Like most hockey fans in Canada, I’ve vacillated on the question of hitting in the women’s game. Sometimes, I can see how outlawing checking may promote a faster game with more of an emphasis on skating, passing and shooting.
Then I watch any game where Canada is playing their arch-rivals (and, in reality, only rivals) the USA, and I’m convinced it’s all a bunch of sexist bullshit.
First of all, let me address the health issue as best I can. This is not a call for an open season on the health of our women playing hockey. I have a great deal of personal experience with concussions – my own, suffered taking a few balls to the head playing field hockey (lower risk sport) and then one well-placed punch boxing (yup, highest of high risk sports), and those of my basketball-playing (low risk sport) step-son. The effects are devastating and terrifying, and I won’t minimize them. However, we don’t seem interested as a society in removing every possible risky activity from our lives to preserve our brains, so let’s talk about the middle ground.
There are indications that the rates of concussions amongst female players is actually higher than male players, but no real indication of why (aside from anecdotal theories that women will report symptoms more often than men because we’re smart enough to deny the machismo of “playing through pain”). What is clear is that the ban on body checking is not preventing these injuries, so the question arises whether the ban may be contributing to the problem.
One article posited that because girls stop body-checking at 13 years old in Canada, they don’t learn to take a hit safely and are more vulnerable when the inevitable “accidental” hits do happen. Not having the fear of regular, forceful body contact could also have led to less emphasis on safe skating technique which promotes better balance and stability, not to mention “heads-up” ice awareness.
If you’re thinking to yourself that we shouldn’t be risking the brains of our young female athletes because hitting in hockey is inherently dangerous, then how is it remotely ok for us to be risking the brains of our young male athletes?
Furthermore, given that the problem is that the speed and size of the game has increased but brains have remained as fragile as ever, should we not be banning high-risk activities like hitting with the fastest, biggest playing demographic, i.e. professional men?
Now I’ve gotten that craptastic piece of illogic out of the way, let’s talk about the women’s game.
There has been hitting in the women’s game. For example, in the first WWHC in 1990, the Canadian women, wearing pink uniforms, participated in a raucous, crushing brand of hockey with which Canadians were deeply familiar. Geraldine Heaney tells us that it was the Europeans who “really wanted to keep the contact in the game. Probably after the first game many played against us they… second-guessed themselves because we were a lot bigger and stronger and I don’t think they realized what our full contact was like until they played us.” And that was the end of hitting in the women’s game.
How do you figure the decision went down? Let me take a wild guess. The IIHF, an international body dominated by European interests and, to take a wild stab at history, likely all male in 1990 (there are currently two women on the 14-member Council, and one dude from North America where women’s hockey is popular), decided that it would be best that women could globally “develop their game on more an equal footing” by banning body checking.
I wonder if this was ever a concern when there was absolutely no parity and massive blow-outs in scores in the earlier days of men’s international hockey?
This idea that female athletes need to be protected from the more physical aspects of the game in order to become good at it is found here in Canada too, wrapped up in a whole stinky mess of misogyny. One women’s university coach declared “[i]f you put hitting into the women’s game the skill level would diminish. Case in point —
you’d have more rugby players playing hockey.”
Right. Just like the NHL is packed exclusively with hulking behemoth rugby players who can’t dangle to save their lives. Like Stamkos (6′, 195lbs.) and Crosby (5’11, 200lbs.). Oh wait.
Even if it meant that bigger, stronger women would be more likely to excel in hockey, what is wrong with that? I’ll tell you what – tall, strong athletes scare the crap out of people and are marginalized and worse in our collective gender political narrative because they don’t fit traditional narrow bounds of what a woman is “allowed” to be.
So the truth is, all this protecting women from hitting each other is just preserving sexist ideas in sport.
Practically speaking, what does it mean when the women go out and play, right now?
Jayna Hefford told us in her post-game interview on April 2 that it’s a massive challenge finding that ever-shifting line between what’s acceptable body contact and illegal hitting. The distinction is crucial because taking those penalties can be the difference between winning and losing. In the Apr. 2 CAN v USA game, 4 of the 11 penalties were “Body Checking”.
In their efforts to not take these penalties, players pull up in the corners, on the boards, in the middle of the ice, everywhere that they risk accidentally hitting another player. They hesitate and stutter, stunting their aggression and speed. The best hockey between these teams is in the third period when, mysteriously, body checks are mostly interpreted as “incidental contact” (why yes, it WAS an incident completely normal to hockey) and the referees put their whistles away.
Without hitting, it’s a less entertaining game for spectators. And no, the hockey public isn’t baying for the blood and gore of gladiatorial combat. Rather, fans appreciate the physical aspects of the game because they are accompanied by, in larger part, speed and skill. It is precisely the juxtaposition of these seemingly contradictory elements that make hockey so dramatic, well-rounded, and if I may, very Canadian.
I believe there’s some very good news in all of this chilling data on concussions, unavoidable gender politics and the challenges of developing the game worldwide. Women’s hockey now has the opportunity to do physical contact right.
Men’s hockey has developed into a hard-hitting injury factory before we had the science to understand what was going on. The machismo that values toughness and violence over health and respect has incredibly strong roots in our sport and causes male athletes to take terrible risks with their futures because they push through and don’t allow their brains to heal. Repeat injuries are clearly the most dangerous aspect of concussions.
None of these are true in the women’s game. Combine our current vastly-heightened awareness with a real commitment to enforcing legal hits in a hockey culture that doesn’t have decades of machismo to undo, and we have a chance to bring hitting into the women’s sport as safely as possible.
What do you think? Is it time?