When my friend Emily asked me if I wanted to go with her to the last Boston Blades game of the season against the Toronto Furies, I immediately replied that I would. As someone who loves hockey but hates crowds, the CWHL is my ideal venue. It’s a cheap way to get great seats and support women’s hockey, and I was there, never mind that I’d have to miss a Penguins/Flyers game to do so.
Despite low turnout (I would guess between 50-100 people there), the game was a good, fast-paced event. Boston looked to dominate early, scoring 26 seconds in, but Toronto fought back to keep it going back and forth the entire time, and tied it up at 3 with 1:58 to go, sending the game into overtime. In overtime, Kelli Stack scored the winning goal for Boston, capping off an excellent game for her as well as fellow Olympian Hilary Knight, who racked up 2 assists. I’ve only been to a few live hockey games in my life, and perhaps it was the ice-level seats that did it, but I found this game to be far and away the most engaging and exciting of any game I’ve ever attended.
The crowd, though small, was clearly into the game and strongly pulling for Boston. But what stuck out was that the crowd was almost entirely female. A large contingent of the Merrimack women’s hockey team was there. There was a group of girls who were honorary captains from the Boston Jr. Eagles. A toddler ran around in a tiny team USA jersey. So did a girl in a Boston College sweatshirt. And a small group of girls from the NEGHL got handed a game stick by Hilary Knight and were over the moon when they got it signed by her as well. Before coming to this game it had never struck home to me how much these women are heroes to these girls. Perhaps it’s because I was always terrible at sports and played them at the lowest possible level, so the idea of wanting to emulate an athlete was completely foreign to me, but I thought that the modest venue would detract from these women’s hero status. But if the very long lines for autographs and pictures after the game was anything to go by, it didn’t seem to matter to these girls that these women were playing in a college rink for no money to a small crowd, they were playing the game they loved professionally, and that made them worthy of admiration.
On the way home, Emily and I puzzled over the sparse crowd. The game, after all, was well-played and engaging, and certainly more satisfying than the Pens game I missed. The problem, we decided, was that no one really knows the CWHL exists, unless they’re truly hardcore fans of hockey or a young girl playing hockey in a girl’s league. That combined with the trek out to North Andover is a crowd-killer.
With that being said, we just as easily hit upon a solution to the problem – if the NHL was affiliated with and promoted women’s teams, their profile would go up immediately. Women’s teams should be able to be affiliated with their city’s corresponding men’s team (or, in Brampton’s case, the Leafs could be affiliated with both them and the Furies) and men’s teams should be doing all they can to promote the women’s game. After all, women make up a third of hockey’s fanbase, according to a recent study published by the Atlantic, and girl’s hockey is rapidly on the rise. Future fans therefore are going to be more female, and if going to this game proved anything ot me, it’s that these fans are going to want heroes that aren’t just men playing hockey. Easy things the NHL could do for the CWHL are announcing their games at professional games, the same way they announce minor league games. They could showcase women’s scrimmages in between periods, instead of midget hockey. Teams without a corresponding women’s team, either in the CWHL or otherwise, could offer to host and/or cover travel costs to bring in and showcase CWHL teams. And it would cost an NHL team very little to donate practice rinks and ice time so women can have permanent home rinks that are easily accessible by public transportation, or at least aren’t so far out of the way. (The game I attended was about an hour’s drive out of Boston, with no public transportation running anywhere near it.) All of this costs next to nothing for the NHL but leads to a more open, accepting, and comfortable atmosphere for women to feel like they’re really part of the game the way men are.
Women’s hockey, as it is, is good, but it can be better. Female athletes should be paid, for one thing, and they should be playing to larger crowds. And not because of some concept of equality or just because that’s what’s fair, but because there are thousands of little girls like the ones who are at the game who deserve to see their heroes play.