When you hit a certain age or a certain stride in life, there’s a good chance that someone else in the wings will be watching everything you do. That’s a fact of life. Whatever it is that you succeed at doing, there will be someone, usually younger, who's looking to emulate you.
This is especially true for professional athletes, who usually get paid big money to execute and hone their skill set. These people serve as a symbol of hope for many, including children, in disadvantaged positions who might not see much representation for those like them.
The new National Women’s Hockey League and the Canadian Women’s Hockey League operate as the ultimate destinations for thousands upon thousands of female hockey players. They are both small, both fledgling, and each is under significant pressure to stay afloat in a community that is still learning to value the women’s side of the sport. One way they do this is through grassroots community work, reaching out to younger players and making games and events family-friendly so as to build up a potential talent pool, as well as to increase interest and awareness.
The women who play in these leagues are in a unique position; many are pioneers for their sport, providing representation where there has been little to none for so long. Many of them remember when their options for hockey heroes were limited to the NHL or the couple dozen female players on their country’s Olympic roster.
For Calgary Inferno goaltender Kathy Desjardins, Manon Rhéaume -- the first woman to break the gender barrier and play an NHL game -- was her role model. Boston Pride defender Blake Bolden and Boston Blades forward Erin Kickham looked up to Angela Ruggiero. Other players, like Connecticut Whale blueliner Kaleigh Fratkin, saw family members as their inspiration. All of them have one thing in common: they have the chance to become that role model for future generations of girls’ and women’s hockey players -- and they understand the importance of that fact.
“It’s definitely humbling to be ‘the role model’ for young girls,” said New York Riveters forward Celeste Brown, echoing what plenty of her counterparts feel by being on a stage larger than any they might have previously dreamed of.
Unlike many, Brown didn’t grow up with a role model in the conventional sense. Born in Great Falls, Montana, she caught the hockey bug late and wasn’t exposed to other female players until attending boarding school in Lake Placid.
“It was like night and day,” she said of the experience. “It was eye-opening to be exposed to the number of girls out there playing only girls.”
Even then, Brown just wanted to play. Setting a positive example for those following her wasn’t a priority...until she got to the National Women’s Hockey League, where the stage went from regional to national, and meant taking on everything that came with it.
That means more than autograph signings and media appearances, however; it means maintaining a clean image, even within the context of a fast-paced, dangerous sport.
“Setting a good example” has been a priority for both the CWHL and NWHL since their inception, and that’s clear with every promotional spot and press release. The CWHL’s commercials during their live streams last year put special emphasis on the “wholesomeness” of the league’s athletes. This year, the catchphrase has been, “Building Leaders, Building Dreams,” with a focus on helping women reach their full potential in hockey. At the season opener of the NWHL’s Buffalo Beauts, reporters asked repeatedly what the day meant for players as far as giving the little girls in the stands ambition to someday reach their level within hockey. Every player interviewed in this piece has mentioned the importance of having younger players follow in their footsteps.
In many ways, this is a natural response, particularly when you consider that the women whose names grace the backs of these girls’ brand-new jerseys rarely had any other women’s names on their own. Representation is a huge part of empowerment; when you see others like you doing the things you might never have considered doing yourself, it opens up a wealth of opportunity for you.
This is especially true for the women of color who play professional hockey now. They represent a growing percentage of young girls becoming interested in hockey, in no small part due to their presence within the sport. Despite there being no ethnicity-based youth hockey enrollment statistics, Julie Chu, a four-time Olympian and a Clarkson Cup winner with the Minnesota Whitecaps in 2010, has seen the impact firsthand. Growing up in what she calls “very much an American household,” being an Asian-American player in a homogenous sport never set off any kind of bells for her. That was, until she worked at a hockey school with Cammi Granato and had a mother gush to her about how excited her daughter was to see her on the ice.
“She said her daughter came home and told her, ‘There’s another player who looks like me!’ and that’s when it hit home,” she said in a phone interview. “The realm of possibilities has grown. Hockey has started to become more accessible and attainable.”
Blake Bolden said she just wanted to fit in with everyone else growing up, but has realized the unique position she is in as an African-American player. However, unlike Chu, who grew up being the only one of her ethnicity on the ice, Bolden grew up seeing girls like her at the rink. She sees an incredible opportunity for unity in her situation.
“I’d love to reach out to every African-American playing hockey and create a community,” she said.
