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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Commentary

Of Ice and Women

The night of Thursday, January 31, 2008 was a conventional game night for me. As always, I made a point of grabbing an otherwise improperly timed dinner (this meant hitting the dining hall about 5:00) and dashing off to Schneider Arena, home of Providence College hockey, well in advance of a 7:00 face-off.

This despite my experience-honed wisdom that the doors would take eons to open and I wouldn’t have anybody competing with me to get my first choice of seating –especially when this particular team does not charge admission nor require spectators to pick up a ticket stub.

My incurable, compulsive propensity to hustle down there might have been more justified if, say, this were PC’s historically celebrated men’s hockey team tussling with the likes of Boston University. Instead, those two schools were pitting their women’s programs against one another. It was therefore an invincible bet, far beyond shouting distance of a gamble, that the rink would be getting the fledgling Federal League team treatment.

I don’t make that point out of derision, but flat observation, concomitant with a self-contained dollop of lamentation. There was no realistic hope of any Friar Fanatics kindling their witty “Sucks to BU!” chant tonight the same way they would if this were the Tim Army Corps vs. Professor Parker’s Pupils.

No, the only fellow students I would observe or hear comment on the game this evening would be six young men from PC’s ROTC program. As I waited out the 6:00 door-bust before the main entrance facing Huxley Avenue, the cadets strolled down the neighboring sidewalk en route to or home from an evening project.

Noticing that the arena lobby was illuminated, one of them asked, a little perplexed, what for. Another volunteered to explain that it was “girls’ hockey tonight.” After a brief pause, he tossed in a taboo, baselessly stereotyping D-word, much to the amusement of his colleagues.

I only wish I had a way of getting MSNBC primetime commentator Keith Olbermann on speed dial so as to submit a tip for his “Worst Persons in the World” segment. Those cementheads were a surefire “winner” in my book.

The next best thing, though, is to cautiously and temporarily sashay from my routine journalistic regimen and deliver this “Special Comment” (to borrow another Olbermann phrase) in this midseason break while the news is a tad slow. As a writer, I vow to remain nonpartisan in terms of specific teams and schools. But the aforementioned incident was a cheap shot to women’s hockey –and, arguably, all of women’s sports- as a whole. That calls for unanimous, stern, rulebook-based retaliation. It is no different than watching your talented teammate take a spear to the stomach and translating your rage to a blistering power play goal.

Any young male athlete or sports enthusiast of any degree who unconditionally and baselessly belittles women’s hockey has not a clue what he is missing out on. From my experience dating back to the beginning of my teenhood, a prime “turn-on spot” for the opposite sex is common interest. Are you telling me you would rather date a girl who groans over your itch to watch a pivotal football game with your best bros than someone who might actually consider an hour of open ice rental an ideal romantic outing?

Admittedly, growing up, this logic was purely second nature for me. And as a result, the following story tells of the single best, perhaps sole positive experience I had during my own altogether brief, unfulfilling athletic career: in late February 2004, my season on the JV hockey team at University Liggett School –a private day school in Michigan- was winding down and our coach had spontaneously decided to fill our final practice time slot with a scrimmage against the girl’s team.

Upon this revelation, I was pumped for one self-explanatory reason: I had taken “that kind” of interest in one of the female pucksters several months prior. An unmistakable factor in the development of my feelings was seeing her come to class in her hockey jersey one day, signifying her membership in the program. And now we were to take to the ice simultaneously.

And just for the record, we had long ago established that this girl didn’t even return my feelings. I couldn’t give a flying puck at this point. Sometimes, in sports and life alike, you learn to appreciate the smaller victories when the paramount endeavor is lost.Think I’m shallow yet? It gets kookier. In the second period, with us the JV guys up, 2-0, my crush cut our lead with a long-range airborne wrister from the circle-top. Watching from our bench, I promptly mused, “If I can somehow get a goal myself, this will be the perfect game whether we lose by 10 or win by 10.” Incidentally, I did manage to tune the mesh at the other end later that period, and I could have and should have hung up my blades on the spot.

By night’s end, while I beamed with a rare sip of personal joy, everyone else in our dressing room was coolly wrapped in celebration of our 10-1 exhibition victory –emphasis on exhibition. They would take any petty scrap of evidence and manipulate it in order to advance their opinions of girls’ sports –those that they voiced without care and those that they kept within the locker room. All this despite the fact that we literally had the worst work ethic of any high school program in history, which amounted to an endless slew of blowout losses in regulation games, while our female counterparts –handfuls of whom were novice pucksters simply exploring a new winter activity- scraped out a respectable record year in and year out.

The most pathetic proclamation I can recall from the locker room was a teammate assessing his notion of a three-way caste system in the University Liggett hockey program. It had Varsity (he meant “Boys’ Varsity”), JV, and Girls in descending order, because “Girls’ Varsity isn’t really Varsity.”

