When we talk about hockey greats, we usually name men. When we talk about the greatest trophy the game has to offer, we name the Stanley Cup, a trophy for men. The National Hockey League is the most popular league for Canadians of all genders to watch, but in 100 years of history, only men have played in the regular season and playoff games.
We often forget one aspect of the game, a demographic that makes up a significant amount of fans and players; women and girls.
We know that girls play the sport, we see them lacing up for the first time at learn to skate programs, we watch them take their first shifts playing Timbits hockey. There are girls hockey teams in high schools and universities all over North America. We know that girls play hockey, and for the most part, we set them up for success, however, once these girls become young women, once they graduate post-secondary, that structure becomes weakened.
The very language we use to talk about the sport is catered toward the men’s game. A defensive player is typically called a defenceman even if she is a woman. When a team sends too many players on to the ice, we call it a “too many men” penalty. When a team gets a power play, we may refer to it as the “man advantage.” These are small things, of course, but they are indicative of a larger problem; women in hockey rarely get the recognition and compensation they deserve.
Margot Page has been a pioneering force in women’s hockey for her entire career. In 1990, as a new player, she competed in the first ever IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championships. It was there that she helped win gold for Team Canada. She repeated this success at the following two tournaments in 1992 and 1994. She has been involved as a member of the coaching staff for Team Canada for a number of years, including when Canada won gold at the Torino Olympics in 2006.
Page has seen the strides that the women’s game has made since her time as a player. Even in the last 10 years, she says, the game has grown more than it has in the past.
“It’s night and day,” she said. “I’ve seen it grow ever since I was playing and, the last little while I think everybody’s starting to notice, with the #MeToo movement and with women really trying to have a voice and standing up for themselves, I think there has been a big push and I think women in sport now is sort of the next thing.”
Page is now the head coach of the Brock University women’s hockey team, a job that she started in 2015. Since then she’s turned the team into strong playoff contender and earned the respect and trust of the players. Her resume is certainly impressive, but one might wonder what else she might have been able to accomplish if women’s hockey had been recognized by the IIHF sooner. The Olympics didn’t include a women’s hockey tournament until 1998. It could be asked, how many amazing women’s hockey players slipped through the cracks because there was nowhere for them to show off their abilities, with nowhere for them to compete?
Page believes that media coverage is what will elevate the sport further, she pointed to the three game rivalry series that the United States and Team Canada recently played, which was covered on TSN.
TSN is not the only major sports network dipping their toes into the women’s hockey market. Sportsnet has also begun partnering with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) to air select games. Starting in 2018, the network began to broadcast the playoffs as well as the league’s all-star game. Page believes this is key to putting women’s hockey on the radar.
“I think it just all comes down to marketing and TV rights. If you can do things right you would hope that perhaps the NHL would embrace the women’s game,” said Page.
The NHL shows support for the women’s game in some ways, but there is still far to go. Most CWHL teams have a men’s team that partners with them for events. The Toronto Furies partner with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Calgary Inferno with the Calgary Flames, les Canadiennes with the Montreal Canadiens and so on. This is also true for the CWHL’s American counterpart, the National Women’s Hockey League. The teams often do community events together, sometimes they’ll appear in publicity videos with one another, but until recently there weren’t really any large scale, league wide events that showed this support.
This year, it was announced that the Toronto Maple Leafs and the National Hockey League Players’ Association would partner with the CWHL to bring their All-Star game to the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. The women were given access to the facilities and media coverage was improved as Sportsnet broadcasted the game. This was a huge step in the right direction, and it meant a lot to the fans in attendance; but at the end of the day, the all-star game occurs once a season. There are still over 100 games that do not receive this kind of attention. Their facilities often leave much to be desired, particularly on the broadcast.
Most CWHL and NWHL teams make an effort to stream the majority of their home games, but the arenas they play in are rarely, if ever, set up to accommodate media, and the quality of the media equipment is often poor. Viewers of CWHL games are sometimes forced to endure shaky and out of focus video or low quality audio. Many teams lack the resources to put the time clock alongside the score every game, play by play commentary can also be hard to come by. These are things that NHL fans would take for granted, a bare necessity for a hockey broadcast, but for women’s teams, they are often a privilege.
University hockey is lucky that U Sports mandates all games be streamed, meaning that the men’s and women’s teams receive the same broadcast rights. The fact remains, however, that once women move on to the professional leagues, they struggle to afford basic resources. Things like advanced statistics are completely out of the question when leagues struggle with basic statistics like a shot count for every game.
At the end of the day, it’s funding that’s keeping the women’s game from reaching its full potential.
“Most of the athletes playing for the CWHL and the NWHL, most of them that are “making” any money are doing it through sponsorship,” said Page. “They’re not necessarily doing it through salary.”
It’s not uncommon for professional women’s hockey players to also have full-time jobs. Many players hold jobs as teachers, police officers and coaches. For these women, hockey cannot be a full time job. They are unlikely to reach their full sport potential because they are unable to give their full focus to the game.
This is the sad reality for many young women in hockey, one of whom is Amanda Ieradi. She led the Brock women’s team in power play goals this season, she’s an excellent playmaker, and a strong veteran presence on a team largely made up of younger players. She’s loved the game since she was a young girl, but it’s the ability to make a living that holds her and so many other women back from pursuing athletics after post-secondary.
