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Hilary Knight

(photo:commons.wikimedia.org)

There are lot of things you can be pretty good at, for a girl. Science, for example. Math. Video games. Comedy.

Sports.

In hockey, to be pretty good (for a girl) means growing up most likely playing with boys, because there’s no girls league–or no girls league that receives even half the funding of the boys’. It likely means having a full or part-time job in addition to playing hockey professionally, for lack of paying options. It means losing out on training time, it means taking time off school, it means working your whole life for something that, until recently, the vast majority of people only cared about every four years.

Of course, what it really means is giving up the thing you love before you’re ready.

“I look at the boys and men who play [hockey],” said USA Olympic silver medalist Hilary Knight in a phone interview with The Pink Puck last week, “and I envy them. They have no idea. They don’t know what it feels like.”

But things are changing.

Growing the CWHL

The women’s ice hockey gold medal game between the U.S. and Canada was the most-streamed sports event in the history of NBC Sports Digital, after Super Bowl XLVI. Girls’ hockey is one of the fastest-growing youth sports. According to USA Hockey Magazine, USA Hockey‘s girls’/women’s program has seen 800% growth since its inception in 1990-1991.

“It’s a fun time to be in the sport because we can really shape the direction we want to go in, and I think there’s some exciting things to come,” Knight said. “The CWHL has been great thus far and it’s given post-college players an opportunity to compete, continue to train and pursue their passion. But I do see shortcomings in the way it’s formed. We’ve outgrown the mold that we’ve placed on ourselves.”

Some of those shortcomings include difficulties distributing the product, and by and large a lack of social media engagement. The players are all on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, but the CWHL seems to lack a targeted marketing and social media strategy. Where the NHL has found success by interacting with social media outlets on their own terms, CWHL accounts read much more like condensed press releases.

There has been some growth in that area. You can now purchase access to 23 CWHL games for a mere $10 via their website. Sites like Mike’s Mumbles is bringing advanced analytics to the women’s hockey blogosphere. But for the most part, it seems that we see players like Knight taking control of their own marketing, rather than a league-wide campaign.

“I’ve had countless people come up to me and ask, ‘How do I watch you guys?’ and I have to say, ‘Social media is kind of the only way you can follow us right now.'” Knight sighed. “But the league is young. Until each player and individual understands the value … I don’t think we’re going to make strides in terms of growth.”

As for the NHL’s more comprehensive strategy …

“Well, [the NHL] also has a budget for that,” said Knight dryly.

The NHL has budgets for all sorts of things that the CWHL doesn’t. Player salaries, for example. One of the concerns repeatedly mentioned during this year’s discussion of possible CWHL expansion included questions of expenses. Should the league prioritize paying its players, or growing its reach? Obviously these goals aren’t mutually exclusive, but adding a new team, new coaches, new uniforms, new rink expenses, new travel expenses … it has the potential to push “salaries” a little further down the road.

But Knight has a different perspective. “I hope it does expand,” she said. “There’s a huge U.S. market that wants to get involved. Dropping the Canadian part would be beneficial–and lucrative–not only to the organization, the league, and the companies, but also the players.” More teams mean broader potential viewership. And expanding into the U.S., where hockey is ever-growing, taps into a special kind of market all its own.

That being said, there’s a lot to be said for quantity versus quality. “At the end of the day, as a player, knowing the business side but also having been in the trenches a little bit, paying an athlete or supplementing their training is huge. It’ll only grow the sport.” Knight paused for a moment before adding, “And the more we don’t have to work on other things outside of training, the better caliber athlete you’re going to get.”

High caliber players mean high caliber competition … and more intense games. There’s no worse (or better) rivalry in women’s hockey than that between the U.S. and Canada. From bench-clearing brawls to OT heartbreakers, every game between those teams feels like the most important. There’s a level of competitiveness between the U.S. and Canadian women’s hockey teams that, frankly, I just don’t see between the men’s teams.

