Hockey is a sport that has come a long way in the past 20 years, especially for women. Women’s hockey exists everywhere, equipment is easy to find, there are female hockey athletes inspiring young girls everywhere and this year’s NHL skills competition included it’s first female competitor, Kendall Coyne Schofield, who crushed the speed event. Cassie Campbell is not only a gold medallist, but is also the first woman on the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee, not to mention all her broadcasting work and paving the road for women’s hockey in China. It has come a long way and will continue to grow as skating programs are available for girls at an even younger age than before and more scholarships are being offered at the university level for women’s hockey. There are positive changes that have been made and are being made and it’s exciting! That being said however, it’s a sport that isn’t as easily made co-ed. Soccer, basketball, volleyball, baseball, are all sports that are more easily played on a co-ed level. With less contact and with skills acquired from the school yard as kids, these sports are activities we all grow up learning without a lot of extra coaching or training. If you’ve never skated before, ice hockey can be intimidating. If you have experience skating, ice hockey is still intimidating. It’s a sport that has been male dominant for a very long time and a sport that has a lot of contact and requires a lot of skill. It’s fast and it’s aggressive, but it’s so enjoyable to play and watch and it’s growing globally every year.
On a general level, it’s a known fact that 9 times out of 10, men are faster, stronger and “better” at most physical sports. This is not to take away from any of the incredible female athletes but just to point out that anatomically speaking and from experience and several studies, this is how it is. I am going to acknowledge that anytime I have played co-ed sports I am not as fast, or strong, or good as the men on my team or the one’s I am playing against. That does not mean I can’t get the ball/puck away from them or score on them but it is just a known fact that overall I do not equally measure up and I don’t claim to, want to, or even mind that I don’t. I also want to point out that there are several men I play with and against who are respectful, who don’t play to “kill”, who respect the sport and the people that play them and who are encouraging, helpful, accepting and who make playing alongside them enjoyable and fun. To these men, I want to say thank you, not because I feel they are owed any thanks, because it’s expected that sports should be played this way, but because they are confident in themselves, not only as an athlete but a human being and don’t come to the “court” with something to prove. I want to thank you for showing up and emitting a strong sense of empathy, strength and community. I also want to point out that some men have never played with women before, besides at recess in grade school, so I want to point out that I am fully aware the reaction I get playing with some of you is 100% authentically “i didn’t know any better”. I truly believe most men I play with/against have no intentions of making me feel useless and unwelcome and simply don’t realize how they come across. It is the others that have encouraged me to write this blog.
I am going to speak mainly to hockey as this is where I find I run into the most resistance with playing against men. I started playing two and a half years ago in small town New Hamburg, Ontario. I borrowed equipment from a co-workers 15 year old son which didn’t fit me right and my background on the ice was in figure skating so I had no clue what I was doing. I was inspired by my 63 year old aunt who plays 5 nights a week and started when she was in her late 40’s. I showed up to my very first day to pick up hockey, (no refs, no timekeeper, just easy, chill hockey) in my pink helmet and teenage equipment and sat on the bench and have never been so nervous in my life. I looked on both benches and realized I was the only girl. Not only was this my first time, but I was the only girl. Great. One guy said “do you play defence or forward?” That was my first clue I had no idea what I was doing. I played defence in soccer but I didn’t know what would translate onto the ice. I decided I’d stick to defence because I could stay back, wouldn’t have to skate as much that way, and could rely on the goalie to help me out when I didn’t get the puck (which was every, single, time). I played my first “game” and I don’t think I touched the puck once that entire game. I went back to my change room and told myself I had to come back for 4 more games, and I did. I came back every time, and kept coming because I felt I had to prove to these guys that I could get better. My sister started coming out to play with me and I think that’s what kept me coming back. We always played on opposite teams so I could always have someone to go “up against” and we were used to scraping so it was safe. I think the guys liked this too because they didn’t feel they had to get involved, when one of us had the puck we took care of each other. Slight lie – she’s SO much better than me and our skill levels don’t really match up but we still would go one on one, or she would more or less come at me and deke around me and I’d stand there like an angry pylon. I used to bake treats for the guys at hockey and try to tell jokes on the bench so they would like me other ways so they’d be nice to me on the bench. I would sneak treats into the mens change room for them to find before we would play so I had a higher chance of being accepted. This definitely gave me an in.
