* Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of those interviewed.
A dynasty is something that I wasn’t born into, but something I desperately wish I could stake a claim in.
With no bloodline and no loyalty, sports can seem like foreign entities. And in my black sheep way, I came to love hockey not because of my biological lineage, but because of a separate and completely infinite community. One I would too call family.
Ironically, randomly loving the world of professional surfing is the reason I found hockey. One winter, I asked myself a question every die-hard sports fan asks eventually,
“What the actual hell am I supposed to do with myself in the offseason?”
I understand the science behind how one ember can ignite and devastate a forest because I’ve experienced it internally; how a simple sport can turn into a fervent obsession.
While surfing took their winter hiatus, hockey got playoff hungry. I considered myself free from the burden of geographical allegiance, having been born in Kentucky and raised in Wisconsin. But since they were the team I first watched, it felt wrong to cheer for anyone but the Washington Capitals.
When someone asked my son who got him interested in hockey he said, “My Mom.”
-Tanya, Capitals Fan
There are people who have spent decades in my life and never seen me cry. I scream-sobbed in front of a full classroom when the Caps finally won the Stanley Cup. How long I had been rooting for the team is irrelevant; it was euphoria I have not felt before or since.
And the first people I told lived on the internet.
I’ve found in my journey throughout the years with hockey, that it is not a simple sport to learn. In fact, it’s beautifully intricate and complicated. But I was fortunate because there were so many more like me— and they were happy to teach.
Online lives a steadfast community that is not so much elitist as it is hidden. This is the female hockey community. A family of women who all support different teams and somehow love a sport equally. Fully. With bias towards opposing colors, but not towards one another.
These women occupy forums like tumblr.com and reddit.com and talk about everything from who should get traded to players’ fashion choices. And without these, I’m not even sure I would know what ‘offsides’ means.
Not only are these places for open discussion about hockey, but they’re also educational outlets. One of the toughest things about being born a ‘sports pauper’ as I call it, is you have no familial resources to draw from. Wikipedia is about as helpful as your high school English teachers expect it to be, and unless you have someone holding your hand and explaining everything, there are going to be questions.
But herein lies a parallel throughout all of fandom. The Gatekeepers.
While the origin of gatekeeping seems unclear, the attitude around it is not. When you’re a female fan, they’re going to ask, “why?”
I aimed to write this story to exhibit the positive community of girls who have welcomed me with open arms. Who have remembered my birthday, who have sent me messages of care after surgery. So I asked if any of them would like to be interviewed on the subject.
48 women said yes.
I collected interviews from multiple age brackets, from countries like Germany, Russia, Sweden, Argentina, and New Zealand, supporting almost every team that make up the NHL’s 32.
These women recognized immediately why they felt that online was a safer place for their opinions; Katie, a Rangers fan said, “[If I’m anonymous, saying] … something a little daring, such as, “We should trade x for x,” it really helps me to be able to get my opinion into the world. When I was younger, I had an anonymous Instagram account where no one ever knew I was a girl and people respected my opinions. But then I said somehow… that I was a girl and— wow. Instead of intelligent discussions, my valid points were now being shut down, I was being ignored. It was insane. That anonymity really helps to keep you on top when you’re a girl.”
This is not a unique feeling. The omen is clear. Almost every single woman answered with something along the lines of— online, we’re heard, outside, we’re questioned. Heather, a Capitals fan, highlighted this by adding, “It’s already hard enough being a female liking a male-dominated sport, but there is definitely more criticism if you like a big name player. My favorite player is Tom Wilson and I almost always get asked if he’s my favorite because he’s attractive. It makes me angry and I have to defend who I like, just because I’m female… Sure, there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t agree with you online, but at least it’s not because of your gender.”
And this is a common criticism, women liking the players, not the sport. Liz, a Canes fan, put it best, “I feel like when female fans talk about their favorite players… most will say, “Oh, you just like (insert player here) because you think he’s hot.” It does two major things to that player when people say that. 1. Demotes their skills as a hockey player. 2. Gives the vision that the player is liked because of their looks, not their skill.”
Others told anecdotes of being tested and schooled the minute they mentioned they were a fan, something almost all of them had experienced, myself included. The conversation sometimes centered around how people will ‘quiz on stats from 1980’ or require a woman to name more than five players on their team to ‘seem legit.’
“Do female fans really care enough about sports?” … That is something that always just feels like a dagger every time I hear it because you wouldn’t ask a question like that about men.”
