In Canada and other hockey-loving countries, many studies have been done to determine what motivates and inspires players, but usually this examination is of the youth or professional-level players. Fortunately, women’s recreational players have a champion in researcher Denyse Lafrance Horning, a marketing professor at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario. In June, she launched the third phase of a research project to understand why women play recreational hockey, the obstacles they face, how much support they receive from family and friends, and what has or could cause them to quit playing.
In 2012, Lafrance Horning, who has played women’s recreational hockey herself for over 25 years, conducted a study to examine why adult women adopt and participate in the sport of hockey. She was motivated to do the study because she was surprised by the number of recreational players in her area who had no formal prior hockey playing experience but decided to learn the game as mature adults, and she wanted to uncover what was behind their desire to play.
No notable research had previously been done on this demographic. As she explains, "Rarely are adult women rec hockey players considered ‘real’ hockey players." To help change this prevailing mindset, she decided to collect some hard data on this overlooked group. She launched an online survey, which she thought would provide small-scale data, but much to her surprise, it was completed by over 780 adult female recreational hockey players in Canada and the USA. She was amazed at the number of respondents—so many players cared enough about their sport to take the time to complete the survey. She stated that "the strong response indicated to me that this was a very attentive group of players who were eager to be heard and better understood."
The results themselves were also a bit unexpected; Lafrance Horning noticed a clear correlation between the age of players and their reasons for playing. The obstacles and concerns of the players were also closely tied to players’ ages.
In light of the intriguing results of the 2012 survey (notably, findings from this study were recently published as a chapter in the Canadian Museum of History’s book “Hockey: Challenging Canada’s Game"), Lafrance Horning decided that further investigation into the minds of women rec hockey players was warranted. Based on the age-delineated trend from the 2012 survey results, in 2016 she conducted in-depth personal interviews with a cross-section of adult female players from a wide range of age groups. What she learned in her interviews validated her suspicion that a divide is developing between the older players who first began learning to play as adults in rec leagues and the younger players who grew up playing hockey and enter rec leagues with a very solid foundation of skills.
The dynamic uncovered by Lafrance Horning in the interviews pointed to a substantial amount of tension between the younger and older rec-level players on teams, players from opposite ends of the skill-level spectrum who often have no choice but to play in the same leagues in areas where options for women’s rec hockey are limited. The interviews revealed that the younger players often feel they are not welcome in a rec league because they will be seen as puck hogs, too rough, or intimidating to the older players. The older players commented that they do not always feel welcome in a league because they can’t always keep up with the younger players’ levels of play and worry that they therefore frustrate those teammates. But the other surprising revelation from these interviews was that, consistently, older players expressed respect for the younger players’ skills, while the younger players expressed admiration for the courage of the older players to commit to learning such a difficult sport.
A more troubling finding of the 2012 survey and 2016 interviews was the rate at which the older players were abandoning the sport, often because they feel they can’t compete with the younger, more experienced players entering the recreational leagues. As Lafrance points out, "Older women tend to join hockey with a group of their friends. And because of this, if they become frustrated with some aspect of the level of play, they will also quit as a group.”
One of Lafrance Horning’s goals in the 2018 survey is to see how the results of this year’s survey differ from the data collected in 2012 to assess whether the tension due to age and skill level gaps is increasing. She also hopes to learn more about what compels women to quit recreational hockey. She plans to widely publicize the results so that women’s leagues and organizations can look at options for implementing policies or structures that will encourage all players to stick with the game.
"Young players can now aspire to play at the collegiate, national or even professional level. Many older players, however, were deprived of such opportunities. For many of these mature players, their rec hockey represents years of exclusion and a chance to finally participate in a game that they long-loved from the sidelines," Lafrance Horning observes. She adds, "I’m so disappointed when I hear that a player has left a league because she is no longer enjoying her hockey experience. With a better understanding of players’ needs and experiences, we can influence rec league offerings so that there is a place for all players to continue enjoying this game that we fought so hard to be ‘allowed’ to play."
If you are an adult female recreational hockey player and would like your opinions and experiences to be part of this important and historic study, the survey will be available until August 31st, 2018 via the link below. Please note that at no time will you be asked to provide identifying information and your responses will never be linked directly back to you. Your participation is therefore entirely anonymous. If you have any questions about this study, you can also contact the lead investigator directly at [email protected]