Pucks in Deep: Hockey is giving women the cold shoulder

by Sam Stockton | 1/28/19 2:10am

In her familiar No. 26 USA sweater, one which immediately ignited chants from the SAP Center crowd, Kendall Coyne Schofield became the star of the National Hockey League’s All-Star Weekend before a single NHL player participated in any competition. 

The annual NHL Superskills event suffers from television’s failure to capture the nuanced skills of the league’s stars. The ease with which each player performs the task put before them — say, firing at targets in each corner of the net in the accuracy shooting competition — diminishes the awe we feel watching any one performance. In the case of the fastest skater competition in which Coyne participated, we have an on-screen clock to provide some context for what we are watching, but that clock does nothing to promote the sensation of speed as each participant laps the ice. The tight camera angle NBC Sports Network chose to show each run provided the opportunity to closely observe Coyne’s instant acceleration, the tightness of her crossovers as she rounded the nets and the long strides she used to glide through the neutral zone, but again, without any other players, let alone regular people, it wasn’t obvious just how fast she went. If the live broadcast left uncertainty about her speed, the reaction shots of the benches, peopled by about 40 of the best hockey players in the world, assuaged it. Every player rose, instantly compelled to their feet by Coyne’s performance and eager to congratulate her for it, because of course, Coyne didn’t just earn notoriety by being the first woman to participate at Superskills, she did it by making it indubitably clear that she belonged in the competition of the NHL’s fastest skaters.

If Coyne’s performance came as a surprise, the end result of the fastest skater competition was not. Connor McDavid, who entered the competition as the back-to-back champion, became the first player to ever win the event thrice. But of course, it was Coyne, not McDavid, whose performance deservedly drew the hockey world’s attention. Her time of 14.346 seconds came in less than a second slower than McDavid’s 13.378. She beat Arizona Coyotes forward Clayton Keller. And she went even faster (14.226 seconds) in the lap she skated Thursday night as a demonstration of the event. Coyne stands at just 5-foot-2, nearly a foot shorter than McDavid, and yet despite this stride disadvantage, she showed that her inclusion in the event was much more than an attempt to “grow the game” and promote “diversity and inclusion” to borrow from the buzzwords of commissioner Gary Bettman. Irrefutably, Coyne’s inclusion improved the quality of the competition.

The obvious implication of Coyne’s performance is that we are overdue for the inclusion of women at the highest level of hockey. Of course, a skills event does not equate to the physicality of an actual game, but Coyne shredded the conventional perception that women simply lack the size and strength to play alongside men. As the NHL’s ever-progressing transition toward a game predicated much more on speed and skill than size and strength, players like Johnny Gaudreau —winner of Friday night’s puck control relay, among the front runners for the Hart Trophy as league MVP and a mere 5-foot-9, 165 pounds — have found opportunities they would never have been afforded if they came up in hockey before our current era. Gaudreau’s dazzling puck skills would not have been enough to convince the average NHL coach or general manager from the ’90s that someone who would not look physically imposing in an eighth grade basketball game belonged in the National Hockey League. If players like Gaudreau can thrive in today’s game, there is no legitimate reason to doubt that Coyne, the other three women who participated in the Superskills event (Brianna Decker, Rebecca Johnston and Renata Fast) and the many other supremely talented women in professional hockey can do the same.

The culture of sports dictates that athletic competition functions as the purest meritocracy possible in our capitalist society. And yet, the performances of Coyne, Decker, Johnston and Fast plainly label this notion delusional. Setting aside Coyne’s performance for the moment, let us consider Decker’s as an example of this fact.

On Friday night, Decker, like Coyne a member of the 2018 gold-medal winning American Olympic women’s hockey team, “demonstrated” the Premier Passer competition, a demonstration NBCSN valued so much as to show old footage of current NBCSN analyst Jeremy Roenick in lieu of her live performance.  

This competition requires players to complete three breakout passes, four saucer passes over a barrier and into a mini net, and four passes from the point at light-up targets. If you or I attempted this feat, we would likely spend two hours in the neutral zone before begrudgingly accepting that we would never be able to get the puck up over the barrier and into the tiny net on the other side.

Leon Draisaitl, the contest’s official winner, was able to pull this off in a shade over 1:09. Mikko Rantanen finished last among the eight NHL participants with a time of 2:17. In addition to declining to televise Decker’s performance, the NHL opted not to bother using the official clock for her attempt. However, unofficial timers in the arena clocked her effort at 1:06, a full three seconds faster than Draisaitl.

The NHL maintained that Decker merely demonstrated the drill and makes no mention of her even attempting it in their official log of the competitions and their results. Draisaitl received a nice $25,000 check as the “winner” bringing new new meaning to the phrase “may the best man win.”

Quite plainly, the competition showed the illusory nature of professional sports’ supposed meritocracy. The competition’s best performer did not receive its prize, which instead was reserved for whichever man finished first. Decker’s denial of the $25,000 prize she rightfully deserved forced attention away from her feat and necessitated a conversation about the wage gap in sports. I can’t imagine anyone is non-plussed by picking up 25 grand for barely more than a minute’s work, but Draisaitl is in the second year of an eight-year contract worth $68 million. Conversely, the National Women’s Hockey League set a salary cap at $270,000 per team. Fortunately, CCM, a hockey manufacturing company, paid Decker the money she deserved, but this sort of deal should not be necessary for a league to whom $25,000 means just about nothing.

On Saturday, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that the NHL did check Decker’s time, and that she actually finished in the vicinity of 1:12. I would contend that this entirely tone deaf “well actually” on behalf of the league only makes it look worse.

The inclusion of women at the Superskills showcase did the impossible: it made an all-star event genuinely noteworthy, and yet, all too unsurprisingly, the NHL’s own clumsiness and inability to take advantage of the undeniable talent available to it ensured that what should have been an incredible celebration of the game could not unfold without irrepressible reminders about the league’s complicity in structural inequality. At this point, there can be no legitimate doubt about the ability of women to participate at the highest level of sports. The question that remains is when will the conservative, old boys’ club culture of professional sports finally embrace that reality.

Author’s aside:

The Candian Women’s Hockey League held its all-star game the weekend before last in Toronto. Among the league’s chosen representatives was Laura Stacey ’16. Stacey, in just her second CWHL season, scored a goal in a losing effort, and despite the loss, she continues to add to her already impressive resume. In her rookie season for the Ontario-based Markham Thunder, Stacey also made the All-star game, but more notably scored the overtime goal that clinched a Clarkson Cup championship. While she wasn’t busy with that, Stacey earned a silver medal for Team Canada in Pyeongchang. Not a bad start to a pro career.