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Reasons I’m Crying: Wonder Women in Ice Hockey

It only took 14.346 seconds for Kendall Coyne Schofield and Brianna Decker to prove that Hockey is for Everyone.

Reasons I’m Crying: Wonder Women in Ice Hockey

Estimated Reading Time: 12 Minutes

USA Hockey’s Kendall Coyne Schofield and Brianna Decker became the first women to ever participate in the NHL All Star Game’s Skills Competition.

I anticipate a lot of people responding to this article as an overly dramatic take on a “relatively small moment” in sports history. Well, for any haters out there, you can stop reading here. I’m going to be as emotional as I want and celebrate this moment. Why is this so important? Why does this matter so very much?

Exhibit A:

Women have been playing ice hockey almost as long as men have been. Evidence shows women’s teams from the USA and Canada competing in tournaments with men as far back as 1916. The Seattle Vamps were formed quickly in the early 1920’s for a women’s tournament to compete against two Canadian teams, the Vancouver Amazons and the Victoria Kewpies. Women were playing hockey. Yes, clearly the names are incredulously sexist, but women were clearly playing hockey.

And yet, it would take almost 50 more years before a women’s collegiate ice hockey team was formed at Brown University. The story goes that Nancy Schieffelin came to a men’s practice dressed as a man and with an invitation from head coach Jim Fullerton in 1964. The Pembroke Pandas was formed as Brown’s women’s club in 1965. Slowly, other Ivy Leagues caught on and eventually women’s ice hockey became an NCAA Division I and Division III sport.

This construction of women’s hockey on the college level is the beginning of women’s hockey as we know it now. They were the pioneers. The proved that women play on a larger competitive level and have their own league. Without them, we would still be playing on small teams for tournament purposes.

Forgive the small history lesson. I am somebody who contextualizes my extreme emotions by investigating what led me there. How did I become so attached to an idea that I didn’t know I was attached to? The point of all of this is…

Hockey was no longer just for boys.

And hockey hasn’t been just for boys for a long, long time. However, you wouldn’t know that if you grew up a girl playing hockey.

Our greatest hockey heroes were men. We had no other options. There weren’t women on ESPN every morning in the highlights, scoring fantastic goals or getting into absurd fights. No one up there ever looked liked us. So we watched Gretzky and Lemieux and Brodeur and Zetterberg instead. We idolized men when we were girls.

Honestly, they were good heroes, great actually. We were lucky and on some level didn’t think about the fact that we didn’t have a woman to look up to. They skated fast, played hard and smart and were good men that our brothers, teammates and friends wanted to be like. Why wouldn’t we want to be like them too?

Answer: We didn’t know that we had another option.

Our coaches: men. Our friends from training camp: boys. The referees: men. If we were playing local rather than travel, you sure as hell weren’t not in a girl’s league. You played with the boys. We were in a “no girls land.”

At my most active, I played hockey with a team ten months out of the year. About half of that was travel or school depending on the year. The other time was a house league at my rink that girls were permitted in. That time also included training camps around practice with guest coaches or skills experts throughout the season. In all that time, a little over ten years of my life, I had two female coaches total and both were in training camps, not for a team. I played on a girls team for only 3.5 years. Otherwise, I was on a boys/coed team or in coed training camps. Additionally, my last three years I played on a girls team in the house league: the only female team in a coed league.

Most of the guys were great. A few others pulled cheap shots often when they could. One of my last games in that house league, I was blindsided by a punch to the face in the final seconds of the game by a boy 6 inches taller than me. Why? He was mad that he got beat by a bunch of girls. That’s a violent example but it’s a dramatic one too. We were often told we couldn’t skate as fast, shoot as hard or play as well and never would by some of those boys, mostly by those boys. The girls who were good enough to play with the boys were our heroes: they could hang tough.

You’re quite literally playing in a boy’s club.

For every horrible boy or sexist male coach, there were also the great ones. Shout out to Al Karl, my head coach junior and senior year. I can safely tell you he taught me more about being a leader than anyone in my life and how to handle everything with humor and hard work simultaneously. The man made a disparate group of girls from different levels and towns in one of the best families I’ve ever had. He made us better players and better people. He made the best of our situation when there weren’t other options for us. Most of my teammates on travel drove well over an hour each direction to get to practice. It was the closest option, the access just wasn’t there for everyone.

This is finally changing…

The year I was born, USA Hockey declared that 6,336 women and girls were registered to play ice hockey nationwide. You have to be registered with USA Hockey to play any form of travel hockey and a decent amount of school and local clubs. It isn’t every club or team or camp around the country but it is a decent barometer. So again, that is 6,336 women and girls total in the United States of America in 1990.

What are the current registered numbers? 79,355 is the most recent number from USA Hockey. 33,236 of those girls are 10 years old or younger, like the girl in Exhibit A. And remember, this isn’t even Canada or the rest of the world. This is just the US.

Women’s hockey is becoming a legitimate and exciting sport. This is all thanks to the Olympics and just straight up awesome women.

Coyne Schofield and Decker have stories similar to this, I’m sure. It won’t be identical but there will be overlaps. They worked long hours to be better and drove further distances to get to another team of young women. They were consistently underestimated and consistently surprised everyone. Both made illustrious careers by being the best girls in a boys world and went onto those elite college programs that are like getting into the NHL for women sometimes. They looked up to the great NHL players and had male coaches most of the time. Eventually, they made it to Team USA and right as the hockey world was shifting for women. Through time and perseverance and carving your own path, two amazing women joined many more women on the US Olympic team and many more amazing women around the world to lace up.

