Participation in Winter Classic step in the right direction for women’s hockey and its popularity
“When you step on the ice, there’s always that awe moment, whether you want to admit it or not,” Stingers interim head coach Julie Chu told NHL.com. “Some of us who’ve had a chance to experience it a few more times—and maybe worked on the mental confirmation of that moment—are able to shift out of that a little bit quicker and back to the focus of it.”
Chu was talking about The Montreal Canadiennes of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) facing off against the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) in a New Year’s Eve showdown at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The outdoor game was the first ever for women’s hockey. The NHL officially announced that the game between the Pride and Les Canadiennes would take place ahead of the 2016 Winter Classic between the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins on New Year’s Day.
“This is really just about two teams wanting to expose the women’s game to the fans and to the world,” said CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress, according to Sportsnet.
A Statistics Canada report published in 2013 revealed that in 2010, 23 per cent of men participated in hockey regularly, compared to only about four per cent of women. Participating in the Winter Classic and its festivities was therefore a step in growing the women’s game in Canada and around the world. But how else have Les Canadiennes been trying to get some recognition for the women’s game?
In March of 2015, Les Canadiennes entered a partnership with the Montreal Canadiens, in the hopes of attracting more young girls to play hockey. Les Canadiennes will be participating in Habs events like the Canadiens annual blood drive, and various hockey camps. The Habs will also be helping the women’s team in promotions and with selling their merchandise. Chu said that being associated with the Canadiens is crucial and is definitely a step in the right direction in getting women’s hockey more recognition in this country.
“I think it’s huge in the sense that the Montreal Canadiens have a vast network to be able to use their resources to get out into the community and that’s the piece that we were missing,” Chu said. “We tried our best to get out there but we have limited resources and I think that’s going to be huge when we get a chance to be in the visible eye. More girls are going to be able to see us as their role models and have the opportunities to ask their families or their parents, ‘Can I play hockey?’ and hopefully get interested in the sport. When it’s present and in visible sight, it makes it easier to grow the sport that we love so much.”
Chu also said that it is important for women’s hockey players to get out into the communities they play in and inspire younger girls to engage in athletics.
One of Chu’s role models growing up was Cammi Granato, who was vital in the growth of women’s hockey in the United States. Granato, like Chu, began playing hockey on all-boys teams. She helped the first ever U.S. national team win a silver medal at the 1990 World Championships. After playing for Providence College, Granato earned a Master’s degree at Concordia while playing for the Stingers. She then captained the U.S. at the 1998 Olympics, beating Canada in the gold medal game, and was named the American flag bearer at the closing ceremonies. In 2010, Granato was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“I got a chance to look up to [Granato], who was a huge figure in women’s hockey on the U.S. side,” Chu said. “[She’s] so awesome and so humble. When I got a chance to play with her, I recognized what an incredible person she was, besides being an incredible hockey player.”
Chu resembles her biggest role model in many ways. Like Granato, the Fairfield, CT native is a decorated Olympian. Besides her silver medal from Sochi, Chu also won a silver medal at the Olympics in 2002 and 2010 as well as a bronze medal in the 2006 Olympics. She captained the U.S. team to a gold medal in the 2013 World Championships and was also the U.S. flag bearer at the closing ceremonies at the 2014 Winter Games.
Still, despite Chu’s impressive resumé, despite Granato’s influence and despite the NHL partnering with Les Canadiennes and the Pride to play an outdoor game in front of thousands of people, there is no perfect solution to growing women’s sports around the world. This is an issue, mainly because of the mentality that hockey is considered a man’s game, Chu said. She added that a change in mentality among fans, players and parents alike is necessary to grow women’s hockey, or any female sport. In Chu’s experience growing up as a female hockey player, she said that in many cases, it was the parents who would be negative towards the idea of having a girl on the team.
“[The parents] were the ones that had the little comments about ‘girls shouldn’t be playing hockey’ or ‘good luck that you have a girl on your team, she’s probably not very good,’” Chu said. “Unfortunately, it is often the parents that shape the mentality of their children. The kids half the time were just like, ‘Let’s play.’”
Chu also believes that many hockey fans don’t follow women’s hockey because they think it isn’t physical enough. But Chu said they are wrong.
“I’ve had people come up to me after some games when we played Canada at the Olympics and they say: ‘Are you sure there’s no checking in your game?’” Chu said. “I think there’s always a perception that non-checking hockey means there is no contact. But there’s plenty of physical contact within our game, it’s just in a more controlled manner, as we go into the boards, we can’t necessarily do the big full-out body checks. But there is plenty of body contact. We still have to play a physical game.”
In the end, however, Les Canadiennes are doing everything they can to make their games easily accessible to families; they play on the weekend, and their tickets are only $15 per person. They have increased their attendance league-wide from 2,000 in 2008 to 12,000 at the end of last season, according to thehockeynews.com. Though Chu said the CWHL is a long way from the million dollar contracts of the NHL, she is confident the league is headed in the right direction. For example, she said the CWHL’s operating budget has grown from about $200,000 in 2008 to $1.5 million this season. Today, CWHL teams have entered partnerships with NHL clubs in their respective cities. Though the CWHL players don’t get paid yet, the league plans to begin paying their players as of the 2017-18 season.
“There are [always] some risks in paying players, and not being able to sustain it,” Chu said. “But I think [the league] is trying to do their diligence to make sure that as we’re continuing to progress, that we don’t throw [paying players] out for a year and then have to retract it. Obviously, that might always happen, but what the league has been doing is tremendous and the growth that we’ve seen year-to-year has been there and we’re just going to continue to push forward.”
It may be a slow ascent for the CWHL and women’s hockey, but the sport is a growing one nonetheless. With the help of Chu and her Les Canadiennes teammates, it seems young girls can look forward to playing more organized hockey in the future.