By David F. Pendrys
It’s been said hundreds of times, and this piece will say it again. It’s time to stop with trying to brand women’s athletes with labels like “Women’s Hockey’s Sidney Crosby” or the similar well meaning but in the end unhelpful comparisons which is prevalent in hockey circles as well as other sports contexts. Others have said it better than I have, but I will nonetheless say it as well. It is not helping. I’ll focus on hockey here, but it is not a tactic confined to that sport.
True, it is a common marketing tactic to try to connect to an audience by giving them something relatable to latch on to. “Do you like Ricky Martin, well Ricky Martin like’s Orange Cola, so have some Orange Cola!” Or “Do you like baseball, then you’ll totally like this baseball type game played on horses!” This is also true of media where often articles are written trying to lure in readers. For instance to draw attention to an article about satirical TV host Bassem Youssef, he was called “Egypt’s Jon Stewart” to “help” readers understand why they should care.
It is not illogical at first glance to say, “hey I want people who followed men’s hockey, or men’s whatever to be interested in this great sport I’m covering. So let me reach readers with something they can relate to. Men’s hockey fans understand Sidney Crosby, they understand Henrik Lundqvist so they’ll understand when I compare a women’s hockey player to them.” There are a lot of problems with this in my opinion and again others have said it better.
First off, you are introducing possibly a new sport, or at the very least new players to people and the first act of doing so is to is defining them not by their own attributes but by that of others. While it is common even within sports to pull this like asking “Who the next Michael Jordan will be?” that proves to be ridiculous even within that context. Jordan’s successors are not Jordan. So it is even more of a problem if, in a climate where just a few days ago, a prominent NHL analyst trashed the women’s game and sexism continues to be attached to so much of men’s sports fandom like a remora to a shark, that men are invoked to define the play of women or non-binary players. Let each player’s and each game’s accomplishments stand for themselves.
Secondly, if we expect a fan to appreciate the skills and abilities of a women’s hockey player, do they need to see a great goal scored and then think “Wow that’s just like Seguin would have done it!” or are they going to appreciate the goal for what it is. Similarly, a great goaltender is just that. You don’t need to know one thing about who played in net for the New Jersey Devils to appreciate the abilities of the NWHL netminders who play next door. By making these comparisons we suggest the assumption among most fans is that women’s players are not good so we must convince these fans with a shortcut by saying “no no, really, they are good, see they’re like a man who plays. See?” It’s a tempting trap to fall into but a disservice. First of all, if the fans are lead to believe in the first place that a women’s sport is inferior, a symbolic reference is not going to help. If anything it might hardened their flawed beliefs and reinforce their male-centric views in the first place. If even women’s sports writers are operating from that perspective, it’s only going to enable those who want to think there’s HOCKEY, then women’s hockey. We already see that sad situation all over college hockey, where we have THE FROZEN FOUR and then The Women’s Frozen Four and There’s The BEANPOT, and then The Women’s Beanpot. There is already this idea that the men’s side of things is the normal, and everything must orbit around it. That is not helped if we do the same with women’s and men’s sports and leagues.
Third, when we invoke comparisons to in these cases NHL players we are suggesting that unless we provide a reference point, fans will not be interested. Turn that around and ask why. If fans can’t somehow see in the women’s game their male heroes, then what is the point of their fandom? They won’t remain interested if they can’t enjoy the game for itself.
It does make sense, or possibly not, for men’s and women’s leagues to work together, though there is plenty of writing on how this can lead to problems. But cooperation is far different then defining a player a certain way. Amanda Kessel is Amanda Kessel, she is not her brother, she is not Sidney Crosby. Shannon Szabados doesn’t prepare for Sidney Crosby skating in on her goal, she prepares for Amanda Kessel to do so. Hilary Knight sizes up how to get the puck away from Marie-Philip Poulin based on her knowledge of Poulin’s skill set not based on what Auston Matthews would do.
If a player is fast, say they’re fast, use all the adjectives available to do so. If they have good hands, say so, if they are brilliant in net, say so. Fans should be able to understand that. They should want to see the players and the game based on what they watch or they won’t want to see it.