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How well does the Athletic cover women’s hockey?

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Or do they even cover the sport at all?

Hayley Williams, wearing Furies home blue uniform skates between Taylor Woods (in front) and Jamie Lee Rattray (coming up from behind), both wearing Thunder road whites with green accents.  Chris Tanouye - CWHL

When Olympian Sami Jo Small was named the next GM of the CWHL’s Toronto Furies a little over a week ago, a lot of links popped up in my CWHL Google alerts, but only a few articles. Here at PPP, I wrote a short piece about her CWHL career, her final season, who she was replacing as GM and suggested her first move. The Ice Garden ran a short piece quoting the league’s press release and including confirmation from the league that Small was not intending on playing in the CWHL this season. Most links were to local outlets running a short Canadian Press blurb that talked more about Small’s on-ice career than anything else.

Then this piece from Canadian Press writer Donna Spencer popped up and the relief was overwhelming. Spencer is a veteran CP reporter who often covers women’s hockey and whose articles are usually must-reads. She might have been on a conference call with a dozen other reporters but she’s frequently the one who digs out seemingly minor details that, for those of us who follow the sport, change an article from rehashing Hockey Canada talking points to something with actual news.

Spencer interviewed Small, the only reporter to do so to date. (To some extent, I’m still waiting for something from Rachel Brady, who is the Globe and Mail’s go-to for CWHL news. The Globe is a CWHL partner and as such tends to cover the league better than most.) Not only did she reach out to Small directly, they didn’t talk about her Olympic career. They talked business.

The article covers the fact that the Furies are owned by the league (not new but rarely mentioned), that Small is still deciding on whether to renew coaches’ contracts (new), that she has a salary cap to manage (hasn’t come up much since October), and what her big-picture focus is as a GM (new). There’s mention of the fact that she still loves playing, there’s mention of her family, there’s mention of what else she’s done for the league, but it’s an article focused on what this new GM is going to do in her role. For women’s sports this is such a rarity, it’s hard to describe. It’s short, but it treats women’s hockey like a sport and not a human interest story.

Then the Toronto Marlies won the Calder Cup.

CWHL fans were braced for takes like this one but when the Toronto Furies 2014 Clarkson Cup win was mentioned, Mirtle doubled down.

Tweet from James Mirtle dated 6/14/18, 7:53pm - The CWHL was not considered a pro league when the Furies won. They began paying players last fall.

This tweet has since been deleted for some mysterious reason.

Oh, okay then James. After all, “pro hockey” is so very important. It places the Toronto Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate, that happens to currently also be housed in Toronto, on par with the Toronto NHL team, or the MLS team, or the CFL team, because they all got paid. The fact the CWHL is the top level of women’s hockey, and in terms of level of competition would be considered well above a development team like the Marlies, is clearly irrelevant.

This isn’t from the deleted thread that got him ratioed, but in that thread he also pointed to the Athletic’s women’s hockey coverage. Provided a handy link and everything.

Let’s have a look, shall we?

In the NHL section of the Athletic website you’ll find a link on the bottom right hand corner of your screen that boasts that they have 50 women’s hockey stories.

The Athletic’s coverage of the CWHL this season by writers from the Athletic Toronto comes to a total of 13 stories. Four of those aren’t actually listed under the women’s hockey link, you have to know they exist and search for them by author. It’s not possible to filter stories by a particular CWHL team or filter for stories about the CWHL as a league. Using the search box to look for “CWHL” or “Canadian Women’s Hockey League” doesn’t return stories in any particular order.

The author of five of the stories (including all four of the ones not currently listed as “women’s hockey”) is Markham Thunder forward Karolina Urban. That’s like getting Connor Brown to do your Leafs coverage. And no, Urban’s day job is not as a journalist, she’s a medical student. Stories about events from a player’s point of view are very interesting and humanize the players, but it’s Player’s Tribune stuff. It’s from a very specific, narrow point of view, it’s never the complete story, and it’s certainly not reporting.

The other stories are by editor Kaitlyn McGrath and former PPP managing editor Scott Wheeler. The two of them covered the Clarkson Cup Final extensively. The CWHL regular season however, got very little ink.

The stories cover:

  • Pay for CWHL players (Urban)
  • Setting the stage for the season (McGrath)
  • CWHL expansion into China (five stories), with most of those being Urban’s slice-of-life pieces about her first roadtrip to China
  • The Clarkson Cup Final (six stories)

This isn’t sports coverage, by and large this is human interest stuff. Forget Leafs coverage, if the Athletic tried to limit their Marlies coverage to something like this, they’d be laughed at. There are no gamers, no strategy breakdowns, no coach interviews, no player ratings, no standings.

There’s no talk about why Sydney Kidd was moved from defence to centre and whether that worked, or why Hayley Williams put up a career year in Toronto (and why she still ended up attending NWHL Free Agency Camp recently). There are no questions as to why Furies forward Julie Allen disappeared from the team following the China trip. Thunder rookie Nicole Kosta was taken down with a hit that had the CWHLPA up in arms, no one wrote a story. Nothing about the Furies GM search or Sami Jo Small taking the helm.

USWNT player Megan Bozek joining the Thunder didn’t rate a mention. No coverage of the Erin Ambrose trade, which was a fucking blockbuster. USA’s overtime hero from the 2016 Women’s World Championship Alex Carpenter made her CWHL debut in Toronto, no focus on her. Nothing about the playoffs prior to the actual Clarkson Cup. Nothing about the CWHL Awards.

PPP covered some of these things but neither Annie nor I is a journalist, only one of us is in Toronto, and I’m not particularly willing to do player and coach interviews after every weekend just because no one else is around to do it. (If you’re interested in that sort of thing, I need help with CWHL coverage next season, hit me up.)

There are absolutely readers who are just glad the CWHL rates any coverage in the Athletic at all, but as Donna Spencer’s piece on the Toronto Furies GM hiring shows, there’s a better way to cover women’s hockey. Approach it as a sport and not a spectacle, or an obligation to get your feminist cred points.

James Mirtle can say the Athletic covers women’s hockey, but they don’t cover Toronto women’s hockey. I say it isn’t fucking good enough.