#ForTheGame: Tales from the cutting room floor

Photo by Courtney Szto.

Women’s hockey has long received the short end of the stick, but when the CWHL folded it laid bare how significant the disparities really were. Lack of viewership, sponsorship, media coverage, statistics, and wages are the common issues that come up but, with hindsight being 20/20, I realized that the lack of research on women’s hockey also played a role in the collapse of the league. If research is supposed to draw attention to the problems, successes, and disparities of the world, then the Canadian academy had done none of those things while the CWHL was alive. In the 11 years that the CWHL was operational, only one academic book chapter had been published with the CWHL as its main focus (MacDonald, Szto & Edwards, 2017). There has been plenty written about men’s hockey at all levels by Canadian scholars but only a handful of pieces written about women’s hockey, and almost none of it mentioned the labour issues that women have faced. We had made the same mistake as everyone else.

Whether it’s research, statistics, or game footage, there is so little of women’s hockey that has been recorded. It makes it hard to know where to go when we don’t really know where we have been. This is not to say that the written word is by any means definitive or better than oral traditions of passing down history. The problem, however, is that women’s hockey doesn’t necessarily have a strong tradition of either. We’re starting to see things change with the publication of Sami Jo Small’s recent book, The Role I Played; Breaking Ice, the children’s book inspired by Manon Rheaume; Dare to Make History, the story of the Lamoureux twins; and A Team of Their Own about the South Korean women’s Olympic team. Hopefully, this is a sign of women’s hockey gaining the mainstream coverage that it deserves.

The last two years in women’s hockey have been a whirlwind and I wanted to make sure that some of it was captured and contextualized. With the help of Katrina Galas (former Assistant General Manager for the Toronto Furies), Karell Emard (Les Canadiennes), Melanie Desrochers (Les Canadiennes), Anissa Gamble (Toronto Furies), Liz Knox (Markham Thunder), and Kristen Richards (Markham Thunder) of the CWHL/PWHPA, and fellow professors Erin Morris (SUNY-Cortland) and Ann Pegoraro (University of Guelph), we crafted an analysis that focused on the closure of the CWHL, the development of the PWHPA, and the first year of the Dream Gap Tour (Sami Jo Small was also interviewed but chose not to participate in the authorship process). We also tried to provide some perspective on the different approaches adopted by the NWHL and PWHPA as distinct but inherently connected ways forward:

Melanie Desrochers. Toronto Dream Gap Tour, Unifor Showcase 2019. Photo by Courtney Szto.

The PWHPA’s campaign for a sustainable league with livable wages echoes the collective action of second-wave feminism from the 1960s. Conversely, the NWHL’s decision to stay the course of incremental gains reflects the more fragmented third-wave feminist approaches of the new millennium. We could characterize the incremental approach adopted by the NWHL as “individuals quietly living determined lives rather than radicals on the ramparts” (Baumgardner and Richards, 2000, p. 36). Cailey Hutchinson thought about joining the PWHPA but signed with the NWHL because she reasoned, “what we do know right now in this moment is that we want to play and we want to grow women’s hockey, right now” (D’Arcangelo, 2019, para. 21). The PWHPA asks players to join a situation that has no defined end date and is premised solely on hope, whereas the NWHL’s slow-growth model asks women to accept poverty level wages as a way to grow the game. Neither is a great option. The NWHL’s offering is less than adequate (the players know this) but it is slightly more predictable. The slow-growth model, however, avoids discussions about how power and privilege are relational gender constructs. Incrementalism fails to elucidate the ways that men’s professional sport has been bolstered through numerous unearned privileges such as public subsidies, large injections of financial investment, and media coverage that does not necessarily match viewership (e.g., Cooky & LaVoi, 2012; Cooky, Messner & Hextrum, 2013; Pardy & Szto, 2019). Still, Solnit (2018) points out that incrementalism is often what lays the groundwork for revolution. In this way, the slow growth model of the NWHL may be what made #ForTheGame possible. We would be mistaken to confuse the fragmented community and methods as completely disconnected. (pg.6)

Our full paper, “#ForTheGame: Social change and the struggle to professionalize women’s ice hockey,” is now available via the Sociology of Sport Journal [paywalled]. The thing about research is that very little of the data gathered makes it into the final product; thus, I wanted to share some quotes, feelings, and insights that were left on the cutting room floor.

Here is Karell Emard talking about her realization that she was never going to be able to play in the NHL:

I thought I was going to be the first girl/woman to play in the NHL and that got crushed pretty quickly after realizing, I think I was like 10 or 11, when you’re watching and someone is telling you there are no females in the NHL and there’s a reason why…It’s like finding out that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

Emard also spoke about how sports media needs to show more respect through preparation when they interview women hockey players:

[Media] need to be prepared when they interview us. There [are] big shows [where] the guys have no clue what they are about to ask us or what happened…when you interview two people after the Olympics and you don’t know who they played against in the semi-finals — be better! You would never do that to [Brendan] Gallagher or to anyone else who would come to your show, but because we are female we’re not taken as seriously. That needs to change.

