Sports  Leveling the playing field

The Daily interviews sports writer Meg Hewings on gender equality in sports

The McGill Daily caught up with Meg Hewings, author of the blog “Hockey Dyke in Canada”, sports writer for Hour, and former McGill Martlets hockey player, to talk about the NHL’s model of hockey, homophobia in sports, and the future of women’s hockey in Canada.

The McGill Daily:  What made you decide to start your blog, “Hockey Dyke in Canada”?

Meg Hewings: I had played hockey, I guess, for a very long time. Ever since I was at McGill, I started to think a lot about sports and women in sports. In my time at McGill, the program was really underfunded, when I started there it was really rag-tag, really loose. We would lose 14-0. There were lots of ways in which politically, and personally, I was starting to see sports was different for men and women. Looking at the history of women and hockey in particular, I started to notice that women had been playing for a very long time, some of the first organized leagues happened in Montreal. It was kind of a feminist moment for me both as a player and as a student activist. I was starting to look at all of the ways in which sports matter in the world and are important to me. As far as the blog, I had been working on these kinds of issues, and I write about them sometimes. For me to follow women’s hockey as a journal… When I was at McGill, I was dating another Megan, so I became “Hockey Dyke Meg”… in 1998 there were lesbians on that team, and it was an exciting moment where lesbians were playing in the public sphere… Can a Canadian hockey player be a dyke?  And so this sort of has been part of my evolution for a long time, and I wanted to claim that space because no one else really does. Sports is a very orthodox place in many respects, and you have to toe the line, you have to be part of a team. I think that there are interesting ways in which it challenges society. Those are the things I wanted to tease out in the blog.

MD: Despite the fact that women account for 40 per cent of hockey fans, as you pointed out on your blog, why are they continually marginalized by the NHL?

MH: Well, they probably actually account for more than 40 per cent. NHL numbers, and the figures that they have right now across the board… are hovering around 44 to 45. You could basically say that women are equally into sport as men are. And you know – if they actually did see women represented in sports pages, or we saw a range of reporters reporting on different kinds of styles of play in sports – you might actually see that women might take more of an interest in picking up a sports section. Ad execs basically said, “Well, it’s a lucrative market, the men’s game. We’re only going to sell them, and we’re only going to sell a certain brand of masculinity – of hypermasculinity.” That’s what has really defined sport in North America, is the top men’s team sports, football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. And in a lot of ways, it negates the different ways not only to play hockey, but also that you can do sport in general. The ways you organize it, the way you play it, the style of play. The fact that women have been ignored as a potential audience and as potential players is interesting. Look at a sport like tennis, where everyone had this “a-ha!” moment: “Oh right!  When we give women prize money and the access to resources and training, they can put on a show that is pretty fucking awesome to watch.” I think that you’re going to start seeing that happen with women’s team sports. But it’s going to be a lot slower. It takes a lot more resources to actually build a team.

MD: It seems like women’s sports only make headlines when there are instances of rule-breaking and controversy. What did you think of the media’s response to the Canadian women’s national team and their post-gold medal game celebration on the ice involving beer and cigars?  Do you think that the response would have been similar had it been the men’s national team?

MH: Of course not. I mean, when have you ever seen in sport a dynasty in men’s sports that has been made to feel ashamed for celebrating a victory?  This just never happens. It never happens that you create a team as brilliant as that Canadian women’s team was, and you get it shat on, basically, to put it in plain terms. This happens in women’s hockey a lot, key moments that could be historical and defining, and where if explained in context could really show you how Team Canada has been leading in a lot of really interesting ways, you see the opposite. I saw the press footage from the press scrum at the Olympics after that game, and all of the questions had to do with that, pretty much. The women were seriously there on the defence. It was really unbearable to watch, to be honest with you. And I can’t imagine that taking place in any other sport.

MD: How do you think that the macho, homophobic culture in men’s hockey compares to women’s hockey culture?  How is homophobia different in both of these contexts?

MH: I have a co-ed league now where I get to know guys and their experiences in sport, and, I mean, the locker room is a really homophobic and sexist place – even when it’s small things. That’s not the case for every team. Depending on who the coach is and what kinds of ground rules they lay out about respecting diversity on the team, you get a lot of different reactions. I know a lot of guys that left sport, and hockey in particular, because it is an unbearable environment.  At the NHL level, it is a business and I’m pretty sure that there are gay guys there, but they are not visible and they are quiet to themselves. NHL guys, they don’t know who they are, and if they do, there is a culture of silence and secrecy around those issues. And if someone were to come out, I think that it would do a lot for the sport. We’re seeing a lot around bullying in the US, and it really takes someone to take up that space and ultimately I don’t see why they wouldn’t support them.

