The ‘Out with the Old-School’ series is based on the findings from Donna Cumming’s MA thesis. The study involved interviews and focus groups with 11 Canadian varsity women hockey players about their hockey leadership experiences, perceptions, and intentions.
Most of this series will focus on women and hockey leadership, but this first post is all about context. In a study that seeks to understand women’s intentions in hockey leadership, context is a vital piece of the narrative. In order to understand where they’re going, we need to know where they’ve been. So, to start off, let me paint you a picture of what it’s like to grow up as a girl in the male-dominated Canadian hockey environment through the eyes of 11 varsity women hockey players from across the country.
Imagine you’re a five-year-old girl. You just got started in hockey, probably because your dad played or your brother plays. Either that or you had to beg your parents to let you play. There’s no girls’ hockey in your town so you’re the only girl on a boys’ hockey team. You love the sport and you have fun with your teammates, but when you turn 11 or 12 years old… although you still love it, you notice things changing.
First, you’re not allowed to change with the rest of your team anymore so maybe you’re changing alone in a designated girls’ dressing room. Or it could be a first aid room. Or a janitor’s closet. Or a bathroom. By the time you’re 14, you have changed in every room in the arena except for the one with the rest of your team. You’ve also reached the age where the sport is getting more competitive. You are trying out for the top team, and you think you have a pretty good shot of making it. Parents in the stands are complaining that you’re even on the ice because you could take a spot away from one of their sons. On the last night before the teams are announced, the coach calls your parents and says, “your daughter is more skilled than the other player that I will be choosing, but because she’s a girl…” (Participant 8). I don’t think you need to hear the rest.
Now, maybe you got lucky and you did get selected for the top team. You get along well with the boys and everyone on your team accepts and respects you. But you start to experience hostility from opposing players, maybe even coaches. You’re 13 years old, playing at a tournament and you hear “go back to the kitchen and make a sandwich” (Participant 7) from a boy on the other team. Then, you’re 15 years old and an opposing team’s coach gets fired because it comes out that he was putting $20 on the wall for whichever player could lay the biggest hit on ‘the girl on the other team’.
If you came from a city where girls’ hockey was available, you might have played girls’ hockey all through minor hockey. You loved being around your team and you were all very close. You were lucky to avoid a lot of the discrimination that goes along with playing boys’ hockey, but you still dealt with unequal resources. Boys’ teams at a similar level had better ice times, more coaching resources, better facilities, better equipment…in other words, more money.
Regardless of where you started, you received the message from an early age that girls’ and women’s hockey is inferior to boys’ and men’s hockey.
Eventually, you move on to varsity hockey. You decide to stay in Canada rather than going to the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletics Association) in the United States. While the level of hockey is higher in the States, you’ve heard that the education might not be as good. As a 17-year-old, you already know that you are unlikely to make a career as a hockey player, so you prioritize your education.
When you get to the varsity level, you have a great experience. Your coaches and teammates help you find a balance between school and hockey, and you enjoy tremendous growth as a person and a player. The inequalities are likely diminishing compared to when you were in minor hockey, but they are still there. Maybe it’s in the form of different budgets between the men’s and women’s team, limited promotion on campus and on social media, or the men’s team gets the ‘prime time’ ice slot, while the women’s team gets the afternoon game, week in and week out. At this point, you might have gotten so used to these inequalities that you don’t even notice them anymore.
As you near the end of your university career, you’re facing a personal dilemma. Hockey has been your focus and your passion for most of your life. You want to keep playing at the highest level, but you have to ask yourself: How long can I keep this up?
Professional hockey and beyond
You have been following professional women’s hockey for long enough to know that if and when you reach that level, it will come with its own set of challenges. Whether it’s the PHF, the PWHPA, or a professional league in Europe, you know that it’s unlikely that you will make a living wage playing hockey. From your experience consuming the sub-par coverage of women’s hockey in the media and seeing the “horrendous comments tearing women down” (Participant 5) on social media, you don’t see the current state of women’s hockey changing anytime soon.
You will always love the sport regardless of how it’s perceived, but you just don’t feel that the general public is receptive to creating space for professional women’s hockey right now. So, you might give professional hockey a shot for a couple of years, but in the back of your mind, your hockey career has an expiration date that is not far off.
Not such a rosy painting, is it? Now don’t get me wrong, the women I spoke with in this study had plenty of positive experiences in hockey. But it’s hard to look at the collective challenges and discrimination that they had to endure to pursue the sport that they love without seeing how broken hockey culture in Canada really is. Keep in mind, this is not one player’s experience. These are the combined experiences of eleven women who have played hockey in nine different provinces across Canada. If you can read this and still insist that the problems in Canadian hockey culture come from ‘a few bad apples’…I don’t even know what to tell you. Keep digging I guess, because eventually you might run out of sand to bury your head in.
Now that I’ve brought the mood down, let me leave you with a glimmer of hope. While the women in this study shared their experiences of discrimination and inequality, they also described how their varsity teams prioritize equality and strive to create an inclusive hockey environment. Whether it’s by educating themselves on issues of systemic racism, developing hockey programs for marginalized girls, or simply drawing from their own experiences with gender discrimination, many of them felt quite strongly that women in hockey are “in a position to support the idea of inclusion in hockey” (Participant 7).
In a study that considers these women as potential future leaders in hockey, at a time when Canadian hockey leadership and culture is in complete turmoil – this just might be a reason to believe that positive change in hockey culture is possible. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be overnight. But it just might be possible.
Keep an eye out for the next installment of the ‘Out with the Old-School’ series, which will explore varsity women hockey players’ perceptions of hockey leadership.