What’s the relationship between people who love to do sports and people who love to watch or follow sports? It’s definitely not a one-to-one relationship. I think especially in the North American context, professional sports fandoms are identities unto their own, and they don’t necessarily connect to someone being an athlete themselves.
For me, I have loved watching hockey ever since I was in Grade 5, when the Vancouver Canucks surprised everyone and went to the finals of the NHL (to be wiped out in four straight, alas!). I loved the energy cheering together and I remember waving a white towel whenever I could, joining in with fans everywhere on the BC coast.
I have continued my hockey-loving life, despite never having a chance to play hockey. At my age, and in my coastal community, there was no ice to skate on in our town, the nearest rink being a 40-minute drive to the next town. I would have loved to play hockey, I think, but I really had never heard of girls doing it, and I certainly didn’t have access to it.
I have relished my life as a casual fan. It’s not like I track the stats of players, but I do enjoy learning from my 18 year old son who does keep track of some stats. And I have enjoyed many mother-son hockey games over the years, we’ve enjoyed watching the Canucks play in North Carolina, Ottawa, Buffalo, Toronto and Vancouver. It’s awesome. I have particularly enjoyed junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League, as we live in a town where we’ve had the joy to watch young NHL stars come develop.
I also love watching the women’s hockey teams play when it’s actually on TV and covered (so basically during the Olympics). But honestly, it never really crossed my mind that the pathway for girls in hockey is so much narrower and shorter than for boys. For boys, there is a well developed junior hockey system in North America and parts of Europe. There are university scholarships. There are professional leagues in many parts of the world.
For girls, the options seem to be far fewer. There are scholarships, I understand, and there are national teams. Surely, though, the training supports are minimal compared to those available to the multiple tiers of development for boys’ and young men’s leagues.
Honestly, as a casual fan, somehow the gender imbalance in pro-sports had barely registered in my mind until recently, when I heard stories of women’s soccer teams arguing for parity in funding. The totally limited options for girl-hockey-players really never crossed my mind until I started hearing news stories about the new women’s Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) being developed.
The other day, a friend posted news about knowing a woman who got drafted to the PWHL. He has a daughter who plays hockey. It hit me – this is BIG. There is no logical reason that male athletes should earn professional wages whereas women shouldn’t. It feels like a bit of an awakening. And I guess I’ll be looking to get myself some PWHL tickets!