We Finns love TV commercials with athletes in them, selling us sandwiches or cars with big white smiles. In a recent Valio (the biggest Finnish milk refiner company) ad, there’s a little boy who dreams of being like his idol, the legendary ice-hockey player Teemu Selänne. Selänne then appears like the tooth fairy and joins the boy for a midnight game. We don’t need to be media researchers to understand that the message behind the commercial is "Drink Valio milk little fella and your dreams can come true! You can be a great pro like Selänne when you grow up!" Selänne played his last Winter Olympics game a week ago and was greeted with crying journalists and papers making special editions about his best moments in hockey.
Overlapping Teemu’s goodbyes, another famous Finnish player announced her retirement from the national team. But if we would make a similar milk ad about Noora Räty, the story behind it would be a little different. The story would start very Disney-esque, with her begging her parents to let her play with her brother. Then it would develop into an epic story about her starting her international career at 16 and then, at the age of 24, she would be called the best female goalie in the world. She would also be announced to be number 63 in The Hockey News' list of the People of Power List. But then, something would go wrong in the story. She watches men from the same age group signing contracts in the NHL, starting to make a living as professional players, but she, as she put it when she announced her retirement, lives from hand to mouth and works full time while trying to train like a pro.
In the milk ad, the little girl’s face would turn sour when Räty whispers to her ear: "Try as you might, you can’t be what you dream."
The main reason for this situation is that there are no proper women’s pro ice-hockey leagues, like, for example, the NHL is for men. Räty stated in her Twitter release that "I don’t feel that women’s hockey can grow or get any better in the future if the USA or Canada don’t get a professional league started soon. That is the next critical step that our sport needs to take or our sport will never be respected like it should be." Her ideas were instantly protested against by Gary Bettman (commissioner of NHL) by saying that a women’s league “doesn’t make business sense […]" (although he swore that women’s hockey won’t be dropped from the Winter Olympics) and René Fasel (International Ice Hockey Federation President) said, according to Iltasanomat, that "forming a professional women’s league doesn’t feel possible right now."
The reasons behind the lack of a professional league are myriad. For one, there aren’t enough followers who would demand one. And then we get to the point which was oh-so-eloquently expressed by many Tweeps during the Sochi Olympics: There are a lot of people thinking that women’s ice hockey is an inferior sport compared to men’s.
A friend of mine, who is a hardcore hockey fan, said this is due to the lack of physicality, which is considered to be essential to ice hockey. So-called body checking (a player using his hip or shoulder to hit another player who has the puck or is the last to touch it) was eliminated from women’s hockey after the 1990 Women’s World Championship. Another difference is that women are required to wear protective full-face masks. From the depths of the Internet, one can easily find four major reasons by which this is all rationalized:
1. Body size differences: smaller players would get hurt. 2. It would change the rules, everybody would have to learn the new rules. 3. Parents would have a hard time entrusting their daughters to play this violent game. 4. Rise of insurance costs.
Am I the only one who is having a hard time not smacking these arguments with a huge stamp that says "SEXISM?"
Here are some counter-arguments which I think are important to point out:
1. Did you see Mikael Granlund in Sochi trying to body check those huge Canadian players? It looked like a hobbit trying to knock off an orc. No one is complaining about their body size differences and in fact, there’s a tendency to believe that the small players are the ones who are tireless and tough fighters.
2. A lot of rules in sports tend to change. NHL introducing the rule that players must wear plastic visors stirred a lot of resistance at first, but now it’s part of the game. Not to mention introducing helmets as mandatory… Also, I should state here the obvious: There are already a lot of sports where the rules for men and women are exactly the same, European soccer and American football, for instance. Or pool.
3. You could actually stick a big sign here that says "Feminist issue." The idea that little girls shouldn’t exercise in a way that might be considered aggressive is a cultural product that limits girls’ access to areas of life which are considered manly. A personal anecdote to follow later.
4. The only way women could get insurance as good as the male players is by introducing the sport at a professional level. Professional level would mean bigger promotions, bigger audiences, and bigger paychecks. Professional players would be able to safeguard their future if they hurt themselves in the game, like the men already do.