My favourite quote that didn’t make it into the article was provided by Melanie Desrochers, when she reflected on men who only understand gender equality in relation to their daughter(s):

I hate it when people are like “I have a daughter…” but you don’t have to have a daughter to care about half the population. What about your wife? Maybe she had that dream [to play professional hockey]. What about your mom? Your mom maybe had that dream. Maybe your mom wanted to play hockey but she had you!

Anissa Gamble shared how difficult it can be watching the boys you grow up with move on with their hockey careers:

I grew up with some players who made it to the NHL and [are] basically making a living off of doing what they love…I love hockey! It makes me so happy to play but I don’t get to do that for my day job and that totally frustrates me…It’s hard. You see your friend you grew up with who is a guy who gets to [play hockey] when you can’t, just because of your gender.

There was a theme of players not knowing about the CWHL until they played in the CWHL. Here is Kristen Richards talking about her call up:

When I learned about the CWHL…I guess, I played my first CWHL game when I was a junior. I was called up to Mississauga at the time…but yeah that’s probably my first experience with the CWHL…it’s kind of disappointing that it took me playing a game with them before I actually really knew what they were, especially because I did have an older sister in the sport. To think about that, it’s really sad.

She also shared her hope for the future of the game:

I also think that part of me wants to believe in the good of people and part of me wants to believe that there is nobody that wants to see us fail, that there are people that want to make sure that we are successful because they know what’s good for the game in general and, not just for the women’s game but for hockey.

CWHL teams needed to help fundraise money to cover costs. Liz Knox explained that hustling for sponsorships and donations as a CWHL player could be an awkward situation:

It is a little different when you ask a hair dresser for a $500 dollar sponsorship when you are 6 [years old] compared to when you are 26 [years old].

When asked why the PWHPA made the big push to get its players Twitter verified, Knox explained:

It’s important to feel like the face and voice that you are putting on, especially for this movement, is recognized. And, I think for women’s hockey players, you know, if we can’t make money and we can’t have the resources, and we can’t, we can’t, we can’t, a blue checkmark means a lot…I think it gave legitimacy to people who didn’t really know what was going to happen.

Jessie Eldridge (left) and Kristen Richards (right). Toronto Dream Gap Tour, Unifor Showcase 2019. Photo by Courtney Szto.

The PWHPA recently announced a partnership with the Toronto Maple Leafs that “involves enhanced marketing coordination and support, sponsorship consulting on commercial efforts” and hosting a Dream Gap Tour showcase when Canadian Covid-19 restrictions will allow it. This is certainly not the first time that the Leafs have worked with women’s hockey but we hope that arrangements are more equitable this time around. Katrina Galas contends that the way organizations view female professional athletes needs to evolve quickly because historically “partnerships” have been very imbalanced:

They can only do so much. Sami [Jo Small] was very conscious of that with the Furies. Since she played for so long herself, she recognized that you can always make asks [of players] but you don’t always want to because they are such nice people and they will most often say yes and show up whenever asked. That approach is not fair to them either as their limited time is valuable too.

Mid season, our Furies players and staff were invited to give their time to lead an on ice neighbourhood clinic for girls that one of the partners was hosting. We all drove ourselves across the city to be on the ice with the girls, support their development by leading skills, drills, and games on the ice, and create a positive experience with hopes to inspire them all to keep playing. Towards the back half of the session, an NHL Alumni showed up on the ice as well to encourage the girls and hand out some Maple Leafs t-shirts (despite having access to Furies gear).

It wasn’t until after the session that all our players realized that the alumni was getting his full rate to be there whereas they all had to drive themselves home without any monetary support for their time. When they were asked to come back again, I invited our partner to consider compensating them fairly for their time, as they did the NHL Alumni, since they were current professionals who were in the middle of their season. The response I got was jaw-dropping…something to the effect of “we don’t have the budget — the most we could even consider would be the minimum wage hourly rate.” Despite this reality, on many occasions, the players would still show up. That shows the tireless commitment of these women towards growing the game, so we need the same tireless commitment from partners to do the same and switch their mindset to one of valuing and investing in women’s hockey versus seeking opportunities to leverage it.

When Sami Jo Small was asked about the challenges of being a General Manager for a women’s hockey team, in the supposed hockey mecca that is Toronto, she responded:

I never had people say “No.” I didn’t always get what I wanted but I didn’t have people say “No.” I think what I saw as a GM was not limited interest but limited time. As a GM, it was also not my full time job. I have another job, so you’re constantly trying to juggle what is best for the girls, what is best for the team.

It is the juggling that has stretched women’s hockey to its limits. While 2021 hasn’t exactly been better than 2020 in most respects, we have seen some promising developments in women’s hockey with record viewing for the NWHL’s tournament in Lake Placid via Twitch (before the tournament ended prematurely due to Covid-19). The NWHL had a deal with NBCSN to air the semis and finals, which would have been the “first-ever women’s professional hockey games to air on a major national cable network in the U.S.” The PWHPA has announced a showcase at Madison Square Garden for February 28th, followed by a showcase in Chicago on March 6th and 7th. The March 6th game will be aired on NBCSN, so it’s nice to see that a major national network seems willing to give women’s a hockey a shot at mainstream viewership. It’s time that we in the academy help by teaching our students about the history of women’s hockey, highlight the labour issues, and ask the tough questions of women’s hockey just as we have for men’s hockey.

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