The Importance of Growing the Women’s Game

Jed Leicester for YIS/IOC

I recently engaged in a conversation on Twitter about women’s hockey where one user asked why people would watch a “less entertaining” version of the sport. A prominent women’s hockey contributor then said that what makes a level of hockey interesting is up to interpretation, but that many people don’t give it a chance due to women’s hockey involving women.

Someone else then brought up the argument that the NWHL suffers the same issue that the ECHL does in the way that “the product sucks” and that a ” shitty product produces shitty demand”.

Sure, compared to the NHL, most levels of hockey will feel vastly inferior. That’s fine.

There is definitely a lot of people that won’t watch women’s hockey because of gender, but it is hard to deny the skill difference. Overall, a lot of people will agree with that, especially when you see Canada’s women’s team losing to midget teams in Alberta. But this can be attributed to physical difference more than anything, and that’s understandable. That doesn’t take away from the fact that professional women’s hockey players are damn good.

So, let’s look at a tournament that just recently took place among the top prospects in the world. A ton of people will watch the World Juniors, but are those 11-2 games between Slovakia and Kazakhstan really the gripping action that people get excited for? Are the World Juniors really that much better than the U20 Four Nations tournaments or the World Under-18 Hockey Championships that proceeds it?

It’s hard to judge what the public thinks because a large majority of hockey fans don’t even know those tournaments exist. I absolutely love the World Juniors, but I’d argue that, in most years, that the Spengler Cup is a better tournament. But, of course, people ignore it because of the ads on the jerseys or the fact that it’s a bunch of former NHLers instead of legitimate stars, I think that if they got past that, they’d see just how incredible of a tournament it is each year.

I don’t subscribe to the belief that anything below the NHL isn’t worth watching, something that seems to appear during the Spengler Cup or World Hockey Championships. Hockey isn’t even my favourite sport, but I will watch hockey at nearly any level. In person, I’ve covered the NHL, AHL, ECHL, CWHL, World Juniors, World Cup of Hockey, OHL, OJHL, WHL, OUA, GTHL, SCTA, ETA, Alliance, PWHL and probably a few more levels I’ve completely forgotten about. Some of my favourite hockey have come from arguably the lowest level out of all: the minor midget level, looking at players preparing for the OHL draft.

Why? Because the hockey is competitive and the kids have a lot on the line. Their whole career can be dictated about what they do when they’re 15 (well, they can mess things up at any age, but the OHL draft season is some of the most pressure a player can face). There’s a big focus on skill and physicality typically isn’t much of a talking point.

One commenter mentioned that women’s hockey suffers from the fact that it’s not as physical as other levels of hockey. That is true, and while there have been little scuffles between Canada and USA, it’s nothing compared to the amount of physicality seen at an AHL or ECHL game. But if you really go to a hockey game to see someone get concussed, do you truly care about hockey? I like hitting in the game and I’m OK with fighting, but they’re just part of the game. I don’t follow a level of hockey for the physical side of it, just like I don’t go to a game to see how good a team is at making shorthanded line changes. It’s just another aspect of the game.

Also, the fact that women’s hockey players wear cages (which helps teams save money on insurance, by the way) makes them look smart, in my opinion.

If physicality is important to you, fine. But then you’re missing out on truly skilled hockey. Why is it that some of the best hockey players rarely engage in physical bouts? Maybe, just maybe, getting pucks on net results in more scoring chances. The top NHL stars aren’t typically the ones leading in the hits category, are they?

And that’s why women’s hockey is so pure.

But pure hockey isn’t enough to get people to keep going to your games. The truth is that not enough people support women’s hockey at this point in time. It’s no question that the sport has grown exponentially over the past decade, especially with two professional leagues that continue to rise in North America and have earned support from NHL teams and major media outlets.

But the fact of the matter is that there is a lot of room to grow.

My whole thing about women’s hockey is that there is a catch 22 when it comes to growth. For it to thrive, it needs more teams actively being competitive. But how do you convince young girls from Russia, Germany, China and other areas to take part if two teams dominate?

But on the flipside, you can’t have Canada and the United States stay stagnant because that doesn’t grow the game, either. If you’re at a lopsided hockey game, would you rather see a team score a crazy amount of goals or just slow down and play defensively the rest of the way? That’s not any better. The game doesn’t need to stop growing in one area just to let others catch up.

So it’s tough. Dominance isn’t good, but staying still isn’t, either.

But how do you grow the game globally? That’s the issue. There needs to be more money flowing to programs in Russia, Switzerland, Norway, Japan, wherever. But having the necessary funding in the first place is tough, especially if there isn’t a lot to be made (this goes for men’s and women’s hockey programs). I’ve talked to some smaller hockey programs who have said they would love to spend more money to grow their women’s hockey programs but they barely have enough to fund their men’s teams that typically have larger player counts. And in a lot of cases, it’s simply just that: there are more men in most countries that want to play hockey than women.

The women’s game is more global than ever, especially with teams like India and Lebanon investing in programs. It will take time to grow those teams, but that’s a very promising situation. There needs to be money involved in the growth, and to make money, you need people to watch and support the teams.

How do you do that? You need to get the sport out in front of as many people as possible. The best way to do that? Get games televised at a more consistent level. But that’s also the problem.

