If you pay any attention at all to... well, me as a human being, you know I love hockey.
More to the point, I love women's hockey. A lot. I will happily set alarms for the wee hours to watch Canada's Under-18 women's team play for consecutive gold medals, or find the sketchiest streams imaginable just to watch games the sports stations see no value in broadcasting. That I disagree with them about the value of those games is its own blog post, but not the focus of this one. This post is all about one of the first times in a decade that I finally had the opportunity to see women's hockey live, in person. The last time I got to go to women's hockey games was the Vancouver Olympics.
Yup. You read that correctly. Vancouver 2010, ten years ago. I've watched games online, the few they have had on TV, but live pro women's hockey is few and far between in many places, including where I live. I bought a Saturday Pass to the Secret Showcase in Toronto on January 11th and a ticket to the PWHPA's Closing the Gap event on the Friday.
On Friday evening, I attended the Closing the Gap event as part of the #SecretShowcase stop of the Dream Gap Tour in Toronto. It was fascinating, and I am unpacking what I heard and saw. Because there was a lot to unpack.
The event was relatively small. Under a hundred people, I think. I am bad at guessing but it felt intimate, which was really nice. That said, it was a mix of teenage girls, women involved in girls or women's hockey, hockey/sports industry types, female players, sponsor representatives, and a few random fans. The event had a very "house party" sort of feel with players mingling with everyone and schmoozing. The panels themselves -the whole point of the event- were very good, with a couple standout participants.
Tara Slone was the MC for the evening, and brought her passion and familiarity with hockey and hosting events to her role, which added a really casual and easy-going professionalism to the proceedings.
The first panel of "industry professionals" included NHLPA's Mathieu Schneider, and reps from BioSteel and Budweiser who were informed and very blunt about their motives (all very positive) for sponsoring women's hockey. The panel also included "last minute addition" -Tara Slone's words- Tie Domi who BY HIS OWN ADMISSION had no place on that panel. He dominated conversation, unaware that there were 2 other panels after theirs and spoke with the eloquence of a bad used car salesman. He was all hustle and it felt like a lot of empty promises and buzz words with no idea, let alone a plan, how to back it up. While I do believe that Domi cares about women's hockey in his own way, he came off as uninformed and unprepared. While he spoke, I noticed that the women there supporting him and excited to see him boosting women were all white women. (I think there were only a handful of women of colour there, including Sarah Nurse.)
I have never been a particular fan of Domi (I mean, he was a LEAF, friends!) and before, during the #SecretShowcase weekend, and in the days after the Dream Gap Tour stop in Toronto, he said some truly concerning things about women's hockey, ignoring the American NWHL, bad-mouthing the only alternative to PWHPA membership. Picking fights with fans of women's hockey is not a good look, even for a former NHL player who made his living as a pugilistic enforcer.
Domi has said other problematic things in the past (which I will not go into, but they are well documented and easy to find if you are curious). While I understand the appeal of having a recognized, boys-boy name like Domi's attached to a movement, I'm worried it will do the PWHPA more damage in the long term than good. Some of his past actions also concern me because they don't bode particularly for women of colour in hockey, who are woefully under-represented as it is.
The second panel was of female non-hockey athletes (soccer players Diana Matheson, Carmelina Moscato, and speed skater Anastasia Bucsis) was really interesting and informative, but it really highlighted that one of the main struggles a pro women's hockey league in North America faces is not helped by some of the strongest arguments for other sports' domestic leagues. (Canada and USA already dominate international women's hockey, the improvement in standings of which is often used to justify better domestic pro leagues for other sports.) It was really fascinating and the speakers were really passionate and happy to inform the audience about their own experiences.
The third panel was the most exciting, because it was made up of Brianne Jenner, Sarah Nurse, Marie-Philip Poulin, and Kendall Coyne. They spoke largely about the realities of living life while playing the CWHL and the NWHL and Kendall Coyne specifically spoke to the egregious disparity she witnessed between her (NFL player Michael Schofield) husband's support (trainers, medical support, transportation) and her own experiences.
While all of them were strong speakers, Kendall Coyne had a remarkable magnetism that you cannot buy or learn. She was passionate but matter-of-fact, an eloquent and articulate ambassador for women's hockey.** As an American friend of mine put it: COYNE 2020! Coyne was an standout all weekend, on and off the ice, but her calm ferocity that women are worth more than the leagues they have had to play in was perhaps the most poignant moment for me.
"The leagues are pro in name only," Coyne said, "We are worth a lot more than that." The players are fighting for a platform in which they can perform day in, day out, like their male colleagues, with trainers and medical support, physio, and maintenance so they can stay in peak form. They said this, repeatedly speaking to the front two rows of the crowd made up almost entirely of teenage girls aged twelve to seventeen. Some of the biggest names in contemporary women's hockey spoke directly to these girls, knowing that this fight will not be over soon even if this current "gap" of women's pro in Canada is closed soon and that these girls need to be prepared for that fight.
For generations, there has been repeated, often aimless talk about "paving the road" for women's hockey, but Maria Dennis of the NHPLA asked the vital question at the beginning of the night, the question that no one seems to have an easy answer to: "When will the road finally be paved?"
As Brianne Jenner put it (reiterated by everyone on the panel at least once), "We want to leave the game better than we found it." And they will. Maybe not a perfect game, but better than what previous generations have had.
There's no easy way for a room full of Olympic medalists (because most of them WERE) to say "The issue here is that men don't want women to succeed," but at the root of it, that's one of the main issues. Not all men, of course. But enough of them. Enough men are threatened by the prospect of professional female athletes having a league that they've decided no one needs it. Luckily, it seems like the tide may finally be turning. Women having a professional league where they can make an actual sustainable living will not take away from men's ability to play in the NHL for ludicrous salaries. It will add to what we all have to be proud of. It will increase the amount of quality hockey on our television screens. Which would be a win for all hockey fans, not just the girls and women who deserve to watch their heroes and peers, but to the boys and men who would see just how talented girls and women are.
Now, if we could only convince major broadcasters that women's hockey deserves to be on TV...
On Saturday, I got to watch three incredibly awesome, well-attended hockey games, and what struck me was that the only thing making these games "less exciting" was the fact that there weren't fifteen thousand screaming, invested fans in the stands and the fact that female pro players do not have the liberty to take some of the chances that NHL players take because they do not have the financial and medical safety net NHL salaries provide. The games were fast, exciting, and included clear rivalries, fights, and the physicality that those who do not actually WATCH women's hockey claim women's hockey lacks. It was a joy to watch these women play, not for political reasons, but because they are talented and they play amazing hockey! I want more of it in my life and on my television screen, and so should you.
As a silly aside, on the Saturday, I won Fan of the Game for Game 1 (Team Larocque vs. Team Kessel) got to meet Erika Howe, and won a hilarious Budweiser goal light. (I never "win" anything so it was really lovely!)
The next stop on the Dream Gap Tour is Philadelphia, PA the weekend of February 29th through March 1st. If you are in the area, I absolutely encourage you check it out!
** It was brought to my attention after writing this post that Kendall Coyne Schofield has said exhibited some incredibly problematic behaviour concerning inclusion in sport in general (most obviously but not limited to her public criticism of Colin Kaepernick's taking a knee in 2016). While I truly believe that she wishes to champion women's hockey, it does force us to confront the inherent racism of hockey itself and the alarming whiteness of North American women's hockey in general and demand that we critically analyze WHOSE RIGHTS it is that everyone is fighting for. I don't have answers, only more questions.