“You shoot like a girl!”
“Skate your balls off, boys!”
“Don’t be a pussy!”
This is just a smattering of the sexist crap I endured as the lone female on my ice hockey teams growing up. Sometimes my younger self would call out my teammates when they made these statements, but mostly I tried to lay low. I just wanted to play hockey. So I ignored these comments, or diffused them with humor. Skate your balls off! the coach yells during practice. Does that mean I don’t have to do this drill? I’d reply.
I never just got to play hockey, though. All my interactions with hockey, even when I played on female teams, were always—and always will be—centered around gender. Because sports—all sports, regardless of the gender of the team—continues to institutionalize sexism more than any other industry (aside from fashion and, perhaps, tech).
The highest high and the lowest low in my hockey-playing career capture exactly what I mean. The levels of minor hockey—Atom, Mite, Peewee, Bantam, and Midget—are split by age. The year I turned 13 and was thus supposed to become a Bantam, the league I played for decided I should stay in Peewee (10-12 year olds), because I was one of three goalies slated for the Bantam team (too many for a minor team in a not very competitive league) and the Peewee team had no goaltenders.
There was no tryout to determine which of the three Bantam goalies was the worst and therefore should play for the Peewee team. The other teams in the league agreed it should be me simply because I was a girl and therefore I couldn’t possibly be that good. My parents fought the decision, but ultimately I suited up for the Peewee team. I didn’t want them to be screwed just because I was mad.
And I just wanted to play hockey.
We kicked ass. We lost only one regulation game all season. We won the championship game, in which we were outshot, but I got a shutout. We won a few tournaments. My teammates did not say stupid sexist shit. The winning and the respect were the happiest I ever felt playing hockey.
But this only happened due to the rule change that let me, a 13-year-old, play against 10- to 12-year-olds. It only happened because I was a girl. I got to play hockey, but at a level that was blatantly inferior to my skill.
Skip ahead two years, to the lowest point in my career. As a 14-year-old going to turn 15 in the middle of the hockey season, I’m now a Midget. I decide to play in a more competitive league, at a different rink. Midget has a 16-under and 18-under division. At a practice I couldn’t attend for medical reasons, the team votes to play 18U, rather than 16U (as I had hoped), to accommodate two 17-year-olds who didn’t make the cut from the 18U team.
Our season was terrible. We won three games all year, and they were all against teams that were also stupid enough to play 18U when they should have been 16U. We would get outshot 45 to 15. Lose games 8 to 1. Consistently.
Of course, it was all my—the stupid, tiny, female goaltender’s—fault. Admittedly, I had a rough start to the season, and the coach (who was the best coach I ever had, unfortunately for the crappiest team I ever played on) threatened to bench me. I rose to his challenge the next time I started, and we won our first game, 2-1. All three of our wins that season were while I was in net.
The goaltender I split time with, who never won a game, was in the “it’s all the girl’s fault” camp. He did things like bring Playboy calendars to games, saying whoever scored a goal would get a picture from it, just to rub our gender difference in my face.
The few teammates who liked me were teased endlessly by the others.
Ironically, the one who pushed me over the edge was one of the 17-year-olds we had voted to have on our team—the real reason we were so sucky, since I’m positive we would have been competitive playing 16U (our three wins against such teams is evidence of this; funny how skill is correlated mostly with age, not gender). One night, he and most of the rest of the team conspired to aim for my head during practice, a practice that the awesome head coach could not attend.
It is never desirable to block a puck with your face; the impact stings well after, and the threat of concussions or possibly being hit in the neck looms. You don’t get hit in the face that often; getting hit twice in a practice like that would be odd. So I suspected something was up after a few headhunters left my cheeks burning.
Especially when they started taking shots at my unprotected back as I cleared away pucks.
Most people stopped messing with me after they took a couple of shots, but not the 17-year-old. So I started stepping out of the net whenever I saw him coming. And after practice, the whole ride home, I just sobbed, with my mom cursing and calling the coach immediately when we got home. I don’t know what coach said to my teammates, but I know he reamed them before the next game, tragically on my fifteenth birthday, and the 17-year-old had to personally apologize to me.
So much for playing hockey.
The following season, I switched to a women’s hockey team. It was a much friendlier environment, albeit getting in a league is more political, since there are far fewer of them than male leagues. But overall I have nothing personal to complain about.
No, the problem with women’s hockey, and women’s sports in general, is that the rules are modified for sexist reasons. In girl’s hockey, there’s no body checking. I can’t find a definitive answer for why, but it seems people agree to keep the rule in place because the pool of female hockey players is so small, and people fear adding checking would deter potential players.
Basically, it’s because girls are too fragile (or at least, that society perceives them that way). It’s okay for dudes to slam into each other full-force. But women? No way!
Women can’t play American football because it’s deemed too physical (unless it’s flag or lingerie (which is not just exploitive, but also extremely dangerous, since the women aren’t allowed to wear proper padding and it’s full contact)). Women don’t play baseball, they play softball. The WNBA uses a smaller basketball than the NBA, among other rule differences.
Maybe these changes sound petty, but they mean men and women aren’t really playing the same game. Since girls can’t check in hockey, the game is slower. They have to slow down when they approach an opponent, or find a way to slow their opponent down, and battle for the puck. It teaches girls to keep their head down, focused on the puck, rather than keeping their head up like in men’s hockey.
Part of me always loathed this when I played women’s hockey.
Still, I miss hockey. I miss the thrill of making an acrobatic glove save, of completely robbing a player who was so sure they were going to score. I play pick up games sometimes, but it’s not the same.
Even if it was the same, I still wouldn’t know what it’s like to just play hockey.