History Was Made and Barriers Were Broken: Women at NHL All Star Weekend 2019

By Katherine Swartwood
Katie is a second year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College

As teams in the National Hockey League begin to clinch playoff berths and prepare for the upcoming Stanley Cup Championship, it’s important to look back at the accomplishments of the sport this year, especially in regards to gender. For this I look towards the The National Hockey League’s All Star Weekend, which kicked off this year on January 25th. For those unfamiliar with the sport, All Star Weekend is an event comprised of hockey stars from across the league. These players were selected to attend by the general public in an online vote. These men are then labeled the favorites, the best, the All Stars. During the weekend, players engage in a series of competitions: fastest skater, accuracy shooting, premier passer, save streak, etc. The players also participate in a modified game. The events usher in great fanfare and new jerseys (shoutout to Adidas for those slick monochromatic jerseys crafted from recycled ocean plastic).

All Star events have occurred for years, but this time something changed – A woman skated in one of the skills competition. She wasn’t on the original roster. How could she be? She’s not an NHL player. Unfortunately, not long before the fastest skater contest, Colorado Avalanche player, Nathan MacKinnon injured his foot and could not participate. Instead, U.S.A. Hockey, gold medal Olympian, Kendall Coyne Schofield laced up her skates, stepped onto the ice, and replaced MacKinnon. An unusual sight for two reasons, firstly because normally the NHL would have eliminated the spot and secondly, because a woman filled the space. Coyne Schofield wasn’t even the only woman to join the NHL All Star Weekend in January. Brianna Decker, a teammate of Coyne Schofield, acted as a demonstrator, not a participant, of the premier passer skills competition.

In a cheeky twitter exchange between Coyne Schofield and the Colorado Avalanche, the team asked Schofield to replace their fallen teammate; she responded, “It would be my honor! I’ll get to the rink as fast as I can! #NHLAllStar #HockeyIsForEveryone.” The hashtag reading, “Hockey Is For Everyone” is tied to an NHL mission to establish hockey as an inclusive sport. Each team holds a themed night for the cause, as they do for Military Appreciation, Cancer, and other causes. Most often, merchandise includes the color spectrum, indicative of the PRIDE flag used to show support for the LGBTQIA+ community. The NHL describes their commitment to “Hockey is for Everyone” as, “We support any teammate, coach or fan who brings heart, energy and passion to the rink. We believe all hockey programs – from professionals to youth organizations – should provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status.”

Despite the NHL’s efforts to ensure the sport of hockey is inclusive, this goal still has not yet been reached. For instance, the first women’s professional hockey team to pay its players was only established in 2015; they still lack resources, fans, and money. The National Women’s Hockey League is only comprised of 5 American based teams as compared to the 31 teams in the NHL. There are few players of colors and when they succeed, they are often met with racist comments from fans and peers alike. Not long ago, P. K. Subban, a black Canadian hockey player for the Nashville Predators, recorded a message for a teenage African American player in Detroit who had racial slurs hurled at him on the ice. The child was 13 years old.

While Coyne Schofield’s presence wasn’t intentional, but a last minute substitution, the NHL took an important first step with their inclusion of female hockey players at All Star Weekend. In this way, they told fans that women were worth watching – that female hockey players had value. A lot of fans responded positively to Coyne Schofield and Decker’s presence. Of course, there were those who complained that they weren’t NHL players so they didn’t belong, that neither of them would have won their competitions, so why did it matter? Coyne Schofield didn’t come in first, but she didn’t come in last either. What was important to her was that “history was made and barriers were broken.” Hopefully, this won’t be the last time we see women involved with the NHL – more analysts, more permanent commentators (that don’t receive sexist backlash), referees, coaches, even players.

There is still room to grow and space to be made. For instance, how many openly gay or transgender men can you name playing in the NHL? Why do men and women have to play separately? And if they do play separately why does the NWHL lack the resources, fans, and airtime that the men are provided? The best thing we can do as hockey fans is demand more. Go out to NWHL games, buy their gear, and support them on social media. Just this week the NWHL revealed its plan to expand to Canada with teams in Montreal and Toronto. So if you live near one of these teams: Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters, and Minnesota Whitecaps, make sure to check out some of their games next season to show the NWHL that fans exist and want to watch women play hockey!

And congratulations to the Minnesota Whitecaps for being crowned the 2019 Isobel Cup Champions!