Community is important when it comes to these players, regardless of race and regardless of the league. Both the CWHL and NWHL take pride in their grassroots efforts to create, engage and sustain their fanbase, whether with clinics and tickets for youth leagues or autograph signings and public skates after games. However, it makes a difference when those players have a similar background, and for Connecticut Whale forward and captain Jessica Koizumi, having someone close by who shared that was a big help. That person happened to be Chu.
“I certainly had difficulties during my childhood as one of the few Asian-American female hockey players,” she said via email. “I was teased constantly in Minnesota for my nationality with silly things like the way my eyes look. It’s just kids being kids, where anything different was a target to them. Moving to California made things easier, given that the Asian population in southern California was much higher than Minnesota. Still, I was the only Asian-American hockey player on all of my teams growing up.
“Julie Chu was the first Asian teammate I ever played with. She also is the most renowned Asian-American women’s hockey player, and anyone that knows her will tell you that she is a true role model because of the way she carries herself.”
She went on to say of her experience that growing and maturing as a person helped her rise above discrimination and insecurity. “I am proud of who I am and where my family comes from,” she said. “It makes me smile when I see a young Asian-American hockey player, boy or girl, lacing up their skates...I know I'm not just a role model for young girls, but for the Asian demographic as well.”
The pressure to represent your respective league, people like you, and players everywhere can be great, but such pressure isn't explicitly coming from the leagues themselves, according to the athletes. Both CWHL and NWHL players said they don’t face any particular pressure from league PR to present themselves in any specific way.
But being on a larger stage and being considered a pro athlete opens players up to pressure regardless, especially for those who have come into the league straight out of college. The Boston Blades’ Erin Kickham, for example, said her role has diverged from the one she was in as a forward for Boston College.
“I wasn’t getting a lot of ice time [at BC],” she said. “My role with the Blades is more of an on-ice role, and I’d love to continue to develop there. Playing in a pro league brings the pressure of representing the team in a positive, good light...whatever you do in life, you represent the team that you play for.”
That in itself means being aware of everything you say and do, both in real life and on social media. The players are almost entirely self-policing in how they represent themselves to the public and to fans, especially on social media. Neither women’s hockey league has an official social media policy.
“We haven’t had someone tell us what we can and can’t say,” Bolden said. “We’re encouraged sometimes to do a Throwback Thursday or Motivation Monday photo [both popular hashtags on social media]...but we do have a responsibility as individuals to be mindful of what’s around.”
Riveters goaltender and NWHL communications rep Jenny Scrivens says her league wishes to “empower [its] players to find their own voice.”
“There are no real rules set in place. We want them to be themselves on social media,” she said.
That doesn’t mean players don’t set standards for themselves. New York Riveters defender Gabie Figueroa says she thinks twice before posting something online.
“Now, more than ever, I have to think about, ‘If I say this publicly, will someone think less of me?’” she said. “I want to make sure that when people look me up after games, there are positive things about me out there.”
Kathy Desjardins says she knows that both online and in person, she has to conduct herself a certain way because she knows she represents more than just herself; she represents an organization and a league. She stands out from the crowd, rocking vivid red hair and tattoos, but joked that perhaps she could be a role model for people who look like her as well.
“I don’t feel there’s an issue with it,” she said. “This is what we signed up for. It’s part of being a pro athlete.” (This refrain was echoed repeatedly in my interviews with these players.)
Kickham agreed, saying that playing in a league like the CWHL brings the pressure of representing your team and the league in “a respectful, good light.”
“The people most looked up to as role models are those ‘stud’ players, and they might get more attention because of that,” she said of the idea that players are being watched for their behavior. “If they don’t exhibit [those typical ‘role model’] characteristics, it might make it harder, because that’s just not who they are. Really, though, we’re all role models to those people who want to play.”
Still, it does seem as though the pressure to do that comes from the idea that women are typically pinpointed to provide positive examples for younger generations to follow, more so than men. It’s one of the many reasons that U.S. women’s soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo has been almost universally panned by the mainstream media following her domestic violence charges, while the Chicago Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane has enjoyed the privilege of having his sexual assault investigation painted as a “redemption” story arc.
There are some exceptions: Jessica Koizumi brought up Greg Hardy, then of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, who was charged with domestic violence against his ex in 2014, was suspended by the league (although his suspension was later reduced from 10 to four games) and who was condemned by many for his actions, particularly after images surfaced of his ex-girlfriend’s injuries. At the time of our interview, he was still in the NFL, but is now a free agent. His situation can still be considered as an exception to the rule, as many players with charges of violence against women are still employed both in the NFL and in other leagues.
