About 5 years ago I was living in a sub-division in Halifax. I was walking with my then 3 year old daughter, Ceili (pronounced Kay-lee), holding her hand as we took a stroll down the street. Out of the blue she said, "I wish I was a boy." I paused, then asked her why. Her answer was pretty simple, "I want to be allowed to play hockey." I re-assured her she could play when she turned 4 and the leaves fall off the trees.
I'd been involved in female hockey for almost 15 years at the time and had just finished a stint coaching Dalhousie University women's team. Ceili came to a few games and went into the dressing room on a few occasions. When I coached Metro Boston Pizza, one of the best female midget programs in Atlantic Canada, she was there too. She shared crackers with players like Alex Normore, Emma Crawley and Robyn Nicholson over the years. At 3 years of age and with a Dad very involved in female hockey I felt she would have seen many girls playing the sport. I wanted her to be able to see herself in the sport. Apparently, despite my best efforts she honestly didn't.
Since then I've been reflective of who her role models in the sport could be. There are many. The women's national teams are on TV during major events like the Olympics. She was around (but unaware) when Marie-Philip Poulin scored the winning goal in overtime to secure Canada a gold medal in what I believe was one of the most exciting hockey games I've ever seen. It was great hockey. I make it a point to watch Canadian Women's Hockey League games on Sportsnet when it's on, and I'll invite my 3 daughters to watch with me. I'll take them to local games, whether the girls are atom, peewee, bantam, midget or university. But despite this there still is something missing.
The National Hockey League and the Canadian Major Junior Hockey League dwarfs all other leagues in Canada. It's not hard to pass by anywhere and see the Maple Leafs, Canadiens, Bruins or Penguins. The Halifax Mooseheads are all the rage with youth around here. Hockey cards are everywhere. Panini sticker books are fun to collect. Each of my 3 daughters enjoy these things. The one issue I have with this exposure is all of these teams are 100% male. There are no exceptions to this rule.
While each league has had a female goaltender play in it these accomplishments are dwarfed by the thousands of male players who have played.
While the leagues want the best players that still leaves most female players on the outside looking in as fans, and some possibly in other positions on those teams, but not as players. Is the media doing a good enough job highlighting females in hockey? There could be more done in this regard, but probably not enough to make a big difference. Young girls typically don't read the paper or watch Sportscentre, though I've tried in vain to explain why Bob McKenzie is the ultimate Hockey Insider.
One area I feel we could help young girls is by making local female hockey more visible. While most young girls don't have female hockey obsessed dads they could see older girls in elementary school wearing their hockey t-shirts, hoodies or jackets. They could participate with them in school. Local female programs "AA or AAA" could be more visible with jerseys on in the community. Two local examples are the Valley Wild and Chester Flurries. They have branded female hockey. The Wild with their baby blue jerseys on and the Flurries with adorable pink ones. While pink might not work for many people, it does get the message out to young girls that hockey is their game too. The Wild have hosted initiatives aimed at attracting new female players.
If girls are going to play hockey they are going to need a connection to it. Registration signs alone aren't going to do the job. For most girls a minor hockey registration sign might as well be advertising a class for Japanese language instruction. While the NHL can't showcase female players local minor hockey associations and female zones and teams can certainly do more to showcase their players. When we are young our heroes aren't all Stanley Cup Champions. Many times they are the 14 year old girl in the hockey hoodie who told the 6 year old girl they run fast, or made some kind of connection and shared their hockey experiences with them.
When my daughter turned 4 and the leaves fell off the trees she started hockey. She was going to try it anyway, because she had a dad and mom that wanted her to. I wonder though, how many 3 year old girls are thinking that hockey isn't for them, because they won't be able to grow a playoff beard.
Let's make sure girls can see themselves in the sport.