While the women watch: a hockey fan guide for everyone

Jamie Sabau

Co-written by Sarah Connors from Stanley Cup of Chowder and Langluy from Jewels from the Crown.

Sidney Crosby, as much as it pains us to say, is arguably the best hockey player in the world. In 438 NHL games, he’s scored 226 goals and has 388 assists. At only 25 years old, he’s captained a Stanley Cup champion team and won almost every individual award the League has to offer. His jersey is the one you see most frequently outside his team’s region, and it’s often said, largely accurately, that Crosby is hockey’s only real superstar, with mass marketing appeal beyond the confines of fourth-sport status.

Sidney Crosby is also fairly attractive, by most people’s standards. By which we mean, he also has an ass that looks like this. Whether or not that’s your thing, it has actually become a big point of contention (pun fully intended) for a significant group of hockey fans: women.1

Are you allowed to like a player for his looks and for his skills?

The answer should be yes, obviously. We’re not scientists, but we’re pretty sure that finding somebody attractive doesn’t preclude your brain from also understanding whether he’s a good hockey player. But in today’s world, the answer for a woman who’s a hockey fan is sometimes no, you’re not - and that’s not acceptable.

Having eyes for Sidney Crosby’s assets is only the beginning of it. Both online and in real life, there’s a slate of terrible assumptions about women hockey fans which recent media coverage has only exacerbated. They might concede that your interest in hockey goes beyond hockey players’ asses, but you’re probably still labeled a bandwagoner, likely dragged kicking and screaming onto the bandwagon by your boyfriend or brother or another man in your life. You might know who Sidney Crosby is, but you probably don’t know anything about his stats, or anything about your team’s depth players. And even if you know who the depth players are, your favorite is probably still the hottest one - and on and on and on.

Melissa, a New York Rangers fan, recently found herself engaged in a debate on Twitter about Rangers’ defenseman Michael Del Zotto:

"I stood up for Del Zotto recently - it was around the time fans were discussing re-signing him, and this guy felt NYR didn’t need him. I argued that we did, and before I could say anything else, he asked if I had a ‘girly crush’ on him. At first I was going to say of course you feel that way and just give up, but instead I decided to tell him how the Rangers had no one else to play the point on the power play and that his defensive skills had improved. Of course he backtracked and said it was great to have the conversation, but it made me furious at first before I calmed down and educated him."

It’s been said a lot lately, but clearly it’s a point that still needs making: men and women are hockey - sports - fans in pretty much the exact same ways. The part of a woman which might think that Michael Del Zotto is dreamy has absolutely nothing to do with the hockey fan part of her, which might question whether his power play prowess is worth dealing with his defensive zone lapses amidst relatively sheltered minutes.

Somewhat like the separation of church and state, separation of sports fandom and, well, good-looking men fandom, is a simplistic-seeming concept which gets hopelessly muddled in execution. Many women hockey fans still end up perpetuating awful stereotypes about other women hockey fans. There are just too many articles written by women denigrating their own gender’s ability to be "good" hockey fans: painting women attending hockey games as arm candy for their menfolk or as having ulterior motives for attending, like trying to make passes at the players or the poor menfolk who’ve shown up without arm candy.

One recent example of this was endorsed by an NHL team itself. Although it’s since been taken down, an article was published on the Rangers’ official fan page, Blueshirts United, entitled "A Girl’s Guide to Watching the Rangers". You can still read it in its entirety here. (The internet never forgets, Rangers!)

Right off the bat, the title is jarring. Everyone has to start somewhere and there’s nothing wrong with being a beginner hockey fan, but why would "girls" need a guide of our own? Again, we’re not scientists, but we’re pretty sure that even our delicate lady brains can handle puzzling out such complicated calls as "delay of game - puck over glass".

So the article starts off on a bad foot and gets worse from there. The author begins by stating outright that she’s "not going to fake an alpha-male obsession with a sport, because frankly that seems exhausting". We weren’t aware that being obsessed with a sport made us alpha males, although we admit that it can sometimes get pretty exhausting. It continues with such gems as

"News of the NHL lockout's end caused as much excitement in the male world as a 70 percent off sale does in a woman's. If you're completely oblivious to what the end of the lockout means, think of it as the premiere of the newest season of "Girls" being delayed by months, and then suddenly, it's announced that it will be coming back but with a lot fewer episodes to make up for lost time."

and

"Don't be afraid to ask questions, but ask questions they (the men) will enjoy answering. Things like who their favorite player is, or who their biggest rival is. If you have a couple hours of free time, go ahead and ask about the famous Potvin chant. You'll certainly be in for a great story."