But here’s what any persecutor might not realize— if a girl says she’s a fan of a team, she’s worked up to that. There’s been debate, there’s been hurt. It’s not impulse, it took perseverance to announce that passion. Like prepped witnesses on trial, we usually know the answers. We can tell you the stats. We’re steeled. We know which jury we have to persuade, and we intend to swing the verdict our way.
And this persecution doesn’t stop with the majority of society… it elevates to women in the sports industry as well. There wasn’t one set of female eyes left unrolled when Pierre McGuire publicly babied Olympic Gold Medalist Kendall Coyne Schofield. Even more splintering, the NHL could be considered at fault for disregarding their female fans, as they are the only league in the top four without a clear domestic abuse policy.
Nicole Giordano, creator of the female-skewed hockey publication PUCKer UP Sports, told me, “I am constantly asked to prove my knowledge… I feel as if I have to work much harder than men in the industry to accomplish the same things. The worst oppression I received was from a college professor telling me that, “I had a pretty face and he’d enjoy watching me on Sports Center,” after I gave a presentation to the class. That event is still something that sticks with me when I’m working hard to accomplish my dreams.”
PUCKer UP is the perfect example of a space where women are not only allowed to share their opinions, but they’re encouraged, “I’ve had multiple women reach out to me in person and online telling me how thankful they were to have a community where they can discuss hockey without worrying that they will say the wrong thing or be judged because of their gender,” added Nicole.
Another phenomenal resource fostering female-centric fandom is a revolutionary app called The Relish. This app allows for fans to become broadcasters and commentators while at the same time meeting like-minded people who are open for debate.
It makes me angry and I have to defend who I like, just because I’m female
Co-founder and CEO of The Relish, Ashley Wellington-Fahey, was inspired to start it because, “I wasn’t treated as an equal in sports communities… we’re oftentimes having to pre-qualify our fandom to be taken seriously. And if you don’t match what male fans see as fandom, then you’re not seen as people.”
During our discussion, we touched on the fact that sometimes comfort is a large reason that female marketing isn’t always on the forefront. From the app design, to their social media campaigns, that is not the case with The Relish.
“The audience member that we think of first is a female fan and we do that intentionally right now because it’s an audience segment that is never thought of first,” said Wellington-Fahey, “And, a question that we always get is, “Do female fans really care enough about sports?” And that is something that always just feels like a dagger every time I hear it because you wouldn’t ask a question like that about men.”
Much like Reddit and Tumblr and PUCKer UP, The Relish thrives on the lack of cohesion between its users, “I love that we are proving that fandom is abstract. It’s not one way. One example of that is the way that our fans come together despite not supporting the same team or loving the same player.”
No matter what online platform female hockey fans use, this seems to be an overwhelming commonality. “I met one of my absolute best friends because of hockey and I’ve bonded with so many other amazing friends because of the sport we all love. Hockey gave me a chance to be a part of something amazing.” said Cassie, a Leafs fan. Jessica, a Capitals fan, expressed similar notions, “[There’s a] solidarity between us… I’d like to say that there’s almost a sense of family. We laugh, we cry, we cheer our boys on and wish nothing but happiness for them!”
Others brought up the vibrancy of the hockey content created by females: Isabelle Khurshudyan’s indomitable Washington Post articles, “You Can’t Do That” Podcast (created by six incredible women), Elyse Bailey and Brennin Weiswerda’s work for Russian Machine Never Breaks, Sportscaster Michelle McMahon, and the Black Girl Hockey Club. The salutes kept coming, a shrill cacophony. Online female hockey fans are deafening— they know how to howl for their own.
That dagger that Ashley Wellington-Fahey mentioned? We’re reclaiming it. We give new meaning to ‘females caring.’ Gone is the trope of women bringing in the seven-layer dip and then holing away to read romance novels. No one has trademarked sitting at home and screaming at their television. That’s public domain.
Gatekeepers weren’t granted keys, nor were they asked to cut a ribbon with big fancy scissors. They started once where we all did, devoid of any knowledge. The love you feel for a team should not be measured by the years you suffered for them. My joy when the Caps won the cup was a singular experience, but it would feel villainous to tear that ecstasy out of the arms of any fan, whether they’ve been following for decades or minutes.
Truly, the only blasphemy lies in discouragement. Teach, don’t test. Breed lovers of a game, start your own dynasties.
As for females reading this who might want to know a little more about hockey… ask questions, make friends, discuss. Come home, we’re waiting for you.