Cheerleaders and ice girls have long been a controversy in hockey and the San Jose Sharks are the latest team fighting an unpopular battle. When will franchises see the void of female role models in the sport?
The New York Islanders are credited with bringing the concept of ice girls to the NHL in 2001, but many franchises have since followed suit. San Jose is the latest team and the Sharks are now dealing with a movement to ice those girls before they even get to shovel their first snow scrapings between whistles.
Sure, as Greg Wyshynski of the Puck Daddy! blog notes, they're mixing in a guy or two on the squad, but he gets to wear a zip-up jacket. The women will sport the bare midriffs that are basically standard-issue in the ice girl game and that's one of several reasons there is growing animosity towards the concept.
Here's my main problem with the concept of ice girls (other than the fact teams are infantilizing these employees who most likely drive cars to the games by calling them "girls" instead of "women"): it's not just the needless and workplace temperature-inappropriate sexualization, it's the void of other female role models in a hockey context at NHL arenas.
The ice girls and cheerleaders are the only females wearing team colors. Maybe, maybe every four years you'll see a member of the Canadian or American women's Olympic team drop the puck for the ceremonial faceoff, but that's it. To me, whether the teams mean to or not, they are sending the message that a woman's job is to clean up after the men or to cheer them on. Not to play hockey.
And if we've learned anything in recent years, it's that at the grassroots level, hockey is still growing thanks in part to females. According to USA Hockey's annual report, female participation (all ages) was up 2.3 percent this year, versus just 1.7 percent for males. Sure, there are still way more males playing hockey, but a lot of that comes back to the cultural stereotypes that held females back from a variety of hobbies and occupations for decades.
The funny thing is, a lot of ice girls truly love hockey. I spent time with the Dallas Stars crew a few years ago and they went crazy when the home team scored. Some of them had hockey backgrounds and at least one even grew up going to Fort Worth Fire games in the Central League. Would it be entirely unreasonable to suggest that as part of a game's entertainment, the ice girls (wearing clothes that cover their skin) have a shootout competition, or 3-on-3 match between periods?
OK, you're laughing at me right now.
But at least that would send a message that females can play and that NHL franchises believe in equality. It's better than the current situation.
Even if you don't believe in gender equality (in which case, really?), perhaps I can appeal to your pragmatic side. The bigger the audience the NHL has, the more fun things we can get. More games on TV, outdoor games, all that fun stuff is based on eyeballs and what the NHL thinks it can sell. Women and children are part of that. In markets with low attendance, you have to ask whether ice girls are helping or hindering attendance. Maybe it's neither, but grassroots efforts can't be helped if (actual) girls don't see themselves having a future in the game.
And it's not like anybody goes to games just to see the ice girls and cheerleaders. We did without the concept for most of hockey's history and survived.
As Wyshynski noted in his post, perhaps the Sharks are trying to deflect attention away from another playoff collapse and the departure of popular color commentator Drew Remenda. But it's nice to see that fans of the franchise are standing up and saying that they like their hockey distraction-free.