So, to recap: new lady hockey fans! Make sure you don’t bother your men with questions that they won’t enjoy answering, or they’ll break up with you, probably. You’ve also probably been living under a rock, so you don’t know what the lockout means...either that, or you’ve been too obsessed with finding sales and watching Girls, or something. You clearly only want to get into hockey to please your man, so definitely don’t look up anything about the game yourself; working independently of your man is a huge no-no!

When this article was published, the backlash was pretty incredible. Most people seemed to recognize that this piece was not okay, and to recognize that one of the worst aspects of it was that it was written by a woman who should be able to recognize just how degrading the things she’s writing are. The Devils Army blog wrote a great rebuttal, "The Guy’s Guide to Watching the Devils", which is hilarious in how ridiculously macho it intentionally comes off as. The general outrage led to the Blueshirts United article being taken down - a small, but necessary, victory.

On the same day the "Girl’s Guide" enjoyed its brief life, we read another article for which we didn’t care: "Sorry ladies, we probably aren’t friends" at Up the Pucks. (We aren’t trying to single out the nice folks at Up the Pucks, but this is what’s freshest in our minds.) The premise, that some women might judge other women hockey fans unreasonably, seemed interesting. "Yes," we thought, "this is what we’re talking about! Down with judgment, up with friends." And then it, too, veered off the rails:

"I can keep going, but no where do I own a sweater or shirtsey because I think a player is dreamy. I can't tell you what color their eyes are, but I can tell you who's a great offensive defensemen. I doubt I'll be able to pick out Cam Ward (or hell let's go closer to home, Marian Gaborik/Sven Baertschi) in a crowd, but you wanna chat about their strength and weaknesses? Sure let's hang out and chat!

I am not a unique little snowflake! There's more women like this out there, but I let a few awful ones ruin the potential of making new friends.

So truly, ladies, from the bottom of my heart, I am sorry for not chatting you up if you're a diehard fan.

Oh, but the sorry doesn't apply to you in the Crosby gear."

Right, so, that sucked. This article, like so many before it, and likely so many after it, subscribes to the same false dichotomy that you can only be a) a "real" hockey fan who doesn’t care what anyone looks like and can reel off a million statistics at a moment’s notice, or b) an awful lady who doesn’t deserve this great sport. Both of these ideas are bullshit.

We know what Cam Ward looks like, because we happen to have watched him play quite a bit of hockey. And we think he looks good. (Just for the record: Marian Gaborik doesn’t look so good, and Sven Baertschi’s a little young for us.) Neither of us own any Sidney Crosby gear. One of us does, however, own a Cristobal Huet shirt, mostly because of how great he looks, and not out of any affinity for the Blackhawks at all. And, really, why the hell should anyone care? Owning that shirt doesn’t mean that we don’t know that Cristobal Huet isn’t much of a goalie. Conversely, if Sidney Crosby’s physical attractiveness doesn’t diminish Sidney Crosby’s hockey playing, why can’t somebody acknowledge both of them?

What’s particularly frustrating is that articles like these emphasize the fact that there’s still basically only one way to overcome awful stereotypes about being a hockey loving woman: by being such a hardcore hockey expert that nobody can question your understanding of the game. There are tons of women hockey fans like this, statsheads and systems analysts, who watch each and every game like hawks to catch every detail of every play. These women are lauded as ideals of what women hockey fans should be, and it’s true that they are generally pretty awesome. However, like with almost everything else in the world, and certainly like with male hockey fans, there’s a spectrum of intensity of female hockey fandom which should also be celebrated and encouraged.

When you go to a game, there are always a group of men shouting "SHOOT" when there’s no shooting lane and heckling a shut-down defenceman as a bum because he doesn’t put up many points. Those guys aren’t experts. They love Mee-lann Loochick because of his truculence. They don’t know which Backstrom plays where, and they don’t care. And none of that has anything to do with the fact that they’re men. For every woman writing an article recapping a Vancouver Canucks game in detail or breaking down Alex Ovechkin’s sadly diminished Corsi Rel, there’s a woman out there learning to love hockey, legitimately wondering why it’s weird that Jaromir Jagr is now a Dallas Star. It has nothing to do with the fact that she’s a woman, and it’s ridiculous that people, especially other women, might be offended by this.

The net effect of all of this is that female casual hockey fans become alienated much more quickly and thoroughly. It’s very easy to become discouraged, after all, when you provide an opinion in a debate about the sport - whether well thought out or not - and the person on the opposing side derails you by talking down to you because you’re a girl. You might not know all your stuff, but frankly, the person on the opposing side probably doesn’t know all his stuff either, and the likelihood is that only one of you is going to get disrespected for it.

