I learned about the existence of ice girls long before I ever attended an NHL game. I was told that the ice girls were kind of like cheerleaders—but not, because some teams had those to. They had spangled outfits and short skirts and were awful, all of them, awful. I first encountered arguments against the existence of ice girls back in the pre-season, but as recently as this past Friday, ice girls have been described as “soft core porn with team logos.”
Whenever I see a group of women criticizing another group of women, I like to ask why before I settle down on either side of the debate. Something that bothered me in general about the ice girl debate was that nowhere did we hear from any actual ice girls. So, to get a look at the ice girl drama from the other side, I spoke with Karly Ratzenberger, life long hockey fan, professional model, and member of the Columbus Blue Jackets ice crew.
It was a friend who suggested to Karly that she try out for the ice crew.
“I thought, I can skate. I love hockey,” Karly says. “Okay, I’ll give it a shot.”
At open auditions, Karly and other ice crew hopefuls were put through rigorous skating drills, designed to determine if the skater could maneuver the ice with the ice crew issued shovels.
“It’s hard,” Karly says. “I played hockey for a lot of my life. Pushing that shovel is ten times harder than carrying a hockey stick.”
The ice crews have to tend to the ice three times a period. They have to skate well, push the heavy shovel, collect the ice, lift the ice into a bucket, and then get off the ice quickly, so play can resume. I have difficulty texting and walking at the same time—ice girls have to remain poised while doing something complicated and athletic.
Of course shoveling the ice is only one part of the job.
“We’re also required to interact with fans and promote the team,” Karly says.
It’s this second aspect of the ice girl job that seems to attract the most anger.
In an article published on Puck Daddy, former Buffalo Sabres beat reporter Melissa Geschwind wrote, “the ice girls’ presence both in and out of the arena [is a sign that] teams think their on-ice product—the actual hockey—isn’t enough.”
When I ask Karly about this, she says it’s not quite that simple. She uses the Detroit Red Wings as an example. They have people who shovel the ice, but they’re strictly rink management staff.
“They don’t have a promotional team because they don’t need a promotional team,” Karly says. “Historically they’ve had enough fans and support that they haven’t had to generate it from the community.”
It’s hard for the hockey-crazed amongst us to understand how it could be difficult to convince people to attend an NHL game. But for teams like the Stars and the Columbus Blue Jackets, located in states where hockey culture is still growing, it can be tough to get fans in the seats.
“It’s just one more thing to get people to come to the games,” Karly says.
Going to a hockey game is a visceral experience—a full on assault of the senses. You have the popcorn and the beer, the sea of screaming fans, the voiceless announcers telling us to “make some noise” and clap along to hava nagila of all things, and you have ice girls.
Are the ice girls any better or worse than the other ingredients that go into a live NHL production?
I wonder what Geschwind would make of a woman like Karly. Confident and secure in expressing her sexuality, Karly wears a revealing uniform as part of her role with the Columbus Blue Jackets, has been a hockey fan all her life, and played hockey for the women’s team at Northern Michigan University.
To be fair, I think Geschwind’s article is symptomatic of a larger problem.
Female hockey fans suffer under a nefarious and relentless scrutiny that other (male) fans don’t. The second women express interest in hockey we’re told we can’t actually like the sport. We’re only interested in hockey because of the cute guys.
Our natural response is to over-correct. We memorize stats and pour over the game—we become extreme fans to escape ridicule.
We learn how to spot the fake fans—the puck bunnies with their heavy make up and their high heels and their pink jerseys.
In our paranoia, ‘fake female fans’ look an awful lot like ice girls.
So we lash out.
“I tripped once on national television,” Karly says. She’d been wearing skate guards and temporarily forgot that fact. When she went onto the ice to collect pucks after warm ups, she fell.
A female fan who witnessed Karly’s tumble tweeted: “to the ice tart who fell, you’re an idiot.”
When women become hockey fans, we’re encouraged to first police our own sexuality, and then police the sexuality of others.
So we assume ice girls are only in it to bag themselves hockey players. We obsess over their outfits—our entire argument devolving to ‘but why the short skirt?’
We do things like walk up to Karly, dressed in her ice crew uniform, and with a dark look in our eye and a smirk we tell her, “You must be so cold.”
“I know what you actually mean when you’re saying that,” Karly says. Which is, ‘you’re showing too much skin and you should be ashamed.’
In regard to their uniform, Karly says, “[the] outward display of sexuality has nothing to do with sleeping around. It has to do with the celebration of us as women. That’s it.”
And as far as the whole “sleeping the players” thing goes—Karly tells me that the CBJ ice crew isn’t actually allowed to interact with the Blue Jackets players.
“I think it’s stupid that instead of educating our sons, we’re punishing our daughters,” Karly says. Telling them what not to wear, what they should wear, and how they should feel about it.
“That gets to me.”
Geschwind argues that the ice girls are part of the overall institutionalized sexism in the NHL. I’m not here to argue whether or not the NHL is sexist—though there’s plenty of proof that it is. I’m here to argue that of all the ways to sell the idea that the NHL is sexist, attacking ice girls isn’t the right way or the best way. It’s the easy way.
It’s click bait. It’s guaranteed to stir up some controversy and in the end point out exactly nothing new or interesting that could further the cause of feminism in the NHL.
Geschwind was content to spend paragraphs railing against ice girls, but what seemed to go unnoticed by her or her readers was the larger problem that, of the five or so NHL franchise officials she spoke with, only one was a woman.
Lets spend more time talking about that. Lets find a way to get more women into positions with the league and with successful franchises. Lets support and applaud players like goalie Shannon Szabados, now playing with a men’s team in Georgia. Lets inspire more fans to attend CWHL games and cheer on female hockey players.
And lets spend less time complaining about the length of ice girls’ skirts.
To Karly what attracted her to the job as an ice girl is what keeps her optimistic about what she does, despite the criticisms.
“We get comments, people are mean,” she acknowledges. “But […] we get to interact with young fans. We have kids who look up to us and we are role models, regardless of what our uniforms are.”
She cites one event with the Blue Jackets as particularly memorable—a skating clinic with the girl scouts. The ice crew joined the young girls on the ice, teaching them, getting them excited about skating and hockey. The girl scouts, future hockey fans, were surrounded by optimistic and smiling ice girls—all of whom have other jobs. Karly tells me one is a nurse, another is a law student, and yet another is a full time nanny.
“They’re real girls,” Karly says, reminding me of something that critics of ice girls sometimes too easily forget.
At the end of the day, for Karly, the point is promoting the Blue Jackets and getting the next generation interested in hockey.
“[It’s] the best thing we could possibly be doing,” she says.