While I was watching the Talviklassikko-game between Jokerit and HIFK, my inner linguist came up with yet another reason why ice hockey is mainly seen as a man’s game. The Finnish ice hockey commentators use loads of war and battle metaphors, such as shooting ("ampua"), blasting ("tykittää"), the feeling of killing ("tappamisen meininki"), and bomb ("pommi"). The fields from which these metaphors are drawn from are seen as masculine.
But then again, one might ask, if women’s hockey really should be the SAME as men’s. Why couldn’t this sport be appreciated the way it is, why should it change to be appreciated? After all, being equal doesn’t mean being similar. Being equal is being appreciated with all your characteristics and not seeing those characteristics as being inferior or weak. I watched an interview with Noora Räty where she said that "in sports I would rather change my sex to a man, but when I’m not doing that, it’s nice to be a woman." This comment makes me incredibly sad and it should make everybody feel the same way: To give everything to your profession, train, and be the best in what you do and still not reach your dream because of your gender.
But what gives me hope is the young age of this sport. After all, it was only in the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics when women’s ice hockey was introduced as an Olympic sport. That’s sixteen years. Imagine what the sport will be like sixteen years from now.
To be able to achieve any progress, we, as a hockey nation, need to get the process started. Push TV channels to show women’s games. Appreciate the game for what it is now but believe that it has chances of becoming even better. Become a fan of women’s hockey and give it a chance: see the exactly same talent, fire, and stamina that manifest in men’s hockey. The adrenaline, the speed, it’s all there. But first and foremost (and this is not only in the hands of the common person): Start with the juniors. Ice hockey should be seen as a sport that is available for little girls and boys alike. There’s nothing wrong with girls playing an adrenaline-pumped sport and using strength to achieve their goals. This game hasn’t reached its peak yet and how could it have? I think a quote from one of my favorite authors, Caitlin Moran, is in place here. In her book, How To Be a Woman, she talks about women not participating historically in many areas of life, such as science, art and culture:
"Pretending that women have had a pop at all this before but just ultimately didn’t do as well as the men, that the experiment of female liberation has already happened but floundered gives strength to the belief that women simply aren’t as good as men, full stop. […] Women are over, without having ever begun. When the truth is that we haven’t begun at all. Of course we haven’t. We’ll know it when we have."
And now to the personal anecdote I promised earlier. I learnt to skate very early, my mom did some figure skating when she was young and my dad was an excellent teenage outdoor hockey player so they were good teachers. With my two brothers and our friends and dads, we held fierce hockey games on the sea ice of our summer cottage. There was something about the game that was mesmerizing: The puck sat nicely on the blade of the stick and somehow the shape of the stick made skating with it feel safe and firm. You could load all that you got into that one shot towards the goal and use an equal amount of speed, tricks, and power in the game. Then, in third grade, we started doing winter sports in P.E. I was very excited about this, since I sucked at aerobics, dancing, and apparatus gymnastics, but I knew that ice hockey was something I and my sturdy figure were good at. My gym teacher handed me a ringette stick and answered my confused objection by stating that "Ice hockey is for boys only."
Quote from Caitlin Moran's How To Be a Woman, Ebury Press, 2012.
I hope your year has so far been exciting and full of critical thinking and fun times. No? Well, BTSB’s editors are here to help you with that!
This month, Ari takes a good humorous look at the Oscars; Ile offers us some awesome chilling crime in his short story; Jesper introduces Against Me!’s latest album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues; Inka shares the details of her heart-breaking break-up with…Facebook; and reviews Humanisti-speksi! Laura tells us her insightful findings on book trailers; Elizabeth about her thoughts on ethics and clothing; while Esko interviewed SUB’s new president. Also, I’m very proud to present BTSB’s new feature, the Intercultural Happy Hour podcast with Jesper Simola! And while we’re being proud,see what our Masters and Mistresses of the Web did to our layout! Pretty wonderful, ay? Remember to check out the new 'Editors' page and leave your comments!