League(s) of Their Own

If you had asked people over ten years ago to name a women’s hockey player they probably couldn’t do it; even with names like Julie Chu, Hailey Wickenhouser, Charline Labonte, and Angela Ruggeiro. None of these women are small names and all are extremely accomplished in their own right, but ten years ago women’s hockey wasn’t nearly as big or popular as it is right now.

There have been women who have played in men’s leagues, who have joined them in tryouts, exhibition games, and practices. Shannon Szabados, Hilary Knight, and Manon Rhéaume just to name a few. Even though Knight is one of the best women hockey players in the game, she will probably never be seen in the starting lineup for an NHL game. While Szabados did play in a men’s league it was the lower-tiered SPHL. And Rhéaume just played in one period of one exhibition game in 1992 and then another one in 1993. All these women are Olympic medalists and have done so much for the game.

But times are different now. There have been no women in exhibition games or NHL practices for a while now. In North America, there’s not many women playing in men’s leagues. It sounds discouraging at first, the fact that theses women have nowhere to play.

Until you remember there is not one, but two professional women’s hockey leagues in North America. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the National Women’s Hockey League.

The CWHL just completed its tenth season where the Les Canadiennes took home the Clarkson Cup after making the finals three years in a row and not winning. The Canadiennes team includes a few names like Marie-Philip Poulin, Caroline Ouellette, and Julie Chu. The CWHL All-Star game was held at the Air Canada Centre with almost seven thousand fans and the CWHL Clarkson Cup Final was expected to draw almost four thousand fans.

In the spring I went to the NCAA Men’s Hockey Regionals in Cincinnati where there were probably a few thousand people, if that. When people say women’s hockey doesn’t sell they are lying to you.

The CWHL, starting next season, will have a new team in China that will be owned by the Kunlun Red Star hockey club of the Kontinental Hockey League. Kelli Stack, Noora Räty, and Zoe Hickel will be paid as “Sports Ambassadors”. There is no information yet if all players in the CWHL will be paid as hockey players, although the goal was to pay their players this coming season. We’ll have to wait and see what the numbers are later this summer or fall.

In the United States there is the National Women’s Hockey League that a few months ago saw its second season finish with the crowning of the Buffalo Beauts as Isobel Cup Champions. The Beauts were the underdog three seed, defeating the New York Riveters before completing the upset against the undisputed number one seed Boston Pride.

The Beauts have a few names from the United States Women’s National Team that might sound familiar; Megan Bozek, Emily Pfalzer, and Brianne McLaughlin, who made sixty saves in the Isobel Cup Final.

While the NWHL is fairly new and still growing, there’s lots of reason to think that it will be growing even more. Director of the NWHLPA, Anya Battaglino, said, “Pittsburgh is such a strong place for women’s hockey. And there are so many places that could substantiate a women’s team and continue to help grow and develop the game.” Making it seem like Pittsburgh is next on the NWHL’s radar, although Commissioner Dani Rylan said the league would not add an expansion team until the 2018-2019 season, so after the next up coming season.

In February, the NWHL had their All-Star Game in Pittsburgh! I was actually able to go with my fiancé and one of our friends and it was a great time. They had the skills competition which was lots of fun and then an autograph session on Saturday, then on Sunday was the actual game. Tickets for the All-Star Game were sold out in advance and it got very loud inside the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

There weren’t seven thousand people there, but for a league in only its second season there were lots of people there from all ages and genders.

These leagues are just the beginning for women’s hockey in North America. These leagues will only open the door to thousand more women hockey players graduating from college who wouldn’t have had an opportunity to play otherwise. Non-National Team players are getting publicity and popularity that they wouldn’t have seen otherwise. The women in these leagues also set up their own skills camps during the summer where they help young girls develop. Women’s hockey is growing, not just professionally, but from top to bottom.

These leagues are exactly what the hockey world needs right now to show that every kid who plays hockey, not just the boys, can become a professional hockey player.

We don’t need women playing in men’s leagues, although if they want to that’s perfectly okay, to show that these women can flat out play. We need leagues of their own.

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Hey NCAA, Women’s Hockey is Still Hockey

Almost a week ago the NCAA Ice Hockey Twitter account tweeted asking how they can make the account better. They were probably expecting answers that included stats, standings, and general Twitter hijinks. What they got instead was a discussion that spread throughout the hockey Twitter world, especially among those who cover women’s (college) hockey.

In a thread by Nicole Haase, she brings up many points on how the NCAA Ice Hockey Twitter account continually disregards the women. One of the biggest points was how none of their graphics ever include the women. This tweet celebrates the seniors, but not one of the pictures used is any of the women. Do you know how many amazing senior women players there were at the time? They could’ve used Patty Kazmaier winner Ann-Renée Desbiens or finalist Lara Stalder. One of the main complainants when it comes to women’s hockey is that women don’t get nearly the same level of exposure. Just putting a couple women on a graphic makes a difference; not only does it share the love for the women players and the game, it puts the two on equal footing and are shown as equals in hockey.

The NCAA Ice Hockey Twitter also only tweeted about the Women’s Frozen Four final twice. One to announce the final was on TV. The second to announce Clarkson as the champions. The Men’s Frozen Four final was livetweeted. According to Twitter user Er N Space Museum the Men’s Frozen Four averaged 50 tweets a game, while the Women’s Frozen Four averaged .50 a game. This ties into the idea of marketing and exposure, how are people suppose to get interested in women’s college hockey if the official NCAA hockey twitter only tweets about it when only something major happens? People want to see more women’s hockey, just look at the replies to the original tweet where the NCAA asked how they could make the account better.

People say that people don’t care about women’s hockey, that no one wants to see about it, but if there’s leagues, articles, blogs about it people flock to them. The Ice Garden on SBNation has over two thousand followers on Twitter and they just created the site last year. The NWHL has over twenty-five thousand followers and the CWHL has over sixteen thousand. If people keep seeing it on their dashboard, by a retweet or if they follow the account – like the NCAA account where they aren’t expecting women’s hockey – they’ll take an interest in it. It’s exactly how I got interested in hockey to begin with.

It’s not impossible to ask that the NCAA Ice Hockey account tweet more about women’s hockey, tweet it on the same level as the men’s and more followers will come. Even if more followers don’t come, they still need to be tweeting about women’s hockey, because they aren’t just an account that covers men’s.

If the NCAA prides itself on equality, they need to do a better job of showing it.