Another Monday Blog:
Given this is the first weekend of Women’s Worlds, I thought I should talk about women’s hockey. I considering discussing my views on bodychecking rules, which are non-standard, but I’ve enjoyed the games so far, and I think the new IIHF rules and much improved officiating is helping the game find a place closer to my idea of perfect balance of skill and physicality.
I could talk about money, but it inevitably leads to the same old tiresome conversations. Just to put the money question to bed, the NHL has exercised an option to have Disney buy them out of their share of the company that produces the NHL’s streaming service for $350 million.
If you formed an WNHL with six teams and a 50/50 HRR split formula (with the understanding that most of that second R would come from the NHL for years), while paying an average salary of one million per year to each player, you’d need a budget of $300 million per year, after startup costs. Team owners like the Sabres, the Leafs, the Flames, the Canadiens, the Bruins, the Devils — all of whom have shown some level of interest in sponsorship — and the league is a go.
So what is holding the NHL back? I think it’s values and the endless culture wars.
There are a lot of fans and opportunists who are invested heavily in the idea of women’s sports as avatars for their values. Think of the swirling tribal politics that tried to leach off of women’s Olympic soccer. There is a hunger out there for people who want to see women perform righteousness for them or to criticize them for how they do it. What the athletes actually do with a ball or a puck or a tennis racquet is secondary, and these fans are not the ticket buying, TV subscribing fans a growing sport actually needs.
Women deserve a professional league because the women’s game is a great game, not because of some stereotype that they’re better at being good people.
My personal values got formed by exactly what you should expect. A Depeche Mode song:
This is a naive anthem of the eighties, where the straight white boys still reigned, but they tried hard to grow their constituency while their record companies saw dollars in pretending to the same values. And yet, young me really thought it was that simple.
Old me thinks this: many of those women playing hockey don’t have the values you will approve of, whoever you are. The NWHL keeps stepping on this rake by tying their identity to ideals that not all of their players espouse or even understand, and the NHL is not oblivious; they have noticed the bloody noses. They won’t tie their brand to women’s hockey until they are sure the partnership will grow their constituency. I think they’re afraid of a PR nightmare that is well outside their ability to handle.
Women’s hockey fandom often looks like two camps snarling at each other over the Canada-US border, and not in that fun rivalry way. Or two camps snarling from the NWHL to the PWHPA. Two camps where the progressive values are the reason for the hockey season, and one where they want them girls to act like a girl. It’s a world where journalists are expected to be totally devoted to the game but also never say anything critical.
It’s also a world where the big rivals on Team USA and Team Canada get married and have babies and become TV commercial celebrities as typical moms.
You should basically stop reading this, and watch that whole video right now.
I don’t think the NHL is pure of heart when they say they want to get behind the women’s game. But they do want this new school family values version of hockey. They want that expertise on navigating the modern world’s values. They sure as hell need it. But they don’t want more of the anti-fandom than they already have — the one that wants to centre how hard it is for them to be fans of this corrupt NHL that never does anything right. The NHL don’t always like being held to account either, but that’s just the price of doing business.
Julie Chu talks honestly in that video above about where the women’s game is at in terms of diversity and inclusion, and Caroline Ouellette tackles the idea that it’s ahead of the men’s game on the march to the future. They say bluntly that racism is a problem in women’s hockey. It’s tempting to see women hockey players as the righteous light to lead the men out of darkness, but that’s not only not realistic, it’s asking the women who play the game for free to do that job for free too, when that labour is the responsibility of all of us together.
The NHL can make a league right now. The women from all over the world playing in Calgary today could be lacing up October 12, and the PWHPA could become a union and stop the marketing push for a commitment to years of funding to get it going. The NHL and their member teams just need to believe that a partnership will make them both better, not bog them down in the small town politics and tribal hatreds that go viral. They need to stop being scared and make a commitment that’s more than photo-ops and All-Star Game invites. Because right now they look like they want the diversity cred of supporting women’s hockey without ever actually getting their hands dirty.
If I had the perfect recipe to make the NHL take the game seriously and take the leap, this would be a much longer post. But I don’t, so I wait like everyone else who is a fan of this game, and who has seen the stars retire too early for decades because there’s no place to play.
Happy Monday everyone. I hope you are enjoying worlds so far if you’re watching it. I sure am. Many of the games are showing growth in the quality of the game even in this most difficult of circumstances. It’s inspiring to see the women on the ice.