Friday, November 13, 2009

Where the girls are

So it seems that while NHL hockey is still alive and well in our country, there are some problems brewing with the little guys.

More specifically, the little guys and girls.

First, I'll address a problem that's been plaguing the Greater Toronto Area for a while now, and that doesn't seem to be getting any better. There's a shortage of ice rinks, particularly due to the popularity of amateur hockey in the city. (No word on what team's success has inspired so many Torontonians to lace up their skates. If anyone has any idea, let me know.) There are too many teams and not enough rinks, and evidence to suggest that a city policy giving priority to youth recreational teams over competitive teams isn't being enforced. Girls' hockey teams aren't getting enough ice time, and Toronto mayor David Miller tried to make good by promising them more. Which, in theory, is great. Unfortunately, the only way he can make this promise is at the expense of other teams, namely boys' teams. There's no other solution for now, but obviously taking practice time away from anyone isn't an effective solution. Hockey players, at any level, want to play, and taking an opportunity to do so away from them isn't fair. It's simple common sense.

However, the Greater Toronto Hockey League, a competitive boys' league, seems to be reacting a bit selfishly to this decision. I'm not siding with anyone in this debate, but I'm also aware of the possibility that boys playing in the GTHL may have the talent to make the NHL someday, and while I don't want to take any training time away from that, I don't think that it's enough reason to give them priority over female hockey players of the same age and skill level. I strongly believe that a girls' hockey team should have just as many opportunities to practice as a boys' team (for reasons which I will continue to list) but I also believe that Toronto has a bigger problem than just dividing ice time - many major cities have had to cut budgets for things like arenas and community programs in favour of things that may seem more vital, like improved transit or sanitation, or wine tastings at city council. But there's a problem in doing so, and until government budgets start to magically afford everything should be paying for, there will always be a problem.

A shortage of rinks has also caused some crooked executive decisions to be made in Nanaimo, B.C., where a girls' bantam hockey team was dissolved by the local Minor Hockey Association. The association claims that a low turnout was to blame for the dissolution of this particular team, the Mid-Island Extreme, but the team's coach argues that there was no lack of interest this year. The girls who would have played for the Extreme have the option of trying out for a midget-level team alongside girls a couple of years older, where there will obviously be more competition for attention and thus possibly diminish their chances of being noticed by scouts and invited to play for higher-level teams or getting a chance at a hockey scholarship. This bid to increase ice time for remaining Nanaimo-based teams will likely benefit boys' teams, who already enjoy a more favourable practice schedule than their female contemporaries. According to Chuck Blanaru, a lawyer leading the complaint against the Association, "midget-level girls already have to practice at 5:30 in the morning once a week. But midget boys get two practices every week." This last quote doesn't put into evidence all of the ice time that both teams get, but it shows something...

Dedication. Little boys everywhere who grow up playing hockey pretend that they're going to make the NHL one day and imagine themselves on the ice with the greats. I've spent a decent amount of time babysitting and playing goalie for a tween boy who could spend hours practicing his moves, shooting plastic balls against basement walls and garage doors, and commentating his own plays as he weaved around his cul-de-sac pretending to take passes from Alexander Ovechkin and Alex Kovalev. Somehow, it's easy to see why the dream is more real for a little boy than a girl. And British Columbia has given the Canadiens (see: Price, Gorges, Fancy New O'B) and the NHL in general (Sakic, Kariya, Yzerman) some pretty impressive talent, so I guess a general desire to develop the talent of potential NHL stars can be pretty overwhelming, in B.C., Ontario, or anywhere that children play competitive hockey. But to somehow discredit girls' teams because their star forward will never lead a team to a Stanley Cup victory, and deny them the advantage of ice time or the opportunity to play, just isn't fair. The midget girls' teams in Nanaimo may have the disadvantage of waking up for 5:30 AM practice, but they do it anyway for love of the game. They may never have the chance to make nine million dollars a year playing hockey, no matter how good they are, but I'm betting that many of them are extremely talented and not at all discouraged by an age-old gender bias.

Women's hockey may not be as popular or as shiny as men's hockey most of the time, but female Canadian athletes have given little girls something to believe in. Take, for example, the gold-medal-winning Canadian Olympic hockey teams in both 2002 and 2006. Our womens' team was spectacularly talented, successful, and gracious. On that team was the fantastic Kim St-Pierre, who's set to make her third Olympic appearance in February. In case your memory needs refreshing, a little over a year ago, Carey Price was out with the flu and couldn't practice. The Habs needed a second goaltender to practice against, and who got the call to come out and play? The closest goalie who had enough talent to play with the big boys.

And she was female.
But it's not like things like this happen every day (St-Pierre was only the second female to come close to the NHL and she was present for just the one practice).

I hate to think that in 2009, female hockey players are at a disadvantage only because their male counterparts have the potential to go further. After all, this is young girls we're talking about. The Mid-Island Extreme girls are 14 and 15 years old. If there's ever a time in a girl's life where she could use something like a sports team to surround herself with people who support her and maybe let out some of her frustrations in an active way, around 14 or 15 would definitely be it. High school is a pretty tumultuous time for girls (as I'm sure it is for boys) and playing with a team, not to mention having a pastime that you're passionate about and releasing endorphins through physical activity, can do wonders for self-esteem. And that's on top of the physical advantages of regular exercise, especially among growing concerns of obesity in North American youth.

There's no reason good enough to keep girls away from sports, whether as players or fans. I hope that the issues in Toronto and Nanaimo come to some sort of logical conclusion for the moment, until the ice rink shortage can be resolved.

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