Is it there? Of course it is. Let’s be honest: everyone who isn’t Canadian wants to beat Canada at hockey. It would be like beating Michael Jordan at basketball. Or, maybe more accurately, it would be like Michael Jordan beating the Yankees at baseball. But there’s broader competition in men’s hockey. Russia has a good team; Finland has a good team; Sweden has a good team. The Czech team is hit-or-miss but sometimes wins Olympic gold on the back of their insane goalie (for example).

Not so in women’s hockey. In women’s hockey, the meeting between the U.S. and Canada is the best competition you’re going to get.

“The rivalry is there,” Knight said. “It’s live, it’s intense. If you’re a fan, that’s what you want. You don’t want to watch for the sake of watching, you want to go to talk to your friends, you’re grabbing your coffee, ‘Can you believe what happened?’ We love to play, we love to play in front of crowds, and it’s a win/win for everyone.”

Playing with the Boys

Chasing that calibre of competition has led some women into other leagues–Canada’s Shannon Szabados to the SPHL’s Columbus Cottonmouths and Finland’s Noora Raty to Kiekko-Vantaa of the Mestis league, and it almost led Knight away as well.

“I had a couple teams reach out,” Knight acknowledged, turning thoughtful. “And to be honest, it would have been great. It would align with my training. I know Swedish. It was a good match.”

She hesitated, seeming to gather her thoughts. “My drawback was …. I was thinking about retiring. I wasn’t sure where I was. [I knew] traveling across the pond would be very difficult, [because] I could score however many goals, but it really wouldn’t matter because it wouldn’t impact or motivate or inspire anyone else if I wasn’t in North America. It was heartbreaking. It took months to kind of pick up the pieces … practicing with the [Anaheim] Ducks sparked my interest to stay here and try to make playing in the men’s professional league here work. I think it would do volumes for our sport.”

Knight’s practice with the Ducks sparked a social media storm. Seeing her in that Ducks jersey, skating with the team, meant something. Fans of Knight, of hockey, and of women’s hockey in particular, seemed to be strongly affected by Knight taking her place on the NHL stage, even if for only a practice.

Could Knight see a woman playing in the NHL in the next, say, ten years?

She doesn’t play coy about it: “I could see myself playing—tomorrow, if I got the call.”

The practice with Anaheim perhaps confirmed what Knight had begun to suspect, closing in on a year after winning an Olympic silver medal and struggling to figure out what she was meant to do next. “[I started] looking at it like, ‘I have a platform. How can I motivate and inspire youth, women, and men to achieve greatness in their own respect?’ I realized that it’s bigger than me.”

Growing the Game in the U.S.

But even the NHL doesn’t have all the answers. Though hockey has experienced incredible growth over the last decades, it’s still leagues behind U.S. juggernauts like football and basketball, in terms of TV time, exposure, and market saturation. The “non-traditional markets” approach that the NHL has been so fond of certainly pays off in some respects, but it also means a lot of struggle.

“The sport of hockey itself still struggles,” Knight acknowledged. Returning to her earlier assessment that the CWHL had outgrown its own mold, she added, “Expecting the NHL to take us on right away with no questions is a lofty goal, because we still need to create this market. You only have a certain number of teams that actually do well, that can sponsor a sister team.”

So while she envies her NHL compatriots in many ways, Knight is also careful to give credit where it’s due. “Yeah, it’s frustrating, but I kind of throw it out there with caution. When you’re comparing my life to an NHLer’s, they live the life, but if you take their sport and pit it against other male sports … they work a lot harder for their dollars than another professional might have to.”

In other words, it’s a sliding scale. Women’s hockey is smaller than men’s hockey, which is smaller than football. But more and more teams and leagues are realizing that growth is not gendered. Growing girls programs and courting female viewership not only makes a difference in women’s hockey, but men’s hockey as well.

