Women and Hockey, Pink Hats and Equality

I was 6 years old the first and last time I wore a hockey jersey to school. It was a gorgeous retro Calgary Flames jersey and I had found it in a bag of hand me down clothes my uncle had brought to our house. I instantly loved it and was desperate to wear it to school to show off that I had a Flames jersey because my friends who were boys were always talking about the Flames and Theoren Fleury and I just wanted to fit in. flames logo 1980 - 1994They had to settle for t-shirts and sweatpants printed with logos but my white jersey was the real deal with a beautiful flaming ‘C’ stitched onto the front and the bright red stripes sewn on around the arms.

On the day I wore my first hockey jersey, I slipped it on and walked to school, proud as can be. I got to the school and one of the boys that played hockey for a local team stared at me as I walked onto the playground. I saw his eyes narrow as his friends began to notice what I was wearing. He came over to me, jabbed me in the shoulder and said loudly and directly into my face “The Flames are a bad team. My dad says you dumb girls don’t know anything about hockey and now I know he’s right.” I was stunned as I stood there, feeling my face get hot as my cheeks grew tomato red. His friends began to laugh at me and make comments about how girls are “stupid” and don’t know anything. I watched in silence as the boy who informed me that the Calgary Flames were a bad team stooped to pick up his very own Calgary Flames backpack off the ground and head into the school.

I paused a bit, as thoughts ran through my mind. I debated taking the jersey off since I was wearing a white turtleneck underneath it, hiding it and pretending I didn’t know what he was talking about when he brought it up, as he would inevitably do. I was baffled. It wasn’t like I didn’t watch hockey at all either. I knew exactly who Theo Fleury was and why they thought he was great because I thought he was pretty funny too.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lD0z-5yL0O4

I ended up wearing that jersey for the entire day, ignoring the stares of the boys in my class who still couldn’t believe that I had the nerve, as a girl, to wear a hockey jersey to school and the girls who couldn’t believe that I was even thinking anything about hockey when there were My Little Ponies to play with. I walked home, went into my room, took the jersey off and stuffed it into the back of my closet. I never wore it, or any other hockey jersey, to school again.

In all honesty, I even gave up on hockey after that. What did I know? I was just a girl, after all, and it was clear that I was not welcome.

Less Than, Never Equal To

What I didn’t realize then was that I had experienced something that would become a recurring theme in my life once I began getting involved in writing about hockey. Female fans are often seen as not being intelligent enough to grasp the concepts behind hockey and while this is wrong, these thoughts are still perpetuated among certain groups of men within the hockey industry. Certain men feel like women talking hockey is an abomination as it’s not “their place.”

Hockey doesn’t need to be dumbed down for women to understand it. If someone is interested in something, they will do whatever they have to in order to learn about it, and the same goes for hockey. In THW’s Massive Hockey House (an open group of hockey fans on facebook), a question was posed on where and when people became interested in hockey. None of the answers from any of the women group participants indicated anything less than an intense interest in the sport itself as it is today. There are many educated women within the world of hockey who are providing excellent insight into the sport, the players and their favorite team. From Sarah Connors, who runs SB Nation’s Stanley Cup Of Chowder, to The Hockey Writers own female authors, women are proving that they are capable of providing intelligent insight into hockey with accuracy when it comes to statistics and facts.

The Feminization of the Male Player

In addition to the perpetuating thought that females are less than males because they can’t possibly know anything about a “man’s sport” is the feminization of male players. Inferring that Sidney Crosby is weak by calling him “Cindy Crysby” is just as detrimental to the role of females in the hockey world as blatantly stating that they are dumber than men is. I understand and embrace trash talking as an inherent part of hockey and expect that fans will always make fun of players on opposing teams. What I take umbrage with is that the use of this term implies that he’s a girl and is therefore less than the rest of the men on the team. Regardless of intent behind this taunt, whether it’s used on the ice to throw Sidney off his game or among fans to mock his style of play or personal characteristics, the underlying connotation remains the same: being a girl is less desirable than being a boy.

Hockey players themselves are not immune to applying feminine connotations to males involved in any facet of hockey in an effort to make them appear lesser opponents. In March, current Washington Capital Dustin Penner posted a few tweets directed at a male fan who send him a comment making fun of him.

I do not include the above tweets to shame Dustin Penner in any way and do not intend to place any judgement on him, I simply wonder if he grasped the underlying connotation of the words he chose in that instant. Comments such as these are unnecessary and there are different ways of getting your point across without using gender as an insult. Sean McIndoe wrote on the need for change in regards to how we mock other team’s players:

That’s not even some sort of call for civility, because cruelly mocking other team’s star players, with no regard for reality or even basic human decency, is a cherished part of hockey fandom and we should continue to embrace it. It’s just a call for creativity. As hockey fans, we all hate everyone and want to make sure they know it. Let’s see if we can manage to do that without taking down 50 percent of the population in the cross fire.

