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For Women Hockey Players, Glass Ceiling Is Hard As Ice

By Chris Churchill Times Union, Albany, N.Y.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Hundreds of female hockey players are boycotting the upcoming NWHL season. Chris Churchill takes a personal look at that boycott through the eyes of his 5-year-old daughter.


My five-year-old daughter is a bit sexist about sports. She wants to watch girls and women, not boys and men.

So when we decided to go to a basketball game over the winter, we saw the Siena women's team. When we wanted to watch hockey, we cheered on women from Union College as they, alas, got smoked by Colgate.

We had fun on both days, but the crowds were sparse and I know what's coming. Eventually, my daughter is going to ask why so many more people watch men play than women.

I dread having to tell her the answer.

For a small girl, it must be disillusioning to learn that men's sports are simply more popular. It certainly isn't fair that professional male athletes can make millions as they perform before massive crowds while women, with a few notable exceptions, typically don't. Sadly, that's just the way it is.

Changing how is the goal of a boycott announced last week. Roughly 200 professional women hockey players, including several with ties to our part of upstate New York, said they will not play in any North American league until there is more fairness for women.

Jordan Juron, who grew up in Latham and plays for the horribly named Buffalo Beauts, and Courtney Burke, an Albany native who skates for the wonderfully named Metropolitan Riveters, based in New Jersey, were among the players who posted a defiant statement announcing the boycott to their social media pages.

"This is the moment we've been waiting for -- our moment to come together and say we deserve more," the women said. "It's time for a long-term viable professional league that will showcase the greatest product of women's professional hockey in the world."

In a fight that echoes prior efforts in soccer, tennis and other sports, the statement also said that the women, often paid less than $2,000 a season, "cannot make a sustainable living" and often don't even have health insurance.

The boycott is being hailed as an important step toward equality and breaking a glass ceiling that's harder than the ice at your local rink.

Billie Jean King, the trailblazing tennis star, was among those who voiced support, saying that "female athletes deserve to live the life they envisioned as kids: playing the sport they love, and making a living doing it."

It's impossible to disagree with the sentiment -- or not to acknowledge the dedication of female hockey players and their families.

Burke, for example, convinced her parents, both retired Albany police detectives, to let her take hockey lessons when she was six. She left home to play for a prestigious Minnesota prep school just seven years later.

Burke is among the best players in the country today, and yet, as her father told me Wednesday, she is forced to work long hours away from the rink. "They're not making enough to support themselves," John Burke said.

Unfair, for sure.

Still, it is reasonable to worry that the boycott, which includes nearly all the sport's top players, may end up doing more harm than good.

For one thing, it could be the death of the National Women's Hockey League, whose teams include the (yuck) Beauts and the (yay) Riveters. Given that the six-team Canadian Women's Hockey League folded last month, there is nowhere else in North America for women to play.

That's a shame, and not only because women's hockey is (arguably) superior to the version played by men, oriented, as it is, toward the grace of skating and passing rather than physicality and intimidation. If there's no professional league, there's nothing for potential fans to watch, which means there's less hope for growing the popularity of the sport.

Maybe we have to build the fan base before worrying about salaries? Some of you, after all, might just now be learning that women play professional hockey, or at least may not know that women's hockey is considered one of the world's fastest-growing sports.

Then again, can a league rightfully be called professional if some of its athletes don't even have health insurance?

For the women involved in the boycott, the ideal scenario might be the creation of a women's professional league that's under the umbrella of the NHL, much as the WNBA is supported by the NBA. But it isn't at all clear that the NHL is interested in doing that.

Nor is it clear that we will ever reach the day when little girls don't have to learn that people prefer to watch boys -- and that, for girls who play sports and the women they become, the world is not fair.

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