“A lot of leagues are seeing the value of the female viewer,” Knight said. “If you look at boys’ versus girls’ hockey, technically girls’ hockey has the greatest amount of potential growth. It’s a huge untapped market.” Initiatives like Girls Play Hockey and the integrated practices are all ways that teams are reaching out to that demographic. Even the Blackhawks prompt and respectful response to the #BanTheStripper campaign is proof that hockey is slowly realizing just how much they stand to gain by reaching out to the other 32% of their fans (and how much they stand to lose if they don’t).

Seeing past gender isn’t the only hurdle hockey faces in the U.S. “You need to make the sport more affordable,” Knight said flatly. “And more accessible to all sorts of demographics. Hockey ends being a niche market for people who can afford expensive skates.”

She’s not wrong. According to the The Atlantic, hockey fans are largely white and largely middle-to-upperclass. In fact, white people make up an astounding 92% of hockey viewership. Black and Hispanic folks combined are a mere 5%. As for income, 33% of people watching hockey on television make $100k+ per year, more than any other single income group. Growing the sport means first and foremost reaching out past that rich, white demographic to generate interest and accessibility in other communities.

But growth is possible. In fact, it’s probable–and Hilary Knight plans to be a part of it.

“Whenever I step on the ice, I always have something to prove,” Knight said, thoughtful but determined. “For me, I aspire to play in the NHL for a game or so. My objective is to show people that hockey is hockey, no matter which way you slice it.”

Molly is not an athlete. She quickly got used to winning the “Best Smile” award at her family's Summer Olympics (an award made up especially for her by her grandmother, who felt bad that she never won anything else). But as they say, "Those who cannot do, write about it from the sidelines and provide orange slices at half time."

6 COMMENTS

  1. I always get a little uncomfortable when we go down the whole “could a woman play in the NHL” route. The answer is no, and it isn’t even that close. Hayley Wickenheiser is the best player of all time and she was okay in the third level of Finnish hockey. The second division was already a problem. That’s still some ways from the bright lights of the NHL.

    If an NHL team thought a photogenic player like Hilary Knight was anywhere near making the team, they would snap her up immediately. What a PR move that would be.

    But it’s not happening and it doesn’t help anybody to bring up the idea. It only underlines the fact that female players aren’t on that level. You shouldn’t constantly frame women’s hockey in relation to the men’s game. Both have value on their own and should be celebrated, not compared in vain.

    • I’m not so sure about that.

      Ok, so background real fast: I play hockey now, and I played DII women’s rugby in college. Rugby is a sport where the rules are identical for men and women’s teams. We practiced with the men, including scrumming down against them (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jUz1ytcnn3c this is a scrum. In professional/international play, scrums are often weighed as a mass and compared). While those scrums in practice were for them more positional and they did not go full force, we also weren’t bowled over by guys who weighed collectively twice what we did (we also were positionally better at scrumming down and occasionally beat them because of that!). For the record, I would NOT want to go up as an all-women’s team against an all-men’s rugby team and play full contact rugby. The sheer size difference is an issue, and I think that is an issue that could effect hockey as well.

      But I think there’s another issue, and that’s training for contact. In a contact sport, training for contact is such a HUGE part of training–contact is tiring. You condition for it. You take hits. You make tackles. You work on stepping out of tackles, avoiding tackles, running evasively and in ways that enable you to step through or disengage a tackler. (Of course, that’s all in rugby terms–but I think it’s comparable. Brooks Orpik got a lot of credit for being conditioned enough (at the time) to make four successful hits in 15 seconds. Players learn to stay on their feet through hits, to avoid checks, to skate evasively, all while holding on to the puck.)

      Since I’ve started playing (non-checking) hockey, I’ve noticed that I think the big difference as a player (not as a goalie–most of the female goalies who’ve played say men have much harder shots, so there’s also that) is that women are not EVER trained for contact in the same way. If hockey is your sport and you’re a girl, you spend a LOT LESS time doing contact. Yes, contact happens. Yes, battling against the boards happens, and it’s not like you never touch other players in practice. But you also don’t work on laying hits, and you don’t work on keeping your feet (or the puck) while being hit. Not too long ago, my coach even said, “You can’t lay hits. If the D get the jump on you, you either have to stickhandle around them, or be faster than them.”