Against Each Other

The above comments from men speak to one problem faced by women within hockey, but there’s another facet to this discussion that would be improper to not include in this piece. Very often, females attack other females that they perceive to be detrimental to their own status within their love of the sport. A female fan who is perceived to be less than more dedicated fans of the sport face discrimination from those of their own gender.

This often occurs because female hockey fans don’t want to be lumped in with those they see as being lesser fans of the sport. It’s a way of proving dominance over those who are possibly just casual watchers, or those who only watch for the good looking men. If a girl can’t rattle off stats, positions and names of players at the drop of a hat, they are shamed with terms like “pink hat” and “puck slut” and separated from the rest of the females who know more than they do. If those females who adore the sport are offended by men who speak against them being involved in hockey, then why is it acceptable for them to turn around and do the same to others in order to prove their own dominance?

This need to prove that we, as females, are just as knowledgeable about hockey as males are leads us to shun those that we perceive as untrue fans. If we are trying to prove our intelligence by knocking down others, how smart are we really proving ourselves to be? Women shouldn’t have to feel the need to shame other women for saying things about hockey that are inaccurate in order to comfort themselves with the knowledge that they may be women, but at least they’re smarter than the other girls. Some girls enjoy watching hockey with their boyfriends or husbands and don’t feel the need to engage in the sport on their own time. Some women only watch the playoffs because they feel it’s more exciting. Whatever way women choose to consume, or not consume, the sport shouldn’t open them up to judgement from others who watch year round and enjoy talking hockey on a daily basis.

Prove It

Very often, female fans are challenged to prove that they know hockey when they mention they like the sport via rapid fire questions aimed at catching them out as being uneducated. Jessica Merighi wrote an excellent guest post on Days Of Y’Orr in which she listed a few common questions male fans tend to ask and answered them as such:

“As a woman, if you answer anything outside of “I’ve been watching (sport) my whole life. My favorite player is someone obscure from the 90’s. My dad got me into it. I majored Sports Theory in college and no I have not slept with a player.” you’re seen as a “Pink hat,” a term used for women who are not fans of the sport but watch games for some random stupid reason, like their boyfriend.”

This challenging of knowledge is something a male fan doesn’t have to go through, or at least not very often. It’s typically widely accepted that male fans are just inherently knowledgeable about hockey. It’s also widely acceptable if a male fan indicates that they don’t know as much about hockey as other males. They don’t have as much to prove as women fans do, but maybe it’s because they don’t necessarily feel the need to prove anything to others when it comes to their knowledge of sports. Perhaps they just don’t care because they aren’t labeled with a derogatory term, regardless of its accuracy, if they fail to provide instant knowledge of the sport, its players and its teams. Males can be casual fans. Women are Pink Hats.

When I was in high school, I sat next to current Toronto Maple Leafs player Joffrey Lupul in Social Studies class. I sat behind current St. Louis Blues player Jay Bouwmeester in English. I made it a point to not talk to either of them too much, lest I be seen as trying to sleep with either of them. lupulI shared homework and jokes with Joffrey and exchanged pleasantries with Jay, but nothing beyond that for fear of not being taken seriously. What I really wanted to ask them was where they hoped to be drafted to and what they thought their chances were of making it in the NHL but I wouldn’t have dared to ask anything like that at that point in time. Now that hockey is a large part of my life, I realize that I should have taken the chance to ask those questions when I had the opportunity, but as a female high school student I simply could not risk it. Any female that indicated that they were interested in hockey at all was shamed with the label “Tiger Tail” (our local equivalent of Puck Slut) and called hateful things behind their backs because trying to have sex with a player was the only reason a girl could possibly want to talk hockey with the boys.

What I Now Know

I don’t claim to speak for all female hockey fans or writers, but I know there are some that are out there like me. When I first started writing, I agonized over every little detail, researching facts that I already knew just to be sure that I was getting my information right because I wasn’t going to be known as a “dumb girl writer.” I placed a lot of pride in my writing ability and my accuracy to the point that it was starting to become a detriment to my love of the game itself. I found myself constantly checking out things before publishing, from stats to numbers to even spellings of last names. I wasn’t going to be caught out writing anything that wasn’t 100% provable by citing many sources. It was absolutely ridiculous.

I’m now at the point where I wonder why. Why should a female hockey fan have to prove their love of the game to anybody? Why should they have to provide cited sources when talking about a sport? Why should they have to run through the roster, naming players and numbers and line combinations before a other hockey fans, both male and female, will believe that they know what they’re talking about? I’m done with this in my life. I love hockey. It’s a great sport, played by great athletes. I love it because it’s fun. It’s entertaining, surprising and fast paced. I think that should be good enough for the hockey community at large when it comes to accepting females into its ranks.

But what do I know? I’m just a girl.