Sunday, April 3, 2011

Play Nice, Ladies

     Believe it or not, I've uncovered a double standard based on gender.  Since even men's hockey is probably the least popular of the four major North American sports, you may be unaware that body checking is illegal in all major women's ice hockey leagues and tournaments.

     If you aren't in a major, competitive league, I can understand why you wouldn't want to have to worry about getting drilled into the boards.  Especially if you're just playing for fun.  That's why flag football leagues exist; not everyone gets paid enough to put their body on the line.  The rule against checking also makes sense for kids' leagues.  With so little experience, children can be much more likely to hurt each other or themselves if they throw their bodies around too recklessly.  But should we treat grown women the same way we treat children?  Can men learn to check properly but women can't?

     Body checking actually was only eliminated from international play after the 1990 Women's World Championship, the reason being that other countries did not have the size to compete physically with North American players.  Has that helped to level the international playing field?  Out of the 12 International Ice Hockey Federation World Women's Championships, Canada has won nine gold medals and three silvers, while the US has won three golds and nine silvers.  In the four Olympic tournaments that have included women's hockey, Canada has three golds and a silver and the US has one gold and two silvers.  Sweden won silver in 2006 and is still the only non-North American team to win anything other than bronze.  Clearly, body checking is not what separates North America's women's hockey programs from those of the rest of the world.

     I don't have any real stats on this matter, but Kim McCullough, who has played and coached at the highest level of women's hockey and is an Ivy League grad with a master's in kinesiology, has this to say: "the reality is that the majority of injuries in girls’ hockey are happening from incidental contact...One of the big reason girls are getting hurt by this incidental contact is that they lack the awareness that they are going to get hit."  Essentially, playing without checking leads to playing with your head down watching the puck, which almost completely erases your awareness of other players.  No Flyers fan needs to be told how important it is to play with your head up.

     As soon as Lindros gets the puck, he doesn't stop staring at it until Stevens' runs through him.  And it's because, growing up, he was always the biggest and fastest guy on the ice.  Once he got to the NHL level, he couldn't adjust to playing with guys just as fast and strong.  Even without body checking, you still run the risk of skating into someone else and getting seriously injured. 

     Some argue that body checking shouldn't be allowed in women's hockey because the game is better without it.  And those people are idiots.  Mark Johnson, former Olympic women's hockey coach, calls it "pure hockey".  I suppose he's unaware of the fact that hitting as been an integral part of the game since its earliest forms.  That's why the All Star game is the most boring hockey game of the year; no hitting.  Maybe the casual fan is only concerned with goal scoring, but that's not the only part of the game.  Even as the NHL strives to make the game safer and cut down on head injuries, there is no serious talk of eliminating body checking.  Rule 48 allows for the suspension of a player who targets the head of another player.  This makes infinitely more sense than removing hitting entirely.

     Polls of the women who actually play the game vary.  Not surprisingly, the individual's size is a major factor in how they feel.  But even in the NHL, with the world's biggest, strongest, and fastest players, there are plenty of little guys who play at elite levels despite their size.  Today, Brian Gionta is in his 10th season in the NHL and captains the freakin' Canadiens, hockey's ultimate franchise, despite being 5'7".  Theo Fleury was even shorter at 5'6" but not only played well enough to notch 1088 points in 1084 NHL games, but was actually known for being very physical.  Hitting doesn't have to be running around like a goon trying to take someone's head off; it can, and should, be just as technical as any other aspect of the game.

     This issue boils down to the perception that women can't handle it.  Regardless of entertainment, hitting should be made a part of women's ice hockey because it is a part of ice hockey in general.  There is no need to make special rules for women; if they want to play a game, let them play by the same rules that men play by.