There was that really terrible tragedy where Brian Burke, the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs – his son came out and he actually died a few months later… That was a really big moment in the sport. He is a really important figure, and the fact that he stood by his son meant a lot. I think that there is a lot to be said for camaraderie in teams, and when you prove yourself on a certain number of other levels, it’s like, whatever. It has been proven in a number of other sports that if you’re a champion athlete, you can screw whom you want. As far as women’s sports go, women’s sports are a really loaded place for homosexuality. I think that they always have been. They can be really accepting environments on some levels, but there can be tension. There are lots of queer women in sport, gay women, or trans people in sport, and we don’t hear about them. Maybe that’s because they’re being quiet, and also because when you’re an athlete at a high level, you don’t want a lot of attention being drawn from your sporting practice into your sexual life, and I think that’s fair enough.

I think that women’s sports have done a better job of that. Although it’s still very quiet. Not, “Rah, rah, we have big lesbians on our teams.”

MD: Women’s hockey is a different game from men’s hockey, and in the eyes of many, an inferior one. Sports are conceptualized as war, where violence is tolerated if not encouraged, and hits and fights are what bring in the revenue. How can women’s hockey work to get respect while simultaneously avoiding the negative aspects of the masculine model of sport?  Is this re-conceptualization of sport as we know it really a possibility?

MH: The truth is there is no way to calculate the number of NHL fans that have been turned off by some of the goonish behaviour and hits to the head that are really kind of horrific to watch. There is no way to understand how those kinds of hits are damaging to some of the players that we enjoy seeing perform. So, I think that one of the first misconceptions is actually that. There is a whole range of people that would like to watch hockey without hits and fights. I’m not trying to diss or take anything away from people that like that in their hockey. Do you want your young child to be playing a sport where they can potentially have concussions and be concussed for the rest of their lives?  I have lost brain cells from being hit in a sport that doesn’t have hitting. I think that there is a real tension there, and okay, yeah, some people want to see the most hypermasculine of that in their hockey. And, the NHL has appealed to that for a very long time. But there is also a way in which the reasons that there was hitting in women’s hockey, and the reasons that it was taken out was because there is no insurance, and one of the major reasons that women don’t get involved in the sport is because they don’t want to get injured, or their parents don’t want them to get injured, and we might say that’s a sexist response, but it’s also actually quite logical, in my view. Being a player, and being an adult… I want to go to work the next day. I think the people that participate in hockey and the people who watch it, there is a wide range of people who actually want to see hockey played without those things. Now, hockey without those things is a really exciting game. You might say it’s not real hockey, but well, what is real hockey?  And who gets to define what it is?

Women’s hockey is a really exciting game to watch when it’s played well: the space gets opened up for them, there is a lot of crisp passing, exciting play-making, it allows for a range of bodies to participate. The way that Wayne Gretzky got to participate was by putting in an enforcer. What if it was possible that all kinds of different guys could play in the NHL? What if it wasn’t super beefy and six foot-eight? We have men’s pro sports on steroids, now, basically. The NHL is amazing calibre hockey, but this argument that people make that women’s hockey is only midget AAA, well, that’s not true. The national team played midget AAAs and beat them all along on the course to the Olympics this year. So, you know, there is no real apt comparison between the two. People that make this argument, I would insist again on the basic fact that girls playing now who are sixteen, seventeen, with all of the same privileges and access to facilities that boys had. When you watch under-18 national team playing right now, your mind is blown. Any one of these people that make the argument that says that women’s hockey isn’t as exciting or fun to watch haven’t really looked at how well these girls can play. Hockey is yet to have this “a-ha!” moment, and it is in part because of the context of no one actually talking about the difficulties. It’s like we forgot how difficult it was to build an entire league called the NHL, how difficult it was to build hockey globally…

There’s no reason that this can’t be the place where we have an international [women’s] pro league. To be honest, maybe I’m deluded, but I think that there’s an audience. It’s just a matter of funding. That is a huge hurdle, especially in women’s sport and leadership. There is a lot that has to come together.

Why is their idea of hockey that it also includes boxing?  Europeans also find this strange. Hockey players. Everyone that we talked to at the World Hockey Summit, European hockey players, are very baffled by this… There are lots of people in the NHL that would rather see a different kind of game…

MD: A lot of the fights are really staged, they don’t really seem to have a purpose. And what Sean Avery did [in November]…

MH: My experience with this sport is that bullies are allowed to stay in it. They are given their place, and to be honest, once you kick those kids out of the playground, it becomes more fun. No one wants to play with that guy. I agree that a big hit or a fight can shift the momentum in the game, and it is a tool that is used in that way, but another way to do that is to play together really well and get a goal. There are many different ways to shift momentum in the game, and I think that people understand the nuance, and the ways in which you can be sophisticated about that.