Impossible dreams, invisible opportunities and carving out a place at the rink

If you’re a woman in hockey, or, for that matter, anyone besides a cisgender man, you’re most likely very often faced with the reality that there isn’t a ton of room for you in this sport as things stand right now. Sometimes this realization is shocking and painful, like when the oldest women’s league in North America folds and hundreds of players sacrifice their futures because there is no sustainable playing option but they’d like the chance to build one. Other times it can be subtle, like when the unofficially official best trophy in sports is awarded after an arduous Stanley Cup Playoffs race, and there are, notably, no women in sight to receive it, whether skating on the ice or in the ownership group or in the general manager’s office.

After the St. Louis Blues’ Stanley Cup celebration last week, I had a long, thought-provoking chat with Kirsten Whelan of The Victory Press, about what it’s been like to try and carve out a path in hockey, and as women’s hockey media members in particular. We spoke a lot about how we envisioned ourselves fitting into the sport, and the sacrifices and opportunities that we juggle now, as so many other people in women’s hockey do. With Kirsten’s permission, a slightly abridged version of our conversation is published below.

Kirsten Whelan: When I said how watching the owners lifting the Cup made me realise that even GM wasn’t a realistic route for a woman? And told you I was only half joking? It wasn’t the owner lifting the Cup that I actually remember, it was the roll-call video they used to always show at the end of the broadcast — the owners are in that too. I used to rehearse in the mirror what my clip would be, because it’s a script: “Hi, I’m Name, from Wherever, Place, and my favourite player(s) growing up was/were…”.

That’s always been my favourite part, and I can’t help but imagine if the general public got to know female athletes on the level where they knew who their childhood heroes were in the moment where they achieved their childhood dreams.

Gabs Fundaro: That is a very beautiful thought but endlessly depressing at the same time.

It’s kind of funny hearing you talk about this stuff because I did not play any sports growing up (except on two occasions that we don’t ever talk about) and so when I started watching hockey, I never thought it was “for me” anyway. But at the same time that means I took it for granted that it was for other girls. And I don’t know, it’s just sad to me, because you are not that old.

These are things that you should have been able to interact directly with growing up playing and watching sports and dreaming of it yourself, and you never did. We lose another generation every year that this goes on like this and while it is beautiful to me to think that we could have a future that looks like that, it is terribly sad thinking about how long it will take to catch up all of the other women we’ve failed, if we ever even do.

KW: See, that’s funny too, because a few girls I knew as friends played hockey growing up. I played a lot on the outdoor community rink (usually in hand-me-down figure skates ― not ideal), but for me cost was 100% the barrier, not gender. I honestly don’t even know if I would’ve played organized hockey if we could’ve afforded it, because it was just so far out of the realm of possibility for me on the basis of cost alone. I didn’t even conceptualize it. Definitely the girls I knew who played were outliers, but I was lucky enough that Salt Lake City is one of my formative hockey memories, and I don’t remember details of Nagano but I do remember being very aware that it was the first time women’s hockey was included, so girls playing and excelling at hockey wasn’t unfathomable to me.

I obviously knew from a young age that me and my toe picks weren’t going anywhere in this sport on the ice, and that was fine. But I was always “the smart one,” and there was always this idea that maybe I could be a GM, and I can genuinely remember the moment I realized that this league is full of nepotism and the Old Boys’ Club and that a woman can’t just earn her way to being an NHL general manager.

GF: See that moment, though, is what I mean. Because I have always, always, always laughed at the idea of myself being a hockey person in any capacity and even when people who are very entrenched in the sport suggest these things to me, I think they are absolutely off the walls about it. But I never thought that was for me. It was never something I envisioned, ever. And it was for you, and no matter how young you were it was still a very valid vision to have for yourself, because why wouldn’t it be? But at a certain point it’s like ‘O.K., this is reality, and in reality there are no women doing this so it probably can’t be me’. I just think, like I said, that every year that passes that is another generation of girls who have to reckon with that, and we are failing them every time.

Because I don’t really care if a woman can’t skate as fast as a man or shoot as hard as him, there is nothing wrong with our brains that says we can’t run a team or hockey ops or scouting department or anything like that. I know this conversation started as a half joke, but it is terrifying to me that it is 2019 and somehow that is the accepted notion.

KW: Yeah, I mean, I also remember being distinctly disheartened by that realization, and I was definitely not very old when it happened. But it wasn’t some massive soul-crushing moment, either ― you just tacitly accept it, shrug, move on, your wildest dreams become less wild. I think that’s the saddest thing in retrospect, how casual it is. There is something about realizing at a very young age that it’s purely gendered bias that will keep you out that is simply next-level. I don’t think I fully grasped the implications at the time, but it’s a lot to reflect back on.

GF: The sad thing to me is when you’re that young, you can’t even comprehend that it is gendered bias? At least I couldn’t. It’s just like, women don’t do this, so I won’t. Period.

