On January 12, the New York Islanders hosted a Hockey ‘N Heels event in honor (apparently) of Valentine’s Day, which was intended to teach women about hockey. Predictably, this set of a maelstrom of annoyance because honestly, aren’t we past this by now? Apparently not.
I know some people don’t understand why these events bother me and others so much, so I thought I’d break it down for you with a list. Everyone loves a list, right? So let’s get to it.
1. The Islanders are not the only team that have hosted events like this. Often times, the title of these events is something akin to “Hockey and Heels” or “High Heels and Hockey.” If you guessed that our blog title comes from these events, you would be correct. I think I said to Hannah that I wanted something “unapologetically feminine and also faintly violent.” We chose to use the kind of wording the NHL does because we wanted to poke fun at it. Whether or not we’re successful is down to your own personal opinion.
The point I’m trying to make is that NHL teams choose to associate these events with a construct of femininity. Too much jargon? They deliberately pick something “unmanly” to title these events so people know it’s aimed at women, and women only.
2. Which brings me to the point that the usual justification for these events is to bring in new fans to the game. I’m all for that. What I object to is the insistence that these new fans are only women, and the idea that women need to be taught the basics of the game. Not only is this insulting to the numerous women who watch hockey, it’s kind of condescending to the women who don’t. These kinds of events (not just in hockey, too) tend to be pitched as “learn your boyfriend/partner/husband’s favorite sport so you can keep up with the boys.” That way you can please him and he doesn’t have to bother actually talking to you, or something.
3. The use of the word “heels” is also demeaning for a number of reasons. Despite what men may think, many women don’t actually enjoy wearing high heels. I love shoes, and a good third of the shoes I own (let’s not talk about how many pairs that is) are heeled in some way. But when given a choice, I often go with flats unless it’s a particularly special event. Heels are uncomfortable, inconvenient, often fragile, and get stuck in things — grass, subway grates, cobblestones. Yet we’re expected to wear them if we want to be seen as professional or attractive. True, it can feel empowering for a small woman like me to put on five inch heels and suddenly understand how most people see the world, but at the end of the day, I’d rather be wearing flats. Putting “heels” in the title of a women’s hockey event is saying, “We welcome you, but only if you conform to our standards of femininity.”
4. I have no objection to the actual content of most Hockey and Heels events. The 2013 Columbus Blue Jackets one, for instance, sounded truly very interesting. In fact, I don’t necessarily have an objection to women-only hockey events. But don’t make it just about “learning the game.” Open up opportunities for women to learn about scouting, about managing teams, about coaching, about working as a trainer. Women are often excluded from these arenas because they haven’t “played the game” and the all-boys atmosphere can be hugely intimidating to people who are afraid their expertise will be ignored. Give women the opportunity to join in the sport, not just as fans, but as builders, and you’ll see the game grow.
5. At the end of the day, these events just aren’t inclusive enough. If the true intent is to grow the game, the NHL needs to reach out to more demographics. The NHL has one of the least diverse audience of the sports in the US. The demographic is also largely wealthy people, and that’s not a shock to me, because the barrier to entry for even watching hockey is very high. GameCenter costs close to $200 for the season, or $20 a month which, shockingly, isn’t affordable to everyone, and often isn’t worth it with the number of local and national blackouts that happen. In the United States, not many games are broadcast on NBC, and many games are only available locally. Student tickets for the Bruins are fifty dollars. That’s for students.
If the NHL wants to grow the game, they need to lower the cost of fandom. Don’t have events like Hockey ‘N Heels that cost money to join; welcome people to learn about the game, to maybe take a turn on the ice, raffle off Game Center subscriptions. Have mixers to introduce LGBT fans to each other, or women fans. Help people find safe spaces within their team’s fanbase, because that is often difficult and fraught. Above all, make hockey accessible. Make hockey welcoming. Be generous with your knowledge and be considerate of disabilities, of sexuality, of gender. Don’t make women (or anyone else) feel like they’re an unexpected or unwanted demographic that has to be dragged into the sport, because at the end of the day, that comes off more insulting than anything else.
Or maybe just raffle off a free makeover to women, and have the transformation broadcast to everyone in the arena. Because that’s what women go to hockey games for.