The rise in women registering for USA Hockey and thereby joining this sport is partly attributed to the publicizing of women’s hockey on the Olympic Games. Decker and Coyne Schofield were both on the 2014 and 2018 Olympic teams, each bringing home a silver and gold medal respectively. After each Olympics, USA Hockey saw a surge in female registrations and these stellar players are a part of it. Seeing women dominating a game most women didn’t know they could even play is causing a wave of women to come to the game.

No woman had ever taken part in an NHL event until the All-Star Game

The fact that they were even invited is a massive indicator of how hockey is changing towards women. Just this year, Emily Kaplan at ESPN wrote an article about the New York Islanders having three women on their broadcast team. In the article, analyst AJ Mleczko talks specifically about whether little girls today understand what having women talking about the NHL means for them. And then we had two women suit up with the All-Stars.

Kendall Coyne Schofield went first in the fastest skater contest. Colorado Avalanche Nathan MacKinnon pulled out last minute due to a foot injury. The lady stepped in. The competition is how fast can a player do a single lap. She logged an impressive 14.346 seconds. Her time was faster than Arizona Coyote Clayton Keller, securing seventh place. The point wasn’t the time but the action. A woman skated faster than an NHL All Star. Anyone can be a great hockey player.

Brianna Decker was next. She was actually only demonstrating the premier passer course to the competitors. She logged a time of 1 minute 6 seconds. It was that time that mattered. Leon Draisaitl from the Edmonton Oilers would go on to win the event… with a time of 1 minute 9 seconds. He had a slower time than the demo by Decker.

The internet exploded for both but especially for Decker when her time was posted. Even Draisaitl took to twitter to campaign for Decker to be paid the $25,000 as the victor for the premier passing event. In the end it prevailed and Decker was awarded her $25k.

Hockey had taken a major step forward in inclusion.

Those of us who grew up never thinking that such a day was possible were emotional. Both women are less than two years younger than me. I could have played them in tournaments or seen them in larger training camps if I had lived in the Midwest. I remembered friends making boy’s varsity in freshman year and thinking what an achievement that was. Or getting into a college program with a scholarship. Or a prep school to be scouted for pros. How naive I was to think that was as far as we could go! So much more was possible and is possible still than we ever thought back then.

Little girls everywhere saw those two strong ladies. If women were lacing up because of the Olympics, it will only increase now. We’re at a dawning of a new time in hockey where, as Coyne Schofield sometimes tweets, #HockeyIsForEveryone.

There are still trolls out there.

Twitter and Facebook are filled with men asking why it is important that women competed. Many are calling it a PR stunt, diminishing the accomplishments of women who are better players than they can ever be. It is beyond frustrating and a not-so-gentle reminder of how far we still have to go.

Most notably, analyst Pierre McGuire had a less than ideal interaction with Coyne Schofield during the Tampa Bay Lightning at Pittsburgh Penguins game a couple nights ago. While standing in between the benches together, McGuire told the Olympian where each team sat and told her to be an analyst, not a fan. Many have called out McGuire for “mansplaining”, citing Coyne Schofield’s achievements as a player versus Maguire’s failed attempt to join the New Jersey Devils many years ago. Coyne Schofield has come to McGuire’s defense to an extent but ultimately, she’s the darling of the internet, a savior of hockey for women and anything to the contrary falls on deaf ears.

As far as those others saying the women shouldn’t have been there, the internet is fighting back there too. Moms and ds are clapping back with photos like “Exhibit A” as I keep calling it. It’s pictures of their girls watching the skate or lacing up. Parents like my own are telling the world that not only do girls play hockey but they play it damn well.

That’s why I’m crying this week.

It’s more than watching history or seeing a gender barrier broken. Those things happened too. But I cried because I saw a woman my age, an elite athlete join a clubhouse with a “No Girls Allowed” sign. I saw a woman make sure that “skating like a girl” meant damn fast. I cried because I know how much it took her to get there. And what everyone woman playing at her level had to do to get there. Every long drive. every practice at the worst hour the rink had available and every taunt from a boy that girls didn’t play hockey.

I cried knowing how many little girls watched that night and would lace up for the first time because of what she saw that night. Those little girls won’t need family friends or brothers or dads or NHL players to look up to. They have Kendall Coyne Schofield, Brianna Decker, and team USA to look up to.

I told my sister and one of our oldest friends that I was writing this article over dinner and recounted some of the facts from this article. My sister said “Look! You were a trendsetter!” Way back when, I was the girl in “Exhibit A”. Now, I’m excited to live in a world with more than just Exhibit A but an A, B, C, etc. I hope I’m a mom and have a little crazy hockey daughter who skates faster than everyone. And I hope her and all the little girls won’t feel weird or out of place but like the little warriors they are.

Cause after all, #HockeyIsForEveryone.

Sarah Jane, Sarah, or SJ-depending on the source-is a director, educator, theatre artist and now, sports blogger. She lives in Queens with her darling, not-so-sports-fan boyfriend. She played ice hockey growing up for the NJ Quarry Cats and various other teams. Being team captain her last two seasons is the most important achievement of her life to date. She proudly also was about a quarter of the size of her opponents and often led her team in both penalty minutes and enthusiasm. She's a Pittsburgh Penguins and Steelers fan (thanks, Momma!) and a New York Yankees fan (thanks, Poppa?) and was given zero choice on all three of these teams. Other hobbies include reading non-fiction books, cooking, and being spunky. Check in with her for all your greater hockey needs!

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