The Growth of Women in Hockey


Image c/o Wikipedia

As the Olympic games in Sochi taught us, a game between women can be just as exciting — if not more so — than a men’s game.

One could even reasonably make the case that the women’s gold medal game between Canada and U.S.A. was more exciting than that of their male counterparts.

However, women’s hockey does not get the respect or acknowledgment it deserves, even though women have been playing the sport just as long as men.

“‘Women’s hockey is too slow, their shots are too weak, there’s no physicality, and there’s no body checking allowed, so it’s not worth watching’,” began Sarah Baicker, who is a Philadelphia Flyers producer/reporter for Comcast SportsNet. “I hear it (and read it) constantly, and I’ve certainly been hearing it all Olympics long.”

In addition to reporting on the sport, Baicker has played hockey for 15 years in men’s and women’s leagues alike. She was also CSN’s only on-air commentator to discuss women’s hockey during the Olympics.

It is easy to see how a hardcore NHL fan might miss the physicality or body checking but that is far from a legitimate reason to dismiss an entire gender’s ability to play.

As a matter of fact, it might behoove hockey fans to adapt to the idea of women playing hockey sooner rather than later.

Ten years ago, Stephanie Linton  wrote, “With more than a 400% increase in participation over the past ten years, women’s hockey is one of the fastest growing sports in the world.”

As of 2011, over 151,000 women were registered hockey players in North America. To put that in perspective, that is about 1 woman for ever 13 men. That may not seem like much but the disparity is shrinking every day.

Nonetheless, there were questions about whether or not women’s hockey, which was first introduced as an Olympic sport in 1998, would continue to remain in the Winter Olympics — but why?

That is because the United States and Canada accounts for an overwhelming majority of female hockey players.

“It shouldn’t be a question, because plenty of other Olympic sports are heavily dominated by a few countries,” said Baicker. “No matter how you look at it, the other countries don’t have teams that compare to the North American teams. Yet. But I look at it this way: Women’s ice hockey has come a long way from 1998 and you only need to look at games like Finland-Canada for that to be hammered home.”

It takes time to make big changes.

In 1992, Manon Rhéaume made history by being the first woman to try out for an NHL team and sign a contract. She went on to play preseason games with the team both that year and the next but never got a chance to play during the regular season.

“The Manon Rhéaume/ Tampa Bay Lightning preseason game was treated more like a pubiclity stunt, although I loved her for doing it and was so very envious that she got to live a small part of the NHL dream,” said Tina Cairns, who has been a diehard hockey fan since the age of three and has played in both men’s leagues and on a college club team.

After Rhéaume, Olympic gold medalist, Hayley Wickenheiser, was invited to the Philadelphia Flyers’ rookie camp in 1998 and again in 1999.

EA sports included Wickenheiser and Angela Ruggerio as “Legends” in the video game NHL 13.

Otherwise, the talk of women in the NHL seems to have tapered off.

“Honestly, I don’t know if North America has the right mindset for women playing with men,” said Cairns. “When it happens in middle/high school sports such as football there is some sort of uproar.  We need to change the culture and from what I have seen, that will take a while.”

Baicker added that when a woman breaks into the NHL, it will likely be another goalie.

In the mantime, college hockey is the main venue for women in the States.

“And it’s doing a great job,” said Baicker. “There are players coming from all over the world to play for teams like Minnesota and Wisconsin, and that’s great. That needs to continue happening. However, there’s also a big need for somewhere for these women to play after college. As someone who’s played with and against women who have played for Team U.S.A., I can tell you there is generally a HUGE gap between their talent level and the talent of the women available to play with/against on a local level. This can even be said for the second-tier of female players in the U.S. It’s very frustrating for these women who don’t have great opportunities for competition after, say, their 22nd birthdays.”

Hilary Knight, who played for Team U.S.A. in the Sochi Olympics, plans to play to in Sweden. While Baicker points out that women have played in various leagues before without increasing women’s footprint on the sport, Cairns thinks there is potential for Knight to change that.

“From what I saw in the Olympics, she is a beast, I think she will do just fine,” Cairns said.

Perhaps she could be their Knight in shining armor. (I will see myself out now.)

Coming off a strong performance in the Olympics, if Knight continues to make waves overseas, the aftershocks would be felt in North America. Although women’s hockey may not be as physical as men’s, there is strength in numbers and the number of women playing in North America is skyrocketing.