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Chix with stix:
After only about a hundred years,
women’s hockey is finally getting some respect

When it comes to contact sports, the male argument always ends the same way: “What about her poor, floppy, delicate breasts?”
– From Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League by Cleo Birdwell (nom de plume de Don DeLillo)

If a cultural issue gets lampooned on The Simpsons [1995], you know it’s arrived. In an episode late last year, Lisa Simpson, facing a first-ever F on her report card if she didn’t take up some kind of sport, found herself being groomed to mind the net for her brother’s team. “Lisa,” Homer says, “if the Bible has taught us nothing else – and it hasn’t – it says girls should stick to girls’ sports, such as hot-oil wrestling, foxy boxing, and such-and-such.” “I think women should be able to play any sport men play,” ripostes Marge, “but hockey is so violent and dangerous!”

That pretty much sums up the conventional wisdom about ye olde fairer sexe sharing the conceptual and Zambonified ice with Rocket Richard and 99. But we live in the post-Manon Rhéaume era, a time in which women’s hockey is growing phenomenally fast – and the ensuing friction between the old boys’ network at all levels of hockey and female upstarts tends to produce more heat than light. Herewith, an examination of some of the prevailing idées fixes of women’s hockey.

Women are new to the game

Not so – as Brian McFarlane’s definitive book Proud Past, Bright Future: One Hundred Years of Canadian Women’s Hockey documents, women decked out in sweaters and long skirts were playing shinny (skirty?) as far back as 1891, and some evidence puts the earliest game two years before that. And those women weren’t klutzes, either: As the Ottawa Citizen commented in 1896, “That the Alpha and Rideau Ladies Hockey teams can play the game was well demonstrated at the Rideau rink last night.... Both teams played grandly and surprised hundreds of the sterner sex who went to the match expecting to see many ludicrous scenes and have many good laughs. Indeed, before they were there very long, their sympathies and admiration had gone out to the teams. The men became wildly enthusiastic.”

In 1927, a female goaltender, Elizabeth Graham, wisely decided that her nose, cheekbones, and eyes were worth protecting and donned a wire mask – fully 32 years before Jacques Plante began wearing a mask in all his NHL games. The Rivulettes, a team from Preston, Ontario, ruled the roost in the 1930s, with a flabbergasting won-lost record of 348–2.

In the wake of Rhéaume’s 1991 ascension to pro hockey in Tampa Bay and Erin Whitten’s similar ascension to the Adirondack Red Wings in ’93 [not to mention Kelly Dyer, whose status someone needs to fill me in on], women’s hockey has blown up like a sun going nova. U.S. Amateur Hockey, the sport’s Olympic-level governing body, reports that women-only teams (composed of teenagers, usually) increased in number from 149 in 1990–1991 to 417 in 1993–1994. Numbers of players grew more sharply: 5,533 females in 1990–1991 versus 12,392 in 1993–1994. And those figures don’t include girls and women playing on boys’ and men’s teams, which brings up another idée fixe.

“Integrated” teams will destroy women’s hockey

That, at least, was the contention of those opposing the 1985 case of Justine Blainey, a hockey-loving 12-year-old who could find no all-girl teams in her suburban Toronto community and lobbied to play on a boys’ team, assuming she met fair standards of competence. The team refused, and Blainey’s family launched a sex-discrimination complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which ruled in her favour in 1986. Various appeals took the case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, but Blainey ultimately prevailed.

The fight, however, did not merely pit male players and coaches against women; women themselves disagreed sharply over the proper course of women’s and girls’ hockey. “Full integration for all ages and in all sports will mean drastically reduced opportunities for female athletes,” wrote Fran Rider of the Ontario Women’ Hockey Association in a 1988 magazine article. “With uncontrolled emigration of girls to boys’ teams, girls’ teams will fold, and many girls unwilling or unable to compete with boys will have no chance to play. This is equality?”

Significantly, Blainey’s supporters did not argue that all-female teams should be prohibited, only that girls should be allowed to play on boys’ teams if they so chose and/or if there were no local girls’ teams. And no one was markedly in favour of a kind of reverse affirmative action that would allow boys on girls’ teams.

The dust has settled since that debate took place, and vocal proponents on both sides of the question in the 1980s agree that girls’ and women’s teams have settled into both integrated and segregated camps, with neither side displacing or threatening the other. For example, at last summer’s Gay Games, ice-hockey events included all-female teams (numbering nine), all-male teams (four), and mixed teams (seven); some women played on both women’s and mixed teams.

