Sports  Martlets sing to empty seats

Why McGill's most successful team is going ignored

In McConnell Arena, home of the McGill Martlets hockey team, some of the best hockey players in the country are cruising to an easy 6-0 victory over Carleton University. At 36 shots on net to Carleton’s mere ten, the Martlets are easily dominating the opposition. With goals by Ann-Sophie Bettez, Alyssa Cecere, Leslie Oles, Katia Clement-Heydra, and two from Jordanna Peroff, members of the McGill Fight Band begin to shout, “Start the bus!” Indeed, parking the bus in front of the net probably would have done little to stop the seemingly unbeatable McGill women’s hockey team.

Some things that you probably didn’t know about our Martlets: This win brought them to an 84-game winning streak against Quebec University Hockey League opponents and they are going for their sixth-straight league title. They have won the nationals in two out of the last three years. In addition, their head coach, Peter Smith, was the assistant coach for the Canadian women’s national team at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Charline Labonté, starting goaltender for the Martlets, competed in both the 2006 and 2010 Olympics. The McGill women’s hockey team is arguably the best team at McGill. So why is no one there to support them?
The Martlets’ winning formula includes North America-wide recruitment, an incredible coaching staff, and an unbeatable reputation. And for female hockey players, university hockey is where they will probably get the most ice time in their entire playing careers. “[In men’s hockey] the cream of the crop play in the NHL, whereas in women’s hockey most of the women players want to go to university in either Canada or the U.S.,” said Smith. “For most of these women who are playing for the Martlets, this is the pinnacle of their career. … For many of them, it’s the top environment that they’re going to be involved in. They’re very appreciative for the opportunity they have to come to university.”

And as Smith explained to me, “Success begets success.” The fact that McGill has won championship after championship will certainly do a great deal to stimulate interest in coming to play here.

But despite all of this, the atmosphere at the game is pretty subdued. No one is shouting insults at the referee or cheering on the Zamboni as he does his rounds in between periods. No one is spilling beer as they gesticulate wildly to celebrate yet another goal. In fact, beer isn’t even on sale; there are no concessions. The closest that anyone ever came to banging on the glass was when a member of the McGill Fight Band fell from the chair he was standing on.

When asked about the task of getting more fans to come to games, Smith admitted, “It’s a battle, certainly.”

Any analysis as to why no one was at this game has to include the fact that McGill students are famously apathetic and no one really comes out to watch any game played by any team. Whenever students discuss McGill athletics, they’re more likely to speak with embarrassment than admiration. Even though the McGill men’s rugby team has won the Quebec championships for the past four years, they recently held an event promoting their game against Concordia in order to increase attendance. The event, called, “Fill the First Row” had the modest goal of doing exactly that. Based on the usual attendance of the men’s rugby games, filling the first row was probably pretty ambitious.

To get more insight into the atmosphere at McGill hockey games, I talked to the person who probably goes to more hockey games than anyone else: Daily staffer Aquil Virani, the Brigade Leader of the McGill Fight Band. “The atmospheres of McGill Hockey games, for both the Redmen and the Martlets, usually fall within two categories: the ordinary and the extraordinary,” said Virani. “Your average, dull occasion sees very few fans in a very tame setting. … However, when a game coincides with a special event, whether it is ‘Fill the Arena’ or a huge event that features hockey on its agenda, the atmosphere is what you might expect when you throw hundreds of university students in an enclosed space with plenty of alcohol. Packed rows of rowdy fans repeat their ‘McGill once, McGill twice’ chants endlessly and taunt the opposing players with enthusiasm and cheekiness.” Sadly, however, it seems the success of the Martlets hockey team still doesn’t make them worth “Filling the Arena” for. “In my experience,” acknowledged Virani, “these special occasions usually feature the Redmen.”

While you can make the apathy argument to explain the lack of interest in the McGill women’s hockey team, you certainly cannot ignore the cultural context in which this hockey team exists. When the Canadian women’s team won their third straight gold medal at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, 5.8 million Canadians tuned in. When Sidney Crosby devastated the Americans with that golden goal, 16.6 million viewers (fifty per cent of the Canadian population) watched the entire game, while eighty per cent of Canadians watched at least part of the game. Explaining this disparity is easy: women’s hockey does not enjoy nearly the same level of respect as men’s hockey.

Cathy Chartrand, defender and captain of the Martlets hockey team, explained, “People don’t buy into it. They think, ‘Oh it’s women. It must be slower, the game is not physical, they can’t body check or anything like that.’” And when asked about the levels of funding for boys and girls hockey: “It’s not even close.” But the inequality doesn’t stop there. As Chartrand explained, male hockey players have many more opportunities to practice four or five times a week from a young age, whereas for women, university hockey is their only chance for that kind of ice time. And unfortunately for these women, university is only four or five years. “If you look at boys’ hockey, the NHL is at the top, and for us it’s the Olympics, but in between there’s not much,” lamented Charline Labonté. “So we have a lot of very talented girls, but once they’re done university, there’s nothing else. Most of them are done at 22, 23, and it’s too bad, there’s no following after that. Or even before, sometimes. It’s just a lack of leagues, and involvement from everyone.”

The prevailing opinion is that women’s hockey, without the hitting, the fights, and the strong male bodies, is inferior. But according to Andrea Weckman, a goaltender for the Martlets, because there’s less “body-bashing,” the women’s game allows for “more technique, good plays, [and] finesse.” Chartrand agrees: “Yes, the game is different; that’s what makes it interesting. It’s fast. It’s nice plays. We don’t have the boys’ mentality where they just get in the zone and shoot. … With girls it’s always nice plays, it’s a very strategic game, and a lot of technique is involved compared to boys.” When asked what they would say to anyone who claims that women aren’t as good at hockey as men, Labonté responded: “Come watch. You’ll be pretty surprised.”

Female hockey players face an uphill battle that begins the first time that they lace up their skates – from a lack of funding, to a lack of supports to a lack of leagues to participate in. Perhaps, as McGill students, we owe it to these dedicated and talented athletes to go to their games: to watch, and to be surprised. With all the success they have had, they deserve an audience.