During the Winter Olympics in Sochi, for a brief moment, hockey fans forgot about the sport’s male millionaires and watched, stunned, as the Canadian women’s hockey team stole the gold-medal game from their American archrivals. With less than a minute on the clock in the third period of the tournament championship, Canadian forward Marie-Philip Poulin scored a spectacular goal that tied the game 2-2. Six minutes into the game’s first and only overtime period, she’d score another, winning Canada a gold medal in women’s hockey for the second time in her career. (Poulin, who is often compared to Sidney Crosby, also scored the game-winning goal for Canada at the Vancouver Olympics.)
Until that fateful OT period, I hadn’t watched the Sochi Olympics at all, in protest against Russia’s anti-gay laws. But I finally caved and turned on my TV when it became clear that Poulin didn’t merely bear a likeness to Crosby on the ice; she actually rivalled him in popularity. After Canada’s upset win, social media management company HootSuite released data showing that, on Feb. 20, the women’s hockey gold-medal game was mentioned on social media 12,000 more times than the Canadian men’s victory in the semifinals. As a lifelong hockey player, I’m accustomed to a certain hockey status quo, in which girls are given inferior ice times, women’s games are sparsely attended and career prospects are predictably dim: The budget of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League is $1 million (less than a subpar NHLer makes in a year) and its players aren’t paid at all. During the Sochi Olympics, though, women’s hockey was as important as the Stanley Cup playoffs. Men shouted macho barbs of encouragement through TV screens at female athletes: “Let’s go, boys,” and, “Get ’er done.” It was unprecedented.
Yet it made perfect sense. The women’s final was undoubtedly the most exciting and high-risk hockey game at the Winter Olympics. Apart from Crosby’s awesome breakaway goal, the men’s 3-0 gold-medal win over Sweden early Sunday morning was a bit anti-climactic.
But the stakes were higher in the women’s final for another reason, one less obvious than a short-handed overtime goal and a game-saving post. The stakes were higher because the Olympics are the only event at which mainstream hockey fans think twice about women’s hockey. When Olympic patriotism isn’t at stake, nobody skips work to watch Marie-Philip Poulin play hockey, but the same can’t be said about her male counterparts. Team USA forward Patrick Kane may have missed two penalty shots in a 5-0 bronze-medal loss to Finland—but the NHL star has two Stanley Cup championship rings, thousands of fans and an annual salary of $6.5 million. The Olympics are a happy distraction from his true calling. For female hockey players, the Olympics are the only sporting event that really matters. Attendance at non-Olympic women’s hockey games, regardless of league or location, are generally abysmal. Pay is worse. Team Finland’s goaltender Noora Räty told Finnish press in Sochi that she plans to retire shortly after the Games because she can’t make a living wage playing hockey: “I’m done living from hand to mouth, and now it’s time to start building wealth and think[ing] about my future. I’m not the only player having this problem. The majority of female players have the same problem.”
Räty’s solution to this problem? Create a truly competitive league for women in North America and watch as pay and outsider interest rises. Women’s hockey is notoriously uncompetitive. The Canadians and the Americans are usually the only nations to make an impact at the Olympics and the majority of games in which they don’t play each other are boringly unfair. (As a kid, my dad took me to a Canada vs. China women’s exhibition game, at which we both ended up rooting for the Chinese because we felt sorry for them.) Räty believes that if we pay women players a living wage, their game will improve. And she’s probably right. Who, after all, wants to seriously pursue a sport knowing that neither consistent recognition, nor money, is likely in her future? But will outsider interest increase? I’m not so sure. We saw during the Games that mainstream hockey fans—a.k.a. men—can get pretty excited about women’s hockey.
They didn’t watch Canada’s women trounce the Americans and turn off their TVs, bored by the lack of speed and size that only men can offer. They seemed to appreciate women’s hockey, just as it was—just as my dad, Jay Teitel, did in 1997 when he wrote an essay for Saturday Night magazine about why women’s hockey is a refreshing and often superior alternative to its male foil. “In their rudeness, their ego, the unseemly magnitude of their contracts, and their substitution of contempt for sportsmanship,” he writes, “a large percentage of male pro athletes today have become not just physical but emotional misfits. They have burst not just the dimensions of sport, but its spirit. Conversely, women athletes go a long way toward restoring the balance. This, too, may change, but for the moment, they have about them a forgotten scent of something eternally ancient and eternally new, a sense of proportion, an old-fashioned passion for the game well-played.” Maybe women’s hockey doesn’t have to change. Maybe we just need to change the way we watch the game.