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Photo Credit: © John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Girls Will Be Girls: A Look At The Online Female Fan Experience

In 2015, Morgan Rielly – a player I am a huge fan of and who I happen to think is a great guy – caught some deserved heat for bemoaning a Leafs’ losing streak by saying about the team, “you’re not here to be a girl about it.”

In May of this year, Brendan Leipsic and other men in the hockey community were found to be using derogatory, misogynistic language about women in social media conversations. This type of language and behavior is pervasive in the NHL, and it permeates out to the fan experience. It’s 2020 – why are women still made to feel like they don’t belong, or need to prove their worthiness, in hockey spaces?

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The history of misogyny and toxic masculinity in the hockey community is no secret. In the past few months alone numerous examples have come to light and painted a clear picture of the type of language and behavior that is considered normal and typical – “locker room talk” or “boys being boys”.

However, to their credit, the NHL and many of its teams have been working to combat this culture in recent years. A number of teams have launched programs specifically aimed at growing the game for young girls and women – from youth hockey clinics for girls to The NHL Coach’s Association Female Coaches Development Program. This year’s NHL All-Star Game featured a 20 minute 3-on-3 matchup of American vs. Canadian women hockey players. In 2018, the Leafs made a splash when they hired Hayley Wickenheiser into a player development role.

So with all this apparent progress, why are female fans and even women in sports media still on the receiving end of lewd comments, questions as to the authenticity of their love of the sport, and attempts to goad them into proving their knowledge of hockey?

The best place to view this all at play is on Twitter. I love Hockey Twitter. The community that has grown online, allowing fans to interact with each other over their shared love of the sport, and even more so in smaller subsets over shared love of one team, can be amazing. But spend a day, or just a few hours, operating in that space as an outspoken female hockey/Leafs fan, and you’ll most certainly experience one or more of the following:

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    • Some version of this reply from a man: “oh, you’re a Leafs fan? Name 10 players on the team that aren’t Auston Matthews.”

    • Being accused of being a “puck bunny” or only liking hockey because the players are “hot”

    • The backhanded compliment “oh you’re not like OTHER girls, it’s so hard to find a girl who likes sports.”
    • Assumptions that your dad/brother/male partner got you into hockey
    • Getting called a dumb b*tch or c*nt for having an opinion on the sport, a team, or a player that some man or men take issue with 
    • The occasional caveman who tells you to get back in the kitchen and make him a sandwich
    • And if you happen to have your DMs open, I guarantee those message requests will be a wall of men either calling you a c*nt for that aforementioned opinion, or asking you to do something sexual for their enjoyment

Young women who are interested in hockey and involved in online fan communities aren’t only subject to this type of behavior from other fans – though that is admittedly often the bulk of it. Go back to the Brendan Leipsic social media conversations, where he and friends commented on women’s weight and appearance over and over, using disgusting language to shame women they didn’t consider attractive.

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My prevailing concern after those conversations were made public was about the girls, teenagers, and young women who were likely now wondering if every male hockey player they look up to and potentially meet at a game or fan event was judging them on their weight and looks, thinking about them in terms of attractiveness. That’s the crux of what women in sports fan spaces have to combat – not only the questions about sports knowledge and authenticity of fan level, but the general sense of knowing that not only other fans, but potentially even the athletes themselves don’t view them as belonging in this space equally.

Perhaps one of the most illustrative examples of this that I can think of is a Spittin’ Chiclets podcast released in May, with Freddie Andersen. During this interview, the hosts, among them former NHL players, asked Freddie if he scans the arena crowd during games when the puck is in the other zone, looking for girls.

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Spittin’ Chiclets, and its parent company Barstool Sports, is one of the biggest perpetrators of the “boys will be boys” mentality in hockey culture; from their CEO down the chain, they have a long history of ignoring or outwardly mocking valid attempts to call them out and ask them to help change the culture to be more inclusive. Imagine, after hearing the above referenced interview, being a young woman attending a hockey game to cheer for your team and enjoy the sport, knowing that not only some of the male fans around you but also the men on the ice view you as simply there for their enjoyment. Women can’t even attend a game without being sexualized and objectified. And if players and former players can do it, well all the more reason why men in online hockey fan communities feel emboldened to display this behavior publicly.

I would be remiss to discuss the experience of women in online hockey spaces without also mentioning what female members of hockey media go through, both online and in person. It’s important to note here that though the number is growing, female hockey reporters (those who write for credentialed publications and/or have access to the teams and players) are still far too few in number.

Based on anecdotes shared with me, I know that those who do make it in sports media are subjected to inappropriate comments about their appearance, unwelcome touches, belittling, and just blatant disregard from male colleagues as well as team executives. Online, they’re also subjected to male fans who feel empowered to emulate this behavior; and if you take a few minutes to scroll through replies to their tweets, you’ll be privy to a solid sampling of many of the things mentioned in this article already – though, believe it or not, at a higher rate.

Whether it’s commenting on their appearance or clothing, or criticizing them for innocuous observations, or tweeting about knowing where their car is parked, women in hockey media are subject to scrutiny, harassment,  and criticism unlike anything their male counterparts experience. 

The NHL, and the hockey community that feeds into it, has long been a boys’ club. Hockey was for the boys, by the boys, about the boys. Locker room talk, casual misogyny, and aggressive masculinity were the norm. With that history, it’s unsurprising that the culture continues to thrive in the same manner.

However, there has been progress. The progress is slow, and the last people to feel the impact are the women trying to find their place in online hockey fan communities. Hockey isn’t yet, but truly should be, for everyone. And that applies to fan spaces, too. We all love the game, and there’s room for everyone – so let’s stop with the hierarchical fan rankings, and even more so derogatory comments and casual misogyny, and just experience our love of the game together. 

***Author’s note: after this article went live I was rightfully called out for not including anything on the unique experiences of Women of Colour on Hockey Twitter. I am a white woman, and I won’t ever try to speak for anyone else’s experience. But I should have and will now note that I have very much witnessed firsthand the way racism is used to tear down women’s voices. Women of Colour are told to go back to their own country, are called disgusting slurs, and are on the receiving end of compounded bigotry. As I hope to dive more into the female perspective, I will use this space to feature the experiences of as many women as I can.