Six months later I moved out west. I had all my hockey stuff shipped and started playing the same level of hockey as I had been playing – pick up hockey. The rules are “anyone can play, no slap shots and you must wear full equipment”. I showed up the first day and there wasn’t a designated women’s change room. When I asked for one they said “girls don’t usually play”. The ref’s room was open so I used that and to this day that is still “the womens change room”. If you’ve never seen a ref’s room before, it has a tiny bathroom and shower and enough room for one person to change into equipment comfortably. My first day there were 5 people that showed up. I was one of the 5. I got to meet everyone by name, two guys were in their 70’s and the other 2 a bit younger and we played half rink pick up hockey. With only 5 people it didn’t go on for too long and it wasn’t the best game but I was so grateful for the opportunity to feel accepted and welcomed. The next time I went back there were more people and the 4 people I met the game before were all there and welcomed me again. This time there were enough people for a full game. I struggled hard. I couldn’t keep up, I didn’t get any passes, I didn’t know what position to be in, I didn’t realized we switched sides every 10 minutes because we only had one goalie and so I was a lost little lamb without a click or a clue! A couple guys tried to give me pointers but most ignored me on the bench and it didn’t take me long to realize I was on the bench for very long periods of time. Nobody wanted to sub me onto the ice because I wasn’t much help to the team. What kept me coming back was the competitive nature in me that wanted to get better and wanted to be accepted and wanted to prove them all wrong, that I could play with them and against them and hold my own. It got to a point where I was not playing for me but for women. I know and have always known that I am not a skilled hockey player and as scary as it was to start playing, I also enjoyed it. I love skating and always have, I love the exercise of playing hockey and the fast pace and I like the chatter on the bench and when I would do something right or made a good pass or started to get the puck away, I was encouraged by some of the guys and it was those good feelings that kept me coming back. I made it a point and always have, to try to get to know everyone by name, greet everyone when I arrive for “warm up”, talk to the guys on the bench about their jobs, families, kids, because I always felt that if I could get them to like me on the bench then maybe they’d like me on the ice too and wouldn’t roll their eyes when I came out of my “dressing room” to join them on the bench. Again, there are great guys I play with, but there will always be the ones who don’t play nice with girls. After playing for a year with mostly the same guys, I felt comfortable, I had fun playing and I felt included. I still didn’t feel ready to join a real league but I finally felt like I was improving and that I had something I looked forward to every week.
I have one jersey. It’s black and has two candy canes on the front. They were made for our families annual hockey game (the entire reason I wanted to start playing in the first place was so that I could keep up at family hockey and not be practicing my spins in the corner). In shinny there is always a white team and a black team. I’m always on the black team, that’s where I’m comfortable, I know all the guys and that’s where I’ve been accepted. Last week the teams were very unfair. The white team had so many better players and the black team was getting crushed to the point that it wasn’t fun for either team so we decided to try to even them out. This is when things changed for me. To even things up they took the best player from the white team and put him in a black jersey. To counteract, they took the worst player from the black team (me – shocker!) and put me in a white jersey. All the guys thought this was the best move. No one asked me, I was “voluntold”. Within 8 minutes of sitting on the bench (if you’re not familiar with sports that is an exceptionally long time to sit on a bench without playing time) I had been asked “why don’t you play on an all girls team?”, and heard the forwards saying “now the white team is going to lose”. I played one shift and came off and again on the bench I was asked “do you want to get passed to?” I said, “ya that would be nice once in a while”, and the reply I got was “well you have to put your stick down and be prepared to score, that’s why no one passes to you”. Later I was asked “do you do anything to try to get better?” followed by another comment from another man – “do you even watch hockey?”. I took all these comments in stride, and smiled and tried to answer them with answers they’d want to hear. When I’m on the ice and I manage to get the puck – not from receiving a pass but from actually chasing and obtaining the puck, the guys all back off and say things like “there you go!” and they all stop and let me “try to go up” while they all sit back and watch me, thinking this somehow encourages me. It was during this “game” when I switched sides to play with guys who weren’t as familiar with me, that I was playing a game that wasn’t fun for me anymore. The following week things got even worse. I was joined by 2 females so there were a record breaking 3 women who came to play coed hockey. While crammed into the “women’s change room” someone dead bolted the door from the outside. I like to think this wasn’t intentional but it quickly became obvious that we weren’t welcome on the ice. After becoming claustrophobic, and calling the front desk, the door was opened by the arena staff who all verified it was not done by them. We alerted the staff about this and were told to call a number and complain, which did not deem very helpful. We were then faced with a decision, do we keep coming back to see what greets us next week or do we give up? Do we stop coming because we don’t want to be treated like this? Do I, the only girl, stand in front of 20 big, intimidating men and tell them to accept me? (if you’ve ever played hockey you know how this approach would be met). I’m now in a place where I feel my hands are tied and I’m conflicted on how to stand up for myself and all the women who will come after me and how to still enjoy the game of hockey when each game there is something else resisting me to play.
