My love for hockey found its roots in ways true for many young Canadians: learning to skate at the age of three, hours spent on backyard rinks, attending every possible parent & tot skate and public skate, willingly spending weekends at the rink watching my older brother play. It is no surprise that the very first time I wrote an entire page in my first-grade journal, it was about hockey. In grade three, picture day found me dressed in a Vancouver Canucks vest. There were Christmas’s with hockey sticks under the tree, just for me. And of course, Saturday nights watching Hockey Night in Canada.
Here is where my typical hockey story changes… this girl who undoubtedly loved the game did not play organized hockey until the age of 14. Why did I wait 9 years to play the sport I clearly loved? The simple, superficial answer is: I waited for my local minor hockey association to implement a female hockey program. Although I believe, in some respects, that this is the true reason, in recent years I have come to realize that it wasn’t that simple—there was something a lot deeper and a lot more significant that made me feel that I had to wait.
I can remember thinking that if I was a boy it wouldn’t matter how good I was, I could just join. But as girl I thought I had to be exceptional, if I wasn’t I would be letting down my gender, and giving society more of a reason to believe hockey was a male sport. As each year passed, I told myself it was too late, I couldn’t join now, everyone else had been playing since they were five. And here’s the thing, people I knew and loved asked me each year if I wanted to play. I had support from family and friends and my local minor hockey association had no reservations in terms of allowing females to play. I knew females on “male” rep teams and two of my (female) best friends played hockey. Looking back at it now, it seems absolutely bizarre that this much support would not have led me to confidently join the game.
Over the past few years I have found myself in situations that clarify what may have caused the hesitation I had to join the game as a young athlete. I have been an employee at my local sports store for the past 3 years. I love being surrounded by sports each day, but it has also exposed me to the extreme sexism people still exhibit towards sports, but most noticeably hockey. The number of times I have heard people refer to skates as ‘Girls’ and Boys’’ rather than ‘figure skates and hockey skates’ is more than cringe worthy. I’ve had customers look me up and down and then ask “Is there anyone who can help us with hockey?”. I do my best to respond to this degrading comment in a calm, non-reactive way and simply say “Yes, I can, what can I do for you?”. Sometimes that’s all it takes, but other times I’m asked “Do you actually know anything about hockey?”. Yes, these encounters happen more often with males, however, the encounters like these between myself and other females sting just a little bit more. I once had a young female hockey player come in with her mom. They were looking for a new stick. I explained the options and suggested a stick that I thought fit their needs the best. After, the mother looked at me and said “Are you sure? Do you really know about hockey?”. This encounter triggered the most alarm: this female was falling right into the sexist trap. She had a daughter of her own, a daughter who clearly played hockey… yet she still didn’t feel confident after being helped by a female. Of all the people in the world, I thought this mother would understand that females know hockey too.
So today I want to acknowledge the fact that every human on this earth has the right to love, play and know about hockey. Your gender, age, nationality, and skill level DO NOT matter. Love the game, love it for the sense of belonging it gives you, love it for its ability to make you feel brave, strong and free. Love the game for the peace it brings you and simply love the game because you love it.
It has now been 8 years since I first joined organized hockey. It took time for me to really feel like I belonged and that I was a hockey player. This wasn’t because people were telling me I wasn’t. I, myself had created a notion that you couldn’t be a ‘true’ hockey player if you only played hockey once a week, with girls half your age. I thought I wasn’t entitled to be called a hockey player. Three years after I first laced up my skates as a member of a minor hockey association I found myself on a Midget Girls Rep team—a team that attended the provincial championships, yet I still couldn’t utter the sentence “I play hockey” without feeling as if it wasn’t entirely true. I cannot quite pinpoint why this was, but I can now confidently and happily tell anyone “I am a hockey player”. I love being a hockey player. The only question you should ever have to ask yourself before declaring that you are a hockey player is: “Do I play hockey?” If the answer is yes, you are a hockey player. Your gender and skill level do not matter. You are a hockey player because you PLAY HOCKEY… it is that simple.
My journey as a female athlete, and more specifically a female who loves hockey, hasn’t always been easy. I’ve been accused of compiling my wealth of hockey knowledge simply to impress boys. I’ve been told that men will find me intimidating. But honestly I do it for me, I do it because I enjoy it, and because I love hockey. This is why you can find me shooting pucks in my garage, with no motive of making a team or trying to work my way on to the top line (I play recreational women’s hockey, we all get to play the same amount). I do it because I love it, and it has taken me a long time to accept that I’m allowed to.
I share this with you today because one of my biggest regrets has been that I didn’t join hockey as a young athlete, not because I could have been an exceptional hockey player or that maybe I could have played at a high level. I regret it because I kept myself from doing something I loved for 9 years—9 years of letting other people’s opinions dictate my life.
If you have ever felt that you cannot play hockey because you are female, or because you have never skated or maybe you think it’s too late, or for any other reason your self-doubt has offered you: I’m here to tell you that YOU CAN. And if no one else will support you, I will. If you are a shy kid, or adult, like I was be brave you’ll thank yourself for it later. Hockey is for everyone.
As Hayley Wickenheiser would say “Buck it”: Buck the sexism, the what ifs, the stereotypes and do what you love.