Why should a woman bother to delve into a discussion where she’ll just be degraded unless she’s a hockey savant? If you’re a woman at a bar and you want to join in a conversation about your favorite team, is it worth the risk of being disregarded because you’re not one of the guys? And, at the other range of the spectrum, what if you’re trying to break into the hockey media, working to get ahead in a field that is historically incredibly dominated by men? What if you want to be a hockey analyst but you think reading tweets out loud on the air is stupid? Too bad, is what. (Sorry, Andi Petrillo. We’re rooting for you.)

Shouldn’t hockey-loving women - all of us, from those hanging out at the local bar or message board to those trying to make it in the media - band together and prop each other up instead of talking down about each other as was done on Up the Pucks, Blueshirts United, and everyone’s favorite, While the Men Watch? And, regardless of whether we’re talking to men or other women, why should we have to prove anything about our fandom other than our legitimate enthusiasm for the game?

There is so much to gain from treating one another with dignity, and nothing to gain from the opposite. Luckily, an increasing majority of hockey fans recognizes this. Women’s voices and opinions are being sought out far more frequently, and one fantastic example is SB Nation. From Laura Astorian who runs the ship over at St. Louis Game Time, to Cassie McClellan at Raw Charge, Sandie Gauthier and Cheryl Bradley at Mile High Hockey, and Denise Brock at Jewels from the Crown, to so many more writers, editors, managers, and commenters - women’s voices are heard on every SB Nation hockey site. We’re incredibly proud of the community that is SB Nation hockey, and we’re both proud to write for our respective sites.

"I used to ALWAYS get "lol nice try" as comments on blogs and message boards because I’m a girl," says Laura Saba, of The Active Stick and Habs Eyes on the Prize. "But now people, men and women, seem to ask me about everything from cap hits to fancy stats, and that’s pretty cool. I think it’s pretty telling that the respect we now get is the thing we like the best."

Lest you think we’re suggesting some sort of unrealistic utopia of happy hockey friends, we wanted to tell you about how we met, in an online hockey community of women who don’t have much in common except hockey. There are those who grew up with hockey, those who wandered into following hockey independently; some got dragged to hockey games by friends, whether women or men. We are Sabres fans, Hawks fans, Leafs fans, Sharks fans, etc. Some of us think Crosby is the best player in the world. Some of us think Ovechkin is. There’s a small but vocal Giroux contingent. Some of us think some combination of those three players is hot, and some of us don’t at all, and some of us don’t care at all. And while we all share a general interest in hockey, even that isn’t uniform: some of us are intense hockey fanatics, and some are more casual fans who follow other sports more closely.

But what united us at first was the desire to discuss hockey together. Those who knew more helped those who knew less, and we all watched and learned (and yelled) together. Now we travel, to visit each other and to go on hockey trips (the draft in Pittsburgh was particularly fun - and full of yelling!) We’re friends far beyond our joint hockey fandom, but none of it ever would have started if we hadn’t been willing to view each other with respect, and to judge each other primarily on our enthusiasm for hockey, and, let’s be real, on our team allegiances.

Our community isn’t the only great gathering of women, either - far from it. Thanks to the power of Twitter, it’s so easy to find other women who follow our own teams, our rival teams (so much fun!) or teams we don’t know a lot about. From there, through meetups, bonding over favorite players and players we hate, games that were awesome and plays that were spectacular, we form bonds. In Boston, those bonds have led to the formation of the Bessie Moss Club, a group of women who now hang out on a regular basis. Named after the secretary of Charles Adams, the woman who originally named the Bruins, the "club" meets at the Fours on a regular basis to watch games, and even hangs out together outside of hockey. For many of us, hockey has become an avenue to make some of our closest friends - all because of one great shared interest.

"I had maybe two female friends before I got into hockey," says hockey blogger Ally Pelphrey. "Now I have more female friends than male friends."

To steal a line we read somewhere, we aren’t unique little snowflakes. Our friends are totally rad, but these are just a few examples of how much richer a hockey fan experience can be for anyone. We need to work to take away the instances of tearing each other down simply based on gender. Based on the response to the article on Blueshirts United, we think, and hope, that the hockey community as a whole is headed in the right direction. After all, it doesn’t seem so hard, does it? If every hockey fan, male or female or other, treats every other hockey fan, male or female or other, as just a hockey fan, we’ll reach a point soon where articles like "Girl’s Guide" aren’t written in the first place, and where novel-length articles like ours are so self-evident that they won’t be necessary at all.

We would love to hear your stories in the comments, whether they’re great experiences you’ve had within your community, or negative experiences you wish you could change. Let’s be friends.

----

1 We mean, of course, heterosexual women. But it seems likely to us that anyone misguided enough to judge a woman based on her sex is probably also going to be misguided in other aspects. Apologies for the seeming heteronormativity of this piece.

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