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The UK third tier has just made a revolutionary step forward in making hockey more inclusive for women and LGBTQ people

In explicitly stating that sex or gender expression is not a criteria by which players will be judged, the UK's NIHL has gone far beyond the inclusivity of every other hockey league in the world, and sent a true "you can play" message that is arguably revolutionary in hockey.

This is not a statement that will surprise anyone involved with the game - but hockey is not the most inclusive sport in the world.

Like many sports, the traditional hockey culture is one of macho masculinity - one whose problems have been put under the spotlight more and more as awareness of them has risen in recent years.

Despite increasing efforts to change attitudes, hockey often suffers the attitude common to most traditionally male sports - a culture where homophobia, misogyny and intolerance has often been present in considerable amounts, whether it be in locker rooms, the way the game is reported, or in the stands.

The issue of gender and sexual politics in hockey is one that SBN has written about at some length - particularly with some excellent articles by our friends over at Pension Plan Puppets in Toronto. It's also been covered a fair bit here on SCoC - unfortunately, most of this has been responding to negative incidents.

However, today comes some truly positive news with regard to hockey and inclusivity - and it comes from a surprising direction.

The UK's NIHL is the third tier in the UK league system. The vast majority of teams are unpaid players - either youngsters trying to find a way to climb the ladder and develop or experienced players who love to play the game but perhaps can't commit quite enough time to a hockey career to play in the higher tiers, which are semi-professional or pro.

Today, though, it became a revolutionary.

The NIHL have announced a change to their rules which is potentially a HUGE step forward for inclusivity in hockey. The rule in question is outlined below:

At this point, some of you may be wondering "so what? We've seen women play in men's pro leagues before - right now Team Canada's Shannon Szabados is playing in the SPHL, there are several places in Europe - notably Finland, where women play alongside men and the first woman to play an NHL game, Manon Rheaume, did so in 1992 for Tampa Bay in a preseason game.

The key thing with this rule, however, is in the wording:

"The NIHL is open to all players, regardless of sex or gender expression".

Now - we did some looking around. No other league in the world states in its rules that the sex or gender of a player is no barrier to them playing in the league. The NHL rules don't state that it's a men's-only league (unlike the AHL, which does) but in no league charter is there wording as specific as that above.

As if that wasn't enough, the last three words of the rule are the most revolutionary ever seen in a hockey league charter. By specifically stating that the league is open to all players regardless of gender expression, and not just "of sex", the NIHL is specifically making clear that it is a league where players of any gender can compete on an equal footing.

That means, unlike any other sport on earth, and without doubt any other hockey league, that no athlete will be turned away from competing, whether they be male, female, agender, transgender, gender-fluid, or any other of the myriad ways that gender is expressed.

That means, essentially, that it is possibly the closest definition of the much-quoted mantra "if you can play, you can play" to exist.

What the NIHL have done is become the first hockey league in history to enshrine in their constitution and openly say that people of all genders, including those outside the traditional "male/female" binary and those who are either in the process of or who have already transitioned from one to another, can compete together as athletes without any questions being asked or any procedures to follow, on the same ice - a state of affairs that some in hockey would even now claim is unthinkable.

A state of affairs, in fact, that exists nowhere else in any sport in the world.

Whilst nobody is claiming that a third-tier hockey league in a minor hockey nation merely enshrining gender and sexual equality in its rulebook will solve any of the very real and deep-rooted problems that hockey culture has with regard to discrimination - what this does do is mean that there is now a hockey organisation somewhere in the world that has done something that not only nobody else in hockey, but very few organisations in sport has done when it comes to equality.

They have come as close as a hockey league can in the rules to truly saying "our hockey league is for everyone".

The fact that they have done so is a small but very significant step forward in making hockey a more inclusive sport for everyone, regardless of who they are.

And that is something that should be celebrated.