This article written by Julie Stevens, Professor of Sport Management and Director of the Centre for Sport Capacity at Brock University, was originally published in The Conversation.
The 2023 Women’s World Ice Hockey Championship concluded in Brampton, Ont., on April 16 with the U.S. securing a 6-3 win over Canada. The atmosphere at the championship was special. Almost 60,000 fans attended the tournament, with 4,635 attending the championship match. While the gold medal game generated the excitement everyone expected, this event had a unique feel.
Change is afoot both on and off the ice. The presence of women and girls was on display in all aspects of the event and the fresh air of empowerment raises an important question: does this championship signal a new dawn for women’s and girls’ hockey?
No longer in the margins
For decades, women’s hockey lived on the margins and was an under-valued and resource-starved part of the game. As time passed, the structure of women’s and girls’ hockey expanded from grassroots to high performance, taking the game from its local origins to the international stage. Throughout this rapid change, a unique community took hold.
Today, women’s and girls’ voices are creating a powerful sense of empowerment. Over the course of my research on Canadian women’s hockey I have found members gain a distinct sense of control, leadership and involvement from participating together.
Past research also notes the dominant norm of masculinity that pervades hockey and identifies how those involved in women’s and girls’ hockey resist the gender hierarchy that drives hockey values and structures.
One tactic of this resistance is the purposeful implementation of role modelling. This is something that happened everywhere at the championship. Of course, the elite athletes on all 10 teams were centre stage and young women and girls could easily see how these players align with their need to feel competent and confident.
All on-ice officials were women. The majority of the first responder flag bearers were women in police, fire, paramedic and military services. The fan experience included a woman in-game host. The ice crew shovelling the boards and crease during television timeouts were under-18 aged players from nearby girls’ teams.
Another effective tactic of resistance is gender diversity among decision-makers. Research shows that gender diverse boards can improve long-term organizational innovation and positively influence the success of women CEOs.
Historically, women-led sport governing bodies have seen tremendous growth. Recognizing this potential, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) recently launched its Inspire the Next campaign. This is a fresh women’s hockey concept that differentiates women’s hockey and promotes women working throughout the game in areas such as marketing, operations, legal, team services, media and photography.
There are now five women on Hockey Canada’s senior leadership team, two women who lead the International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s Council and many women in senior corporate positions that lead media, marketing, national teams and events within hockey federations, brands and partners.
As a major conduit for legitimacy, media coverage plays an influential role in the game’s development and its infusion into broader hockey fandom. The portrayal of women’s hockey is usually either ambivalent or compared to a very different men’s hockey game which means changing the message is key.
Research has found women athletes prefer that coverage focus upon their competence rather than other characteristics. Placing control of this message in the hands of women who know the game ensures this is emphasized.
For the first time, TSN broadcast all 31 championship games live. In addition, 11 women provided analysis during an unprecedented 96.5 broadcast hours.
From a marketing standpoint, what used to be a sport with a niche audience is now a burgeoning participant landscape. While brands enter women’s hockey to expand market share, corporate-community initiatives must meet the needs of women and girls in hockey. For example, the Accelerate pilot, sponsored by well-known Canadian brands, focuses upon the immediate need for gender equity in hockey.
Hockey Canada still faces calls for greater accountability and transparency. Canadians continue to demand outright change. The organization must meet these expectations and formally integrate diversity, equity and inclusion into its governance and operations.
Looking ahead, there is no longer any patience to wait for others to make the right decisions. Those within women’s hockey are driving transformation. Action is coming from inside instead of outside the community. The IIHF must convince national hockey federations around the globe to better support women’s hockey in order to prove its “Inspire the Next” campaign is more than a slogan.
The promise of women’s and girls’ hockey is the strongest it has ever been — and must be sustained.