      What I’m trying to say is that having played both contact and non-checking sports, there is a big difference in the mindset of how you practice, train, and play the game when you’re not making deliberate contact than there is when you are. If you look at women’s bodies in hockey compared to men, you can even tell, to some extent. Women definitely have prodigious legs and glutes–in fact, Knight herself is a great example of a big player who’s got really powerful legs–but there isn’t the same training in keeping your feet or in explosivity to take or make hits. But you look at Knight, or Chu, or Wickenheiser, and there isn’t the same stockiness to their legs that players like Crosby and Toews (famously) have.

      I’m not saying that if women were trained in a checking game from the same time guys are that some of them would be able to keep up with the guys–I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I ALSO don’t think women have ever had the option to really prove themselves in terms of playing the men’s game. Even when Wickenheiser was training and playing in Finland, she still didn’t have the benefit of years of training for checking behind her. She had years of “checking is a penalty” ingrained in her. Even though she did deliberately train for contact before and while she was playing in Finland, she didn’t train for contact for many more years before that. And yeah, a lot of high-level girls do play with men’s team in the peewee and bantam levels (for example Jincy Dunne–she even plays on a boy’s high school team iirc). But they’re also simultaneously often playing on women’s teams and competing internationally. They never get to focus on body-checking and the physical parts of the game in the same way boys do. If you read interviews with Wickenheiser after her stint in Finland, she talks about how the physical aspects of the game were what affected her play and abilities the most. How much of that would be offset if women got the benefit of actually being trained to deal with those physical aspects, and how much of it is size related? I don’t know! Maybe not enough. Maybe none. But there isn’t the same opportunities to deal with and work with the physicality of the game for women as there is for men.

      I DON’ T think that that means the women’s game is necessarily “lesser” or “worse” than the men’s game. It’s developed in a different way than the men’s game, and while I think it’s idiotic that many women’s sports, including hockey, were institutionally made “less violent,” that definitely doesn’t mean that the sport itself is stupid or lesser. It’s developed in its own right as an amazing game. But it’s also developed, especially since body-checking was outlawed in 1990, into a game that is in some ways quite different than the men’s game. So I’m not 100% sure it’s fair to suggest that women are just not ever going to be able to cut it at the NHL level playing the men’s game, because frankly the training perspectives ARE different and the women’s game has developed differently.

      Wow. That did not mean to get so long, and I’m sorry.

      Tl;dr It’s a little flawed to suggest that women won’t be able to cut it in the NHL because of size/speed/skill/etc concerns when women don’t get the benefit of being trained for an NHL-type game since puberty.

  2. The problem is, in terms of audience, womens sports are more reliant than mens sports on people who have a close, affective connection to the game. Going to the mens game is considered the obvious choice in order to max the potential of your entertainment dollar.
    Going to the womens game is a bit more political. Lesbians, who have intimate reasons to look for entertainment that shakes up gender roles, make for an incredibly disproportionate amount of WNBA fans. The rest of womens sports fans include a lot of relatives of girls who play the game. People who care because their own flesh and blood is involved.
    That’s a hindrance for all womens sports, but this is particularly problematic for hockey. Because of its high costs, hockey will never have a very large player base. And since the womens version, like the womens version of every sport that is not blessed with joined mens/womens majors like tennis, is reliant on the favourably biased entourage of female players to build its paying fanbase, hockey is at a specific disadvantage here.
    Soccer and softball, with much larger player bases than hockey among women, struggle to even maintain semi-pro leagues with a handful of teams. So I don’t see how hockey can make it.

    At the end of the day, as long as the NHL does not want to take the risk and strongarm its corporate partners and owners into endorsing the concept a la WNBA, womens hockey will remain pretty much where it is now, give or take.

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