Because for our generation specifically, we are both young people and I guess I will only speak for myself, but I grew up being told there wasn’t anything a woman couldn’t do anymore! Every March we’d learn about the amazing contributions to society made by women. And I grew up in a household where my parents both work full time, and my dad is usually the one putting dinner on the table after work. So you juxtapose that, growing up in a house and in general a society where you’re told gender roles don’t exist anymore, and women can do all the same things, you then juxtapose that with what you see in sports where women do NOTHING at the highest levels, and you subconsciously are just like, yep. That’s how it is! And you accept it and don’t question it because it’s not like you’re constantly being told you can’t do any other profession, so it must be TRUE about this one.

KW: Yep. I remember knowing full well it was because I was a girl and because I wasn’t rich and well-connected. I figured if a woman did eventually manage to break through, she’d have to already be connected to those circles through relatives — not to say she wouldn’t also be independently qualified, but just that it felt like there was no way for a woman to break in from the outside, no matter how qualified she may be. But I also was definitely taught that feminism wasn’t a necessary thing anymore because equality had already been achieved!

I no longer aspire to be an NHL owner, or even a GM (though I remain convinced I could do a better job than any recent Oilers GM; the bar is low). But I so dearly hope that no little girl ever has that same realization again. And the thing is that I’m not sure men’s hockey/the NHL has made the necessary strides for that to be true.

GF: I guess I go back and forth on the best way for girls to see that. Is it for a women’s league to be on TV and bringing in loads of fans? Or is it seeing women coaching NHL games and calling up picks at the draft? I think both are very important because they are so underrepresented in both areas.

KW: Yeah, I think both need to exist. And it’s a downright shame that neither is a viable possibility right now.

GF: I don’t feel like it should just be one or that efforts should just be directed towards one. It should be 100% effort towards both because we need both.

KW: Especially when it comes to the women’s side, you and I both cover this sport for next to nothing. I’m probably in the top 10% of income for dedicated women’s hockey reporting, and I barely make enough to cover my hydro bill. That’s where we’re at, and it’s downright shameful.

I’ve been asked before about pathways to becoming a sports reporter and I can’t even give an answer besides laughing, because this isn’t a career. This isn’t a path. I’ve gotten so many opportunities I could only have dreamed of, like getting to cover the Canadian and US Olympic teams playing their final tune-up game from the press box of my hometown’s NHL arena, but that doesn’t make it a career path.

GF: Bingo. Even team staff, they are all volunteers, or getting paid nowhere near what their time is actually worth to run a sports team. It’s really hard for me personally to cope with that because I have a lot of fun writing and would not do it if it wasn’t fun and if I didn’t love it, but at 24 years old I still have this pipe dream that at some point some editor at a fancy publication is going to read something I write and call me up and offer a full-time job with benefits to go cover women’s hockey all day every day. But it’s not going to happen.

That is something I think frequently about with this new league on the way, that they’ll need media staff and writers and that outlets will need beat reporters, but it’s not going to be the type of coveted position it should be. It’ll be a glorified internship or some entry-level person in a comms department just handling this among 73 other duties. Maybe a few teams will take it seriously or be able to pay more but these jobs aren’t going to magically appear. There is no way to do what we do full time. None.

And for the record, I have already made my peace with not doing this full time and will just continue my blog for funsies, but it is especially frustrating and depressing thinking about that reality for other writers who are really, really, really good at it and who want to pursue it seriously.

KW: Exactly, 100%. It’s why I nearly laughed out loud recently when I was asked how #ForTheGame has impacted my career trajectory. What career? Because with the suddenly realistic hope of a genuinely professional league comes a still-unrealistic faint hope that maybe there would be full-time opportunities that come with that off the ice. And I say that as someone who has balanced, or attempted to balance, multiple sports jobs alongside “real” jobs and full-time law school. I never even dared to dream of this as a realistic possibility or career trajectory, it’s always been a side gig.

GF: I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t something I desperately wanted to do, but it’s just not realistic for me. I have a full-time job that pays my bills and challenges me personally and professionally to be better and that’s cool and very good for me. And I’m good at that too and I can afford to live my life with it. There’s a reason I don’t ever pitch anyone for stories, there’s a reason I don’t have a Patreon for AES, and it’s because I know I can’t justify actually committing to that sort of content the way it deserves and still have a stable professional life.

KW: We’re in the exact same boat. It genuinely never even occurred to me to think of this as a possible career path, and the saddest thing is that I wasn’t wrong. I’ve never done anything to seriously pursue sports reporting as a career, and it’s similarly because I can’t remotely justify putting this fully ahead of my other commitments when there is no feasible future in it.

GF: It is really sad that we weren’t wrong about it. I want to be proven wrong so badly. I want someone to come along and get hired as a women’s hockey reporter exclusively, and then maybe 20 or 30 people behind that person, too, and I will feel insanely jealous that I did not decide to follow that nonexistent path myself, but it would make me at least a little bit happy that I was wrong.

Also, I can’t stress this enough but holy hell do I just want the players to get paid and have proper resources. All of this would be a much easier pill to swallow if we could at least know that the people who are actually at the center of this sport and on the ice every game were able to have some stability and were treated like true professional athletes. Full-time opportunities might still be nonexistent, but I would think twice about how much I’m able to give to this sport because it would be worth it to build something like that for them.