“A lot of stuff is swept under the rug in men’s sports because there are so many cases, you have to divert attention,” said Kaleigh Fratkin. “You don’t expect women to do this, so you play right into stereotypes.”
Gender stereotypes -- including the idea that men are naturally more aggressive, while women take more of a “nurturing” role -- play a huge role in the assumptions that women are both expected to project more of a positive image and are expected to be less likely to engage in violent or otherwise negative activities.
“I think women are innately assumed to have certain qualities,” Kickham said. “And it’s like, if she doesn’t, what does that say about her? If a guy does, what does that say about him?”
Fighting is tied to that dichotomy: something that's framed as “a part of the game” on the men’s side, but when women partake in it, the reactions vary from stifled laughter to pearl-clutching and outright patronization. Men’s hockey fights are called like boxing matches; women’s hockey fights often earn the only 30 seconds of airtime on SportsCenter that the sport will see in six months, and 25 of them will focus on how very frowned-upon aggression and violence are in the women who play.
“Gender roles are huge when it comes to this,” Celeste Brown said. “Women are supposed to act properly...It’s our job to break that down.”
Another factor is the relative youth of women’s professional hockey, as compared to men’s -- while the NHL has been in existence for nearly a century, the CWHL has enjoyed barely a decade, while the NWHL just completed its first season. As has repeatedly been pointed out, neither league makes anywhere near as much in revenue as the NHL does, either. This means paychecks are a huge difference as well -- CWHL players are unpaid, while NWHL players get paid in the $10,000-$25,000 range.
Figueroa pointed out that the disparity in scale between men’s and women’s hockey means that her league is at a point where “we need to engage with the fanbase...more people will come if they feel connected to the players and personalities.”
That means autograph signings, public skates, and other fan-related events after every game are the norm, at least at this point. It also means that portraying a wholesome image of every player is paramount to maintaining the interest of families and of younger players.
“In the initial phases of professional women’s hockey, there’s so much talk about role models because it’s a new thing,” Kickham said. “Since we’re in this role, we want to make it work, we want to make it successful, so [younger players] can dream of being in the league.”
Participating in a league in its inaugural phase has made Fratkin grateful to be in the spot she’s in.
“I think what’s great about being part of the original crop is that, you know, being about 80 players here, there’s enough of a number to ensure the founders are doing a good job to set a precedent,” she said. “The leaders now are doing a good job, so as the league grows, players who come into this league will do just as well.”
Leadership comes in many different forms, as well. Chu said the players who influence her the most are the ones she sees on a regular basis.
“A role model is someone who has the ability to influence those around them in a positive way,” she said. “My teammates, the ones I see daily, are my role models. They’re the ones who, when the cameras are off, are doing their best every day.”
Every one of the athletes I interviewed said that being a role model was something they were getting used to, but was something that they cherished at the same time. They are prepared to do this for as long as they have to until the focus shifts from the personalities to the on-ice product, which Jenny Scrivens says could happen in the NWHL’s second year.
“Once the novelty wears off, I think everyone will start to focus on the game a little bit more,” she said. “At this point, helping grow the game is at the forefront of my mind. I never saw professional hockey as an opportunity for me, so at this point I’m willing to deal with it.”
Dealing with stereotypes, double standards and a weighted emphasis on person over athlete is never easy; at best, it makes for an incomplete and shallow portrayal of women’s hockey. However, given that every incarnation before the C and the N has failed, these athletes and the leagues themselves are determined to succeed by any means. Moreover, representation now exists where none was over a decade ago, meaning that these players have a responsibility to set the bar for those following them.
They also have the power to change perceptions of femininity and female beauty; Boston Pride forward and captain Hilary Knight, in promoting the phrase “Strong is Beautiful,” has already helped to jump-start that conversation. By putting forth images and messages of confidence, strength, hard work, and positivity, pro women’s hockey could help raise a generation of young female athletes who not only play well, but live full, confident and happy lives -- and with self-image as crucial sticking point, especially for girls entering puberty, this means everything. More representation and encouraging diversity could also mean a world of difference for the players today who might feel the same isolation that Jessica Koizumi did upon playing in her youth.
At the same time, it’s important that moving forward, that shift from person to athlete does happen, as ultimately the sport is what these players have in common more than anything. As exposure increases (which is slowly but surely happening, we hope), the focus on what these women do on the ice should also increase. After all, it's what they do there that has so many young girls following in their footsteps.
(Photo credit: NWHL/Twitter)