I watch a ton of endurance sportscar racing — I’m talking races like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Bathurst and even some of the more obscure ones, like the 24 Hours of Dubai and 25 Hours of Thunderhill. Every time, there will be people that will ask why bigger networks aren’t covering it or why the networks that are showing the races are just moving the races among their different channels.

The simple fact of the matter is that TV networks like money, obviously. But there needs to be a solid enough of a market to sell the product to in order for them to consider doing it.

Let’s be real with ourselves: if we’re looking at Canada only, the country is really fickle when it comes to supporting teams outside the NHL, especially in the Greater Toronto Area where the market is quite saturated. There’s a reason why, outside of the NHL, games involving other leagues, whether it be junior, minor pro, etc., is rare to find on TV. Heck, the World Juniors are very popular in North America, yet other great events, like the Under-18’s and World Championships, are ignored by a large majority of fans.

So, if you’re not the NHL, fighting for television space is a tough task, no matter what league you’re from. Women’s hockey may have it even harder due to the pre-conceived notions that the sport isn’t as good as the men’s side. Again, that’s all due to personal opinion, but it’s something that will take a lot of work to get people to change their opinions.

I know a ton of people would have loved to see the Under-18 Women’s Hockey Championships aired on television, even if just for a game or two. But with the tournament being in Japan, the games were in the middle of the night, which makes airing the tournament in North America a bit of a challenge. Had the men’s World Championship played their games in the middle of the night in Canada or the United States, good luck attracting any form of a viable fanbase to support it (let me be clear: this would be an issue for any international tournament, not just a junior women’s event). I’m glad the games were at least streamed online for free in high quality, with replays available for free immediately after the game without any rights holders taking them down after.

And there are definetly more people gravitating towards watching women’s hockey on a more consistent basis. Nearby me, the Toronto Furies (albeit in a terrible location for fans to get to), the Markham Thunder and the junior-level PWHL all are rather close to me. Part of how you grow the game at these levels is streaming games online, and while the CWHL does that, I think the promotion of the live coverage is quite poor by the league and teams involved. I know a few of the production teams that stream the games and I still can’t tell you off hand where the games are available, and I watch a TON of hockey (including cell phone streams of games in Mexico and Argentina).

The fact that the games are streamed is perfect, and while I know that teams would rather fill up the stands, you need to get the fans excited at home first. That’s the same thing about junior hockey: imagine how many more people would be exposed to leagues like the OJHL and BCHL if it didn’t cost $250 for a streaming package with below-average production in many rinks and inadequate quality control?

I think the inclusion of some of the top women’s hockey players at the NHL All-Star Game was huge, because a large portion of fans following the event likely haven’t watched the sport since the Olympics (and even then, the gold-medal game was quite late at night). That’s the type of exposure that needs to happen on a more regular basis. I can’t speak to how much the NHL has offered to help the NWHL or CWHL, but regardless, showing what some talented players are capable of is fantastic for future growth and didn’t hurt the NHL in any way. So, truly, it was a win-win.

I think having players such as Kendall Coyne Schofield and Brianna Decker take centre stage during an important time for the NHL is absolutely huge for women’s hockey. Not only did they show that they were fantastic hockey talents, they showcased to a mainstream hockey audience that there are some quality women’s hockey players not named Natalie Decker or Hilary Knight. Not that that would be a surprise to those who follow the sport year-round, but the more players that can take centre stage, the better.

I cover junior hockey. I know how great the hockey can be. Same goes for the World Hockey Championships and men’s level international hockey. There’s a reason I don’t watch the NHL solely: there’s some incredible hockey all around the world. But convincing people to watch something else is a battle I’ve given up on trying to fight.

I feel for the women’s hockey fans and writers who continue to cover the sport with enthusiasm, yet often see their sport seen as a novelty by the masses. It’s not fair. Good hockey is good hockey. I’ll watch a bantam hockey game just because the action can be fantastic. You don’t need the best of the best at both ends of the ice to have a fun, exciting hockey game.

There are some people doing some great work to grow the game. Melissa Burgess, for example, created the Women’s Hockey Media Association, a group I’m pleased to be a member of, that is working to build media standards when it comes to leagues such as the CWHL and NWHL. The treatment of the CWHL, where media weren’t allowed in the media box for the CWHL All-Star Game and were left in the dark on a variety of other issues, as a black eye for a league that needs more exposure, not less. Other writers I enjoy following include Leighann Strollo, Nathaniel A. Oliver, Kirsten Whelan and Hannah Bevis, among others.

To keep the game moving, we need to keep talking about women’s hockey, and not in a human interest kind of way. Those stories are great, but that shouldn’t be everything you read about the sport. Talk about the players as if they’re hockey players and not a charity case, because they are truly hockey players.

This post isn’t to say you’re stupid if you don’t follow women’s hockey, and it isn’t even to tell you to watch it, either. It’s to point out that growing the game is a tough task, but we’re on the right path to future growth. The first women’s hockey tournament at the Olympics took place just over 20 years ago, and since then, there’s been very impressive growth.

I don’t think women’s hockey fans are looking for leagues like the CWHL or NWHL to get as much attention or focus as the NHL. I don’t think any league will ever come close to that. But what they do want is respect and for fans to take it seriously, because the players sure as hell do.

A future where young girls can see themselves making a career out of hockey, or at least achieving a high level of success in order to further inspire other young kids to participate, is a future we should all be looking to help build.