Canucks and Beyond

Back in the Men's Game

07/22/2008 at 4:50pm EDT

imageThe Canadian Press reports that Hayley Wickenheiser—the all-time leading scorer of Canadian women’s hockey and widely considered one the best female players to ever set foot on the ice—has made the cut for men’s professional hockey again.

A Swedish third-tier team, Eskilstuna Linden, has reportedly signed her for the 2008-09 season. The last time Wickenheiser played men’s pro hockey was a short stint in the Finnish Second Division, and her signing was met with mixed reviews, but there’s no doubting the impact she’s had on professional hockey culture.

A few words from Jamie Fitzpatrick on the issues faced in the past:

A few women, including goaltenders Manon Rheaume and Erin Whitten, have played on men’s professional teams at the minor league level. In 2003, Hayley Wickenheiser joined Salamat of the Finnish Second Division and became the first woman to record a point in men’s professional hockey, finishing the regular season with one goal and three assists in 12 games.

Although applauded by most fans, Wickenheiser’s move inspired debate about women’s and men’s hockey. Some say elite women’s hockey will never grow if the best players migrate to men’s leagues. The president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, Rene Fasel, has declared his opposition to mixed teams.

“I don’t understand why anyone should feel threatened,” said Teemu Selanne, the NHL star who is part owner of the Salamat team. “This is the best women’s hockey player we’re talking about. It’s not as if five or six women are going to start appearing on every men’s team.”

While I can appreciate the concern that women’s hockey might be harmed when a player like Wickenheiser plays in the men’s leagues, that concern doesn’t even come close to trumping the positive effects that her accomplishments will have for women’s hockey in the long run.

How many young girls will be driven to success in the women’s game because of the success of Wickenheiser on such a public stage? Countless numbers, you would think. Women like myself grew up in an era where organized women’s hockey was rarer than spotting Don Cherry wearing something subtle. The idea of of having an actual female player to idolize was incomprehensible to my generation.

Ultimately, the success of someone like Wickenheiser—by her accomplishments in both men’s hockey and in women’s—will benefit women’s hockey most of all, by increasing the talent pool and improving the training and resulting opportunities. And as women’s hockey gets better (and more profitable) future players like Wickenheiser will benefit by staying in the women’s game.

But for now, her job is not to prop up women’s hockey (if it even requires that) but to do whatever is best for her own career. And if that means she wants the competition available in European men’s leagues, and they want her, then everyone should be happy.

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As to the benefits for men’s professional hockey, here’s one way of looking at it… More women watch NHL hockey today than at any time in history and the NHL is finding the female fan to be increasingly profitable (though the results are much to my horror at times). I doubt it’s any coincidence that as more women play hockey, the more women also pay for NHL entertainment.

So the NHL—and likely other men’s professional leagues in countries like Sweden—profit nicely from the larger fan base.

Regardless, crossovers like Wickenheiser with the talent and strength to play at even the level of a 3rd tier men’s team in Sweden are incredibly rare and not likely to happen often. As Selanne said, this is the best female player in the world… hordes of girls aren’t about to show up on every men’s pro hockey team. :)

Note: For more on Hayley Wickenheiser, Wikipedia and her own website are both good resources.

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