Mist rose up from the cool ice surface, suspending a light fog that made one end of the rink hardly visible from the other. The ice had been freshly flooded earlier in the morning and no one had used it since. The arena was still and peaceful – a tranquil escape from the busy world just outside the lobby doors. A crash and screaming laughter interrupted my daydreaming, so I headed towards the stands where I took a seat to watch the players partake in their weekly practice. Listening intently to the drills explained by their coach, the girls got up from one knee and showed off their skills.
Throughout the entire practice, I watched the coach explain each drill once, and the players perform them with few mistakes. I was a goalie in guy's hockey for eight years, and I never saw a male team perform any drill as well as these girls did after only having it explained once. Yet, girls are discriminated against in guy’s hockey because it is believed they are too weak, not as talented as any guy, and do not show the same competitive level – not to mention that they do not possess the innate “hockey-sense” of a male, therefore they cannot perform drills as well. Based on experience, research, and the opinions of many female and male hockey players, the above statements can easily be confirmed as false.
Shannon Hunter is a 20-year-old hockey player, now playing in a competitive women’s league, but has been playing since the age of six. Although she started playing with boys, Shannon was forced to switch over to a girls' league when she was 13 because her coach at the time believed it was too rough for a young girl, and her parents agreed. When asked about this, Shannon aggressively disagrees with her parents' decision to move her into girls' hockey.
“I was tough enough,” she says with a grin. “I grew up with an older brother and sister. I wasn’t some tiny little girl, either. I was just as tall as most of the guys I played with and against.” Although Shannon’s thin frame and average height do not suggest it, she is one feisty girl!
Just like Shannon, I was forced to switch into girls' hockey as well because I was too small to make the more competitive-level team going into my mid-teenage years. By switching into girls' hockey, however, I had the privilege in my late teens to play the highest level of women’s hockey for my age group: Intermediate AA. My coach was Wes Jarvis, a former National Hockey League player, who was drafted by the Washington Capitals and made his way to the Toronto Maple Leafs. My assistant coach was Tim Armstrong, another former NHL player. On the subject of hitting, Armstrong and Jarvis shared the same view.
“These girls are playing elite hockey, and they know how to handle themselves. If hitting was introduced into the league I think it would cut down on injuries.”
Injuries are part of the game, unfortunately, but they can be reduced. When body checking is introduced to young hockey players, it can be terrifying for a parent who has a 65-pound kid right in the thick of things. It is understandable for a concerned parent to want to take their child out of the sport, but girls should not be pulled out because the game is too rough for them. Kids are similar in size at age 8, and they are not going to get hurt if they are properly taught how to hit and how to receive a hit – which they are. Teaching kids how to do this properly when they are young is just one way to cut down on injuries.
In my one year of playing Intermediate AA, I witnessed three serious head injuries – one resulting in a girl on my team having to wear a halo and full neck brace for four months – and countless minor injuries that could have been avoided if girls were allowed to body check. In competitive women’s leagues, girls fight their hardest for the puck and they go barreling into the boards after other players like heat-seeking missiles. Accidents and injuries happen, but more occur when players do not understand how to properly give and receive a body check.
Shaking her head and allowing her dark curls to fall neatly around her face, Shannon says, “If a player goes into the corner knowing they are allowed to hit, there is no need for them to avoid a collision and end up awkwardly hitting the other player anyway."
Undoubtedly, awkward collisions and hits from behind are the leading cause for injury in women’s hockey, which could easily be avoided by allowing body checking in women’s leagues.
Girls' hockey associations will not allow hitting because they claim it is too dangerous. Meanwhile, there are more injuries due to hitting in girls' hockey than there are in guys' hockey. However, if body checking was allowed, players would not skate with their heads down through the neutral zone, or the “trolley tracks,” as it is commonly called, and they would not turn their back to retrieve a puck in the corner, which leaves them vulnerable to hits from behind.
Jarvis believes women can handle the hitting, but he also believes girls need a rough sport to show they are just as good as, or better, than the boys. Leaning against the wall outside the dressing room door, he says, “Girls don’t get enough appreciation for how hard they work and how good they actually are. If they grow up playing guys' hockey, they’ll be tough, and they will have the skill and compete level to play real competitive girls' hockey when the time comes.”
To be fair, many towns have adapted to allowing girls to play hockey by creating female leagues for young players. Although it is a smart decision and it enables anyone to play the game, Shannon disagrees with this. “All the girl hockey players I know grew up playing with the boys. I think putting young girls into their own league just teaches them that they aren’t equal to guys, and they aren’t good enough to play with them.” Young girls have enough trouble as it is feeling accepted, and do not need further discrimination, which will only hurt their self-esteem.
Unfortunately, girls' hockey at a young age does not get very much attention, and it is hardly ever taken seriously. Although it is positive to have girls' leagues starting at a young age to avoid all the controversy later on in their hockey careers, it also conditions young female players to think they need their own league in order to get fair playing time, or to feel "good enough."
“Growing up being the only girl on my hockey team made me feel special, but I was never treated like a girl – like I was different from anyone else – until later on,” Shannon says in an unwavering voice. “It definitely helped me become a better player and it made me feel good that I could do something that maybe not a lot of other girls have done before.”
It may be different in other sports due to body-mass, but co-ed hockey is the perfect solution to let girls express themselves and show that they are just as good as any guy, and it enables everyone to feel accepted.
There are simple solutions to the discrimination of girls in guys' hockey; however, not much action is being taken to make these changes. Men’s hockey is still televised a great deal more than women’s hockey (the only exception being at the Olympics), males are often chosen over females on hockey teams, even if the female is just as good or better than the male, and females are often tarnished or overlooked for their abilities.
As for Wes Jarvis’ opinion on girls being discriminated against in guy’s hockey, “There’s no reason for it,” he says, “any girl can be just as good as any guy. It’s not about sex; it’s whether or not they have the determination, compete level, and hockey sense of a natural player – look at Manon Rhéaume.” Rhéaume was the first and only female player thus far to ever play in the NHL, and she certainly proved that a girl can be just as good as any guy.
The girls were doing exactly that as I watched them practise hard, but the one thing I noticed above all else was that they were having fun. The team truly enjoys playing together and showing off for one another, proving that both the compete and skill levels are there, just like with any male hockey player.
“It doesn’t really matter if people don’t think we’re good because we know we’re good, says Shannon, shrugging her shoulders. “We just have to prove it.”