But it doesn’t exist for them either and hasn’t for our entire lives, and their entire lives, and for every generation before that, so when I think about not ever landing a gig to give this sport the coverage it truly deserves, that is what I get the most angry about.

The opportunities don’t exist for us because there is no investment in women’s hockey and no dedication to covering it full-time from major outlets, and that directly impacts the players and that is just one toe too many over the line for me.

KW: Exactly. It’s not lost on me that every opportunity I’ve gotten in this field is a direct result of how undervalued this sport and these athletes are. My very first interviews ever, with no experience and no training, were with three athletes with a combined 10 Olympic gold medals, and I had no business being in that room. In any context where this sport was valued and covered at the level it deserves, I would never have been accredited and allowed in that room with no prior training or experience.

I would take a world where they’d always gotten the coverage they deserve over a world where I have the lucrative opportunity to invest my own money into traveling to sit in popcorn-less press boxes any day of the week.

GF: It’s so true. It’s so freaking true. And I think you may feel similarly about this but for me, I also get frustrated because I don’t have the time or the bandwidth or resources to do every story justice. And I appreciate every single view or share I get for my stories but I just know, personally, that even though I am trying very hard, the coverage is not anywhere near as well done as it could be if it was done by someone who could dedicate themselves to it fully. And that’s what the players and coaches and others involved in this sport really deserve. It’s not the stuff I’m pulling together.

KW: Which is telling, because your stuff is very, very good. But it’s so true, and I 100% feel the same. I can’t even count the number of game stories I’ve been frustrated with because I had to leave so much out, let alone the number of other stories I wanted to see told but didn’t have the time or energy to pursue. Sometimes I’ve been annoyed because as someone balancing multiple jobs as well as school, I can’t jump on a news story as quickly as a mainstream outlet can, even if I do have early information or more context to offer. But when I think about the number of stories I’ve had in mind that simply didn’t get told at all because I didn’t have the time and no one else cared enough to know or tell them, it makes me sad for the sport as a whole.

GF: You bring up a really interesting point, though, about how much we are able to do with a very limited scope, and how that ultimately dictates the types of coverage we provide. When I first started out writing, it was mainly weekly recaps and previews of college games. Over time, I’ve started to shift more towards feature writing and really lean into player profiles and timely storytelling of what’s going on around the nation, partly just because I’ve grown a lot as a writer in that regard but also because there are not a ton of those types of pieces out there. It can be a tricky balance to strike, though, because I also feel like women’s hockey could use stories and columns that focus on the actual hockey being played. Whether or not some dork from the Jersey Shore who can’t even skate is the right person to do that remains up for debate, but I’m curious what you think about how, specifically, we can cover women’s hockey in a truly meaningful way.

KW: I think the basic game coverage aspect is important, and it’s frustrating that in women’s hockey, we’ve never even had consistent local coverage across all markets at the most basic levels. I’ve always personally been more interested in the deeper stories though ― anyone can watch a game themselves and see what happened (well, when they’re streamed, at least), or check the scoreline. For me there’s got to be an evaluation of where the gap is and what we can offer that adds value. A “here’s what happened” recap makes sense when a league isn’t being adequately covered elsewhere, but there is so much more that can be done once you get beyond that base level. And taking interesting angles and talking to people and telling some of those zillions of stories that, even with a decent array of coverage, still rarely get told? That’s adding something that otherwise wouldn’t be available. But I’m not sure you can focus wholly on that without also having the basic game coverage exist somewhere. At the end of the day, it’s a sport.

GF: I can relate a lot to trying to find that balance because first of all, it can be really hard to commit to doing interviews when you’ve got a full-time gig or other full-time commitments like school. I almost feel like it was easier in some ways to schedule interviews for in-depth stories when I was still a student, but I was not doing them regularly back then. I agree with you very much and have a hard time seeing the value in covering games if that coverage is not offering real insight, but I also do not know what the best answer is for us as dedicated reporters who cannot do this for 40 hours a week.

KW: Yeah, no, I have no idea what the solution is, but I guess your point about the difficulty of scheduling interviews on top of a regular schedule is also a big part of why I think focusing exclusively on game coverage is not ideal or necessarily worthwhile if you can’t be on location. There’s a whole lot of interview tag, and if you can’t make your schedules work, you’re basically reduced to never being able to provide remote game coverage with any level of insight beyond having watched the games ― if it’s even possible to watch them. Personally I found that very draining, and the only reason I kept doing it in that way is because a lot of the time, no one else was. I have absolutely no idea what my coverage would look like if I didn’t feel a responsibility to provide game coverage where none would otherwise exist. But I would want to use that relative freedom to do better storytelling, in some way. Because even in a game recap, the stories are the part I care about, the people and the community around the sport are what make caring about a game worthwhile, and those are often the first part to have to be sacrificed. As it stands right now, we don’t often have the time or resources to write the stories we’d want to read.

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