Mr. Olbermann, I have another belated nominee for “Worst Persons.”

But as a guy, you have to be careful about neutralizing these attacks. Apparently (and this is just another hypothesis based on locker room talk), if you object to the belittlement of female athletes, you’re gay. After all, the boundaries of acceptable physical attraction end well before you consider young women who, like you, strap on that gear and sweat in it for a few hours before they shower and return to a presentable state in society. And I’m sure all ladies just die to whiff a hockey hunk in his gunky gear as opposed to when he’s fresh from a self-lathering of Old Spice.

Gee, shame on me for fantasizing about buying my crush a soda after the game and exchanging genuine pleasantries about hot topics in the NHL.

My viewing angle shifted drastically when I transferred to the Minnesota-based hockey powerhouse at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, where I responsibly purged my twig and picked up my pen.

But the gender-based tensions I witnessed were arguably worse. So much so that in my first full year on the SSM hockey beat, when the Boys U18 team fell short in their bid to repeat their 2005 national championship, a few members vent their frustration on their female counterparts, who did lug home a second banner. There were reports that while the banner sat glimmering in the main entrance of the school building, a few disgruntled male skaters spit on it.

What the puck? To put it flatly, you would have thought these guys were picking a fight with time-honored rival Culver Academy or the Boston Junior Bruins (the national tournament nemesis who swiped their title away). Instead, they were slighting and antagonizing their fellow Shattuck-St. Mary’s Sabres; their classmates; their potential prom dates; their fellow torch-bearers in the ceaselessly growing Sabre hockey tradition.

And, implicitly, all because of a case of threatened masculinity; all because the dudes just happened not to hit the pinnacle of their natural hockey habitat this year while the ladies did.

Perhaps I just don’t get it. After all, I entered and hastily left the game mindful of my modicum of physical gifts. I never had any sense of supreme stardom to defend. I was in it for sheer love of the game. But for an underweight, bespectacled nerd, firsthand participation is not the way to foster one’s love for a sport. The perpetual persecution I underwent leading up to my prompt “retirement” is biblically just compared to what the proficient female pucksters have to confront just for blackening in the “F” oval when an application or standardized test asks about their gender.

For other wannabe, go-nowhere athletes of my gender, the tang of reality is less sensible. During my senior year at Shattuck, shortly after the Girls U19 team had clinched the Minnkota District crown, renewing its right to vie for the national title, one of my classmates from the second-level boys’ team, himself not bound for any high-profile tournaments, termed it “embarrassing.” He hailed from the Bay Area in California, and now his female peers were about to win his school a third national championship in San Jose. He couldn’t take it.

Embarrassing? How? This particular dis rolled off the tongue of a young man who had attended and skated at Shattuck for five years, split amongst three different teams, none of whom play at a level that qualifies for Nationals. He understandably enrolled craving a crack at a national title and a subsequent NCAA scholarship, but it was not to be. So the next best thing is to cheap shot those who do achieve such privileges. And I guess it’s that much more cathartic if you can throw misogynistic cheap shots.

But, as is generally promised, albeit to a minimal extent, the transition to college equals an upgrade in maturity. And I do pleasurably report that in covering PC’s Skating Sorority for the Free Press and, since the beginning of this season, The Cowl, I have seen packets of devoted buffs of the male gender at every home game. It is also not uncommon to see the better half of the men’s team in the stands as their schedule allows the same way the women take in their games when both teams are on campus.

It doesn’t help to take up an all-or-nothing attitude. Progress is happily evident. Still, here you have the consistently winningest winter team in the Providence athletic department –a program that is an over-the-shoulder glance removed from four conference championships and an NCAA tournament appearance, and which generations prior had produced the face of women’s hockey, Cammi Granato- consistently drawing throngs well below 500 to their home games.

Not to mention, on top of the apathy, the poison problem still lingers in the form of sexist ROTC cadets –who, incidentally, have a noticeable handful of female colleagues in their department- and fellow students of the same narrow-minded sentiments. (Say, if you call women who don and labor in hockey equipment unprintable names, what exactly do you call women who don and labor in military uniforms?)

I think I’ve made enough out-of-my-way points, except for maybe one more that I shall openly present and then carry on with my second nature habit of following. To quote Shattuck U19 head coach Gordie Stafford, cultivator of three USA Hockey championships in his first four years at the helm, we are talking about “athletes who happen to be female.”

And so, when college hockey’s general itinerary thaws out for Part II of the season, I’ll simply carry on with my never-humdrum habit of strolling into Schneider the minute the door opens, walking past a collection of amiable, footbagging Friars en route to my seat, and internally savoring the entirety of my project the same way I would in an NHL press box.

Let me report, and the let the girls continue in their hard-grinding dig for more substantial, evenhanded publicity. We’ll let you decide what to make of them. Of these hockey players will all the trimmings who happen to be female.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

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