When it was announced that two-time Olympic silver medalist and Clarkson Cup champion Hilary Knight would be practicing with the Anaheim Ducks, my first impulse was to be thrilled.
Of course, that excitement was immediately dampened by the thought, This is a PR stunt. Like when Shannon Szabados was invited to practice with the Oilers to shut up the people on Twitter who were campaigning for her to be the emergency backup. Like when the Tampa Bay Lightning had Manon Rheaume suit up for an exhibition game.
It’s no secret these days that Manon Rheaume was a massive publicity stunt, but people still talk about this exhibition game with awe and hope in their voices.
Hannah and I discussed it at length after it was announced. It meant, ultimately, nothing because it was a practice, not a try-out. It was probably partially for news coverage. And yet, hideously, it is still progress for women’s hockey.
When it comes to discussing women in the NHL, the most commonly agreed probability is that if any team took a chance on a female player, it would be a goalie. Forwards and especially defensemen are seen as well behind the male athletes. And maybe that’s true (something I’ll get to in a moment). But I don’t think the Ducks would have invited Knight if they thought she would be embarrassingly outmatched. It means they think she can keep up with the men for at least one practice. It also means, assuming the PR element is as strong as I think it was, that the Ducks see an interest among hockey fans in women players and value in pitting them against men as equals. It means that they are promoting women’s hockey to their own audience as well as the young players in their area (Knight’s practice was in conjunction with her guest-coaching the Lady Ducks, a girls’ team sponsored by the Ducks).
This is progress.
Knight says she was “like a sponge” absorbing all the new information she could to improve her own game.
I want to be careful how I discuss the idea of women in the NHL, because I don’t see it as “the women’s teams aren’t good/interesting enough.” I still want women’s teams to exist, but the idea of the NHL is that it is the best hockey has to offer. It doesn’t matter if you’re Russian, Canadian, Norwegian, or an imaginary Japanese player: if a general manager thinks you’re worth the chance, then you deserve to be in the NHL. I just find the persistent use of women’s players as a novelty while constantly saying “women can’t keep up with men in professional hockey” to be somewhat sickening, and it will always make any woman practicing with a men’s team feel like a PR stunt to me, regardless of intent.
In 1998 and 1999, Bobby Clarke was so impressed by Hayley Wickenheiser that he invited her to the Flyers’ rookie camps. Wickenheiser doesn’t think it’s realistic to imagine women’s hockey players in the NHL, and it could be that she’s right, but then, no one has ever tested that theory. She later played in a Finnish men’s league, becoming the first woman to score in a men’s professional hockey game. Bruce Boudreau said, after having Knight in practice with his team, that he thinks she might be able to play in an NHL exhibition game. People acknowledge that women are getting there in terms of skill and speed; the one thing people always come back to is size and physicality.
I have a draft of a post for this blog sitting somewhere about short players in the NHL, a surprisingly deep list considering how many people claim this is a sport all about size and that size equals physicality. Last night I watched the 5’7″ Mats Zuccarello take on the 5’11” T.J. Oshie. I’ve watched the 5’8″ Brendan Gallagher go after Zdeno Chara, who in addition to being more than a foot taller than Gallagher is also about 80 pounds heavier than him. Average size is going up, sure, but smaller players are still able to find a way to carve out a place in this league if they have the skill. And there are tall, strong women’s players like Hilary Knight who at 5’11” and 172 lbs is exactly the same height and weight as Claude Giroux.
The other problem I have is the insistence that women are not capable of playing the NHL game. We don’t actually know this. Women are frequently separated from their male peers fairly young these days (and when they aren’t, they don’t exactly crash and burn – teenager Jincy Dunne plays with boys’ teams in addition to girls’ teams and does well on both) and aren’t given training equivalent to them due to lack of funding or attention for women’s sports in general. They aren’t taught or trained or coached to play the men’s game, so of course right now they might find it difficult to adjust. Women are taught to play a less physical game than the men and to gear their game more towards international play, since that’s where women’s hockey thrives the best. So how do we really know if women are incapable of playing the “men’s” game if we never even give them the resources to try?
Many moons ago, back during the Olympics, I talked about the problem with women’s professional hockey essentially coming down to money. Caitlin Cahow describes life as a women’s hockey player as “living perpetually in the movie Slap Shot.” As I said, I don’t see “the men’s league” as the ultimate goal for any female athlete. I see women getting compensated for their play as the ultimate goal. I see having the very best of the best in the NHL as the ultimate goal. And having prominent women like Hilary Knight, Julie Chu, Caroline Ouellette, and Anne Schleper associated with various Girls Play Hockey days across the US and Canada is one way to grow the sport so that it eventually can get the respect it deserves.
I still have to say that a team inviting a women’s player to practice with them as part of these events is misleading if they don’t intend to follow through on the implied promise that women could be able to play in the NHL. As I write this, it’s been announced that Anne Schleper will be practicing with the Tampa Bay Lightning (them again??) on Monday. I like it; I like that these teams are giving time to female athletes and that young girls can see their favorite women’s players with their favorite NHL teams. But I also hate the idea of that young fan reaching the age of eleven or thirteen or fifteen and realizing that she will never lift the Stanley Cup; that the best she can ever hope for is Olympic gold and that she might get some of her expenses covered by sponsorships. I hate that the teams use this hope of making it to the big league to promote the sport to girls while saying that women can never hope to keep up with the men. All I can do is hope Schleper and Knight and Szabados and Raty – and everyone else – prove them wrong.