“If you look at it from a woman’s perspective, like you’re growing up and the main goal is to go play university hockey, because everyone knows, you’re not playing hockey for the rest of your life. You can’t make a career out of it,” said Ieradi.
The CWHL has progressed since it’s inception. They were recently able to start paying players but it’s nothing that a person — let alone an athlete — could live off of. The league has a salary cap of just $100,000 and a maximum salary of $10,000 per season and a minimum of $2,000. The situation is largely the same south of the border with even the best players struggling to make more than $10,000 in salary.
The women’s hockey community is optimistic that this will one day change, but the change will be incremental according to Page.
“I’m hoping in the next 10 years there might be a slight change but it’s going to be a living wage, it’s not going to be anything like the men,” said Page.
There are many young women who might consider athletics a possible career choice if they were fairly compensated for their efforts.
“If they did get paid and I got an education and I got an opportunity then I would take it, see how it pans out, but I also know it’s a lot of work,” said Ieradi.
The minimum salary for a full-time NHL player is $650,000, and even in the minor leagues, players make a minimum of $42,000. Women are not asking for six figure paychecks, they just want to be able to pay their rent, buy groceries and have enough to save at the end of the day.
“I don’t think we’re looking for big salaries,” Page said. “I think we’re just looking at living wages so that you can train for your national teams, you can train every day instead of having a full-time job and training at night and playing hockey at night and also trying to represent your national team.”
The players simply want to be extended the same privileges as their male counterparts, and they are beginning to stand up for themselves. In 2017, the United States women’s national team boycotted international competition until they were given proper funding, training facilities and travel accommodations. The National Women’s Soccer team made a similar stand shortly before the women’s hockey boycott and gained similar rights. Page called these negotiations a “battle,” and an important step forward.
America fell in love with this women’s team after they won gold at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. The team was invited onto the Ellen Degeneres Show, Hilary Knight made an appearance on Saturday Night Live and several members were on the Tonight Show. There is a market for the women’s game, but it needs to be supported more often than the Olympic cycle. These are the women that represent our countries on the world stage, and they struggle to afford basic necessities.
“I don’t know if it’ll happen in my hockey coaching lifetime where you can actually make a living wage besides the Olympic year. In the Olympic year those athletes make a good living wage. They can get their rent paid, they can make some money, they can just train,” said Page.
The Olympics can be a life changing opportunity for a female hockey player, but once the tournament is over, the money stops and many players are left without a fair income.
If the NHL and other men’s leagues are serious about growing the game, then they need to do more. Sharing training facilities, media resources, helping to pay the players, are all small things that would make a world of difference to women’s hockey clubs.
The things that the players are looking for are simple. They’re not asking for millions of dollars, they’re simply asking for equal treatment and equal opportunities in the leagues established for them. They are asking for a better future for young girls who want to grow up to play hockey.
To realize this future we need to give women more opportunities. We need to give young girls more role models. We need them to see female referees, women behind the bench, on the broadcast and driving zambonis. When young people have someone to look up to, their dreams suddenly seem a lot more attainable. They will no longer have to worry about being the first woman to do something, they can just focus on doing it.
The Brock Women’s hockey team makes sure they provide those role models. The Junior Badgers are a girls hockey team that can often be seen running around the rink at Badgers home games. The Badgers do ice sessions with the teams and they mentor the younger girls.
“It’s huge, I wish I would have had that when I was younger,” said Page. At the Badgers annual Pink in The Rink game, the Junior Badgers were invited out onto the ice to play a mini-game during the second intermission
“It’s great when you get a letter back after an event like this saying you know ‘my daughter wants to be a Badger, when she goes to school she wants to go to Brock and play hockey for the Badgers’ and that’s awesome to hear, that just puts a big smile on my face,” said Page after the event.
The young girls who attend Badgers games, or went to the CWHL All-Star game, or the Rivalry series could one day grow up to be the next great hockey players, the next great coaches or trainers. They will become the next generation of analysts, and journalists and officials. They will become the next generation of fans that give the game a reason to exist. Encouraging their passion is important to ensuring the longevity of the sport.
Young girls have passion for the game. Ieradi told the story of the first women’s hockey game she remembers seeing:
“I was in like grade five and they put it up on the big screen,” she said. She couldn’t remember what tournament it was but she decided it must have been the Olympics because everyone seemed to want to pay attention to the women’s game more than usual.
“No one cares to watch women’s hockey which is kind of annoying,” she said with a shrug, but the extra attention paid during the Olympics, when these events are actually given a proper broadcast, just goes to show that people do enjoy these games.
“I don’t remember the specifics, but Wickenheiser was on the team, with Hefford and Gillian Apps and all of them, but they were losing,” she said. She recalled school ending just as the game was going into second intermission, “I sprinted home just to watch the third period and it ended up going to OT after they tied it and we ended up winning. I think that was the first.”
This is the kind of passion that girls can and do bring to the game, but we need to ensure that their passion has somewhere to go.
“If you want your daughter to do this, how can you support this? You gotta get them out to games,” said Page. Supporting young women as they grow up in hockey is vital, we cannot continue letting girls feel like they can’t or shouldn’t play because there’s nowhere for them to make a career.