There are, of course, a host of reasons for a male/female split beyond mere availability of all-girl teams. Says Helen Lenskyj, associate professor in the department of adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and an early Blainey supporter: “You can say all these wonderful things, as I sometimes do, on how the research shows that female-only sports tends to operate on somewhat of a different ethos than men’s sport – there’s more emphasis on fun and enjoyment and cooperation, and less emphasis on competition, that sort of thing.” Still, some girls actually like competition, and Lenskyj says “it’s not my role as a feminist to say you shouldn’t want to play that nasty competitive sport.” And that brings up another preconception.

Women aren’t tough enough for hockey

Lisa Simpson was tough bordering on cruel (“Look! Ralph Wiggum lost his shinguard! Hack the bone! Hack the bone!”), but she’s not exactly real. As McFarlane writes in his book, “Size and strength may be important factors in basketball and football, but in hockey they are both overrated, especially in women’s hockey which, unlike the men’s game, is devoid of goons and enforcers.... What women lack in strength, some athletes contend, they make up for in endurance and toughness. If women can deal with the stress and pain of childbirth... they can deal with anything that happens in a hockey rink. They have, in a word, guts.”

“You do get to that level from a strength and a power standpoint [where] there are differences between the male and the female,” says Karen Kay, head coach of women’s hockey at the University of New Hampshire and head coach of the U.S. national women’s team.

But, Kay points out, there are more variants of hockey than the NHL-style rock-’em-sock-’em that seems to dominate the popular conception of the game. Take women’s elite amateur hockey, in which Canada has taken the gold, the U.S. the silver, and Finland the bronze in each of the world championships in 1990, 1992, and 1994. In the ’92 playoffs in Finland, Canada whumped the U.S. 8-0. Manon Rhéaume made it to the all-star teams in ’92 and ’94, the same year Erin Whitten was named best goalkeeper of the series. The women’s elite game, unsurprisingly, compares favourably with the men’s elite game – more physical than recreational hockey but marred by rather less wilful brutality than the NHL.

“We don’t have full checking, but we do have body contact,” Kay says. “You see a lot of riding out on the boards and angling people off, same as you do in the men’s game, but you don’t see the fighting or the follow-through you see in the men’s [pro] game.” And it’s not as though there isn’t incidental but potentially bruising body contact in women’s elite basketball and soccer, including the European pro leagues. NHL hockey per se may literally be king of the hockey hill at the moment, but itis not the only standard of comparison whether you’re talking about sex-segregated or -integrated teams – and that brings up the final stereotype.

On a guys’ team, women are too small to play anything but goal

It’s no coincidence that Rhéaume, Whitten, and Dyer play goal in the NHL and not some other position. It’s a widely-held belief that, between the goalposts, size and brute strength are less valuable than quick reflexes and agility. Goal, the Toronto Star’s Rosie DiManno wrote in 1992, is “the only position in hockey where an adult female can realistically keep up with an adult male.” While strength is not readily quantifiable without exhaustive tests, the results of which would likely not be made public, size is quantifiable and the stats are available.

Tallying up the heights and weights of current NHL players and all the women on the medal-winning Canadian, U.S., and Finnish world’s teams (filtering out duplicates) reveals that not all NHLers are Shaquille O’Neal–esque, nor are all elite women Linda Hunt–esque.

Height and weight indices of male and female hockey players
SexMeasurementAverage Minimum Maximum Median
Women Height, in. 65 48 70 65
Weight, lb. 139 92 172 139
H+W index 205 140 242 203
Men Height, in. 73 66 78 73
Weight, lb. 194 155 235 195
H+W index 266 223 313 266

(“H+W index” assigns one point for each inch of height and each pound of weight. It’s a way of averaging out the relationship between height and weight.)

There are 35 NHL players smaller (in H+W index) than the largest world-championship woman. Now, that’s a small fraction of the NHL’s 600-odd men, but it ain’t zero. On the other hand, the smallest NHLer is bigger than 90 elite women. While these results do suggest that stereotypes about the impact of body size on hockey carry some weight, they also show that exceptions exist. If there’s room in the NHL for 35 woman-sized men, there ought to be room for a similar number of woman-sized women.

NHL coaches, owners, and scouts (including the first female scout, the San Jose Sharks’ Deborah Wright) are quite simply running out of excuses. But we’re not holding our breath here: By the time women in pro hockey are commonplace, Lisa Simpson will be grown up enough to try out for the Springfield Squids of the NHL. Buy your season tickets early.

Updated 2006.02.13

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