums. In Representing the sporting past in museums and halls of fame.(pp. 1–26). New Haven, CT & London, UK: Routledge

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