The game of hockey, the hockey community, the hockey world, this country, bleeds and breeds hockey. I love all aspects of the game and what hockey is to Canada. However, this game of men vs. woman, this game of “you’re not as good as us”, it not what I signed up for. I am aware I need some help with my skills, I know I am not as good as anyone else I play with but I see I’ve improved, I feel more confident, I know I’m catching on to things and that excites me and to have that ripped away from me is heartbreaking and hurtful for me. I don’t want to be a weak, woman who can’t keep up with the boys but I also don’t want to keep playing if this is the resistance I get with each game. I try to push the comments I hear aside and keep telling myself it’s pick up hockey and it’s just a couple guys making these comments, and it IS just a game but it’s also so much bigger. I can honestly say the way a man acts on the ice is a exact replica of how he presents in life. I’ve also had guys who tap me lightly on the behind with their sticks or who think it’s funny to pull on my shorts when I’m skating so I can’t get anywhere. I laugh it off and you can’t see the glare I give you from behind the cage on my mask, but let me be the first to tell you that being inappropriate on ice has the same effect off the ice. It is 2019. There have been breakthroughs in equality, and there are so many powerful movements and people are opening their eyes, speaking out and educating themselves and there are incredible actions being made and people respecting people and it’s exhilarating! but there are also things going on like what I’ve mentioned above. I realize it’s not life or death stuff, that a lot of this is easily shruggable and I need to “get tougher skin”. In the hockey world I think a lot of people have the mentality of “if you’re not tough enough to handle this stuff don’t play”. This needs to change. The guys I have experience playing with and against, either play like I”m “one of the guys” knocking me down, full contact, going after me when I have the puck etc. while others act as if I’m a 4 year old and as soon as I have the puck they back off and watch me try things until I screw up and then they take it away like I don’t deserve to try again. Both of these methods of play are equally as frustrating. Perhaps it’s because I’m the only girl, maybe if there were others it would be different. Sometimes I am joined by one or two other female players but I like to imagine what they would do if there were 10 of us! Would they stop playing? Would the entire environment change? Tough to say. Again, I think most guys don’t have experience playing with women so they really don’t know how to react but I want to put in writing, from a female’s perspective who isn’t super skilled at hockey – If I have the puck, don’t do the mannequin challenge and watch me, come after the puck, play the puck, I can hold my own. If you’re coming at me full speed ahead and I’m 100 lbs lighter than you, maybe back down just a little bit, I’m only wearing junior equipment, and if I’m on the bench and you think I play like a girl, change your thought pattern or play on an all guys team where you won’t have to worry about playing with someone like me. Good players inspire themselves, Great players inspire others. I will be back. I may need a bit of time to regroup and dust myself off, but I will be back. I will be back because there are girls starting out who need me to pave the way, there are women who have quit and been left with regrets and because I can. Women are playing hockey because they love it, not because they’re trying to be a woman in a man’s game. Not every victory shows up on the scoreboard.