I was in a classroom full of boys, listening to the teacher going over the rules of hockey, thinking that the basics were below me. I knew how scoring worked, I know how penalties worked. I had gotten tired of raising my hand every time he addressed the group as “fellas” – I was at the very front of the room, he was making eye contact with me. Eventually, I gave up – it was becoming increasingly apparent that I wasn’t fully welcome there, even by the teacher.
The moment I walked into the classroom, a boy I grew up with, a boy I had played numerous games of street hockey with, a boy I traded hockey cards with, a boy who had seen me wear various team jerseys in elementary school asked with harsh disdain in his voice, “What are you doing here?” I knew that I had something to prove.
But why did I have to prove anything? I was twelve years old – I just wanted to play hockey for a couple of Friday afternoons, that’s what I had signed up for. I didn’t realize that my mere presence would raise questions, or that I would actually have to prove that I knew what I was talking about, knew what I was doing. It wasn’t until three weeks in, when I checked the biggest player on the opposing team into a fence, sufficiently winding him for ten minutes, that people began treating me like a teammate instead of an outlier. Even at twelve years old, I was disappointed that it was something physical that rendered me respect, when everyone else seemed to be given that same respect that first day in the classroom.
I grew up watching hockey – I can’t recall a time when I didn’t. Asking my father about it once, he told me that when I was an infant that he would prop me on the couch beside him as he watched hockey. Whenever I would begin to crawl away, he would just ask where I was going and I would stop. My father and my uncles played hockey, and I spent a lot of evenings at the local arena watching my dad play. He took me to a lot of our local junior team’s games as well. To say that I grew up with the sport might actually be an understatement – hockey was almost like a member of the family: an older, toothless brother that could skate infinitely better than I could.
So, it came as a shock to me when hockey was thought of as a “boy” thing. It never made sense to me when I was younger. I wasn’t a boy, so how could this be a boy thing? My hero at the time was Manon Rhéaume – a female goaltender who in 1992 tried out for the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was the first time a woman had tried out for an NHL team. She only played two exhibition games, but it was still a major accomplishment. I had an entire page in my hockey card binder dedicated to her. Clearly, hockey wasn’t just for boys.
I never cared that hockey was a “boy” thing. It made me happy. Even to this day there are few things that make me happier than being in an arena with family or friends, waiting for the puck to drop. But, apparently my liking hockey, as a woman, was considered a personal affront to some people, even though it had nothing to do with them.
Not much happened at the after school hockey game – whether the boys began to accept me or just didn’t care, my presence became a non-issue after those first few games. But I didn’t like the notion that my being there was a topic of conversation, I just wanted to play hockey. But I didn’t want to go through feeling like that again. When it came time to sign up for Friday afternoon activities again the following term, I didn’t sign up for hockey or anything else that I was necessarily interested in that might have a stronger male presence. Instead, I signed up for a craft workshop that was filled with mostly girls. It ended up being a lot of fun, and my Mum still has the creation that I made hanging on her front door, but I recall wanting to be outside where the ice met metal.
It wasn’t until I was older, in my twenties, when my liking hockey became an issue (again) – though according to only a handful of people. I would be at a party, talking to a friend or an acquaintance, and the topic of hockey might come up (we are in Canada, after all). When, seemingly out of nowhere, some man who I didn’t know would come up to me and start asking questions. Not out of interest to engage in conversation, but to test me.
Heaven forbid that I not know the answer to one of their questions. In those cases, I’d be accused of not being a real fan, but a puck bunny. Any time I asked why they were asking me all of these questions, it was because they wanted to see if I was a real fan, to make sure that I wasn’t just pretending to like hockey in an effort to impress boys or get their attention, as if it were really that unfathomable that a woman would enjoy the sport that dominates the conversations of many Canadians. And so what if I was pretending? Did it really matter?
Replace hockey with any other sport – baseball, soccer, basketball, rugby – and there is a woman (many, actually) out there who is a fan, and who has had to meet a higher standard than a casual male fan. Even in the 21st century, sports still seem to be viewed by many as more of a thing for men. This, despite the fact that many women play these sports professionally. This, despite no matter where you look in the stands of any arena, you will see women decked out in their team’s colours. This, despite the fact that my boyfriend, who is a newer hockey fan than I am, I would be the one quizzed on my knowledge of the sport in spite of being a fan for almost 30 years.
It’s everywhere – from advertising to entertainment at games in the form of Ice Girls, from pink washed clothing to conversations about sexual assault and domestic abuse at the hands of professional athletes. It’s very clear that according to many that women still aren’t welcome in the realm of sport.
Thankfully, in my personal circles, this is not the case. I never feel like I am not welcome in the conversations involving sports. If anything, I am sometimes the one instigating it! I can’t imagine a life that doesn’t involve hockey, and no one is going to take that away from me.
Now, if only I could skate!