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COVID-19

STUDENT VOICE: Equity in Sports Is About More Than the Olympics

In late December, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) announced that the Women’s World Championship for players 18-years-old and younger would be canceled for the second year in a row. This championship, which Sweden was to host in January, showcases the top women players in the world, many of whom go on to represent their countries in the Olympics and other international competitions. The cancellation of a hockey tournament may seem trivial in a world dealing with a raging pandemic, threat of war, and other problems. But it’s part of a pattern of women's hockey being an afterthought and women’s hockey players being treated as second class. And that is, of course, part of a larger pattern of gender inequity in sports.

This matters to a lot of young women like me. Especially as the U.S. Women's Hockey team, led by gender equity advocate Hillary Knight, sets a standard by turning in such a strong performance in the Olympics in China.

The hockey federation said the tournament cancellation was because of COVID risks and said a rescheduling was not possible “due to league commitments” with Sweden. At the same time, citing more favorable economics, the IIHF moved ahead with the men’s tournament until COVID cases later halted it. Women players saw a familiar double standard. “The IIHF has continually prioritized top men’s events during the pandemic but the u18 women’s event is canceled—AGAIN,” said Meghan Duggan, an American who captained the 2018 Women's Olympic team that brought home the gold medal. Sarah Nurse, a Canadian hockey player who won a Silver Medal in 2018 and played four seasons at the University of Wisconsin argued for postponement rather than a cancellation,

It’s really time for IIHF Hockey to show that their organization values women in hockey and find a way to get the Worlds best U18 Women on the ice. Postponing/Rescheduling this TOP TIER tournament while keeping health & safety top of mind would be a great way to start!

I play hockey for a 16 and under girls' team and, after the past two years, I can appreciate the disruption of COVID all too well. However, this isn’t about one tournament or COVID, it’s something bigger, long predating the pandemic. In my own experience, I can’t recall an instance where women’s hockey is accorded the same priority as the boys. When I was starting out, the boy’s teams got more ice time, training, and were always the top priority in the programs. The rink where I first learned to play didn’t even offer girls hockey despite being an NHL practice facility.

The program I play for now—the only Tier 1 girls' team within hundreds of miles of where I live—exists because one coach is singularly dedicated to supporting women’s hockey. And this isn’t just about local hockey. Right now women who play NCAA hockey are also trying to achieve greater gender equity. The marquee NCAA college hockey tournament, "the Frozen Four," fields 16 mens’ teams. Until this year, the women only fielded eight despite about 40 eligible teams. In December, under pressure from female players, the field was expanded to 11 teams for 2022.

The 2018 U.S. The Olympic Women’s hockey team spoke out about inequalities they faced and demanded more visibility and funding. Hilary Knight explained,

It's tough. We're trying to change a culture. We're trying to change behaviors that have been around for many years.


A statement by IIHF claimed the double standard with the mens’ and women’s tournament was about COVID, not gender. But the statement goes on to discuss how there is an economic incentive to hosting the men’s tournament since it generates more money. This seems like circular logic: Men’s hockey gets more exposure so it makes more money. Hockey journalist Kirsten Whelan puts it plainly,

Exclusively prioritizing men's tournaments creates both a fundamentally gendered outcome and a self-fulfilling prophecy—a recurring "gender issue.

When the Women’s World Championship for 18 and under last took place in 2019, the event was streamed on, as Whelan describes it, “a glorified doorbell cam.” We can’t expect a tournament with that kind of media exposure to generate revenue or economic incentive. 

As a young player, it’s all sort of dispiriting. Any one of these local, national, or international, inequities can be explained away. But collectively, it’s a pattern. I look up to these national team women for all the work they put in. They deserve to be playing as much as the men. I don’t know if I will ever play at the level of this tournament, but I put in the early mornings, extra workouts, study, and travel because I love to play hockey. I do that because I assume that if I do the work I’ll have an equal shot, be treated fairly, and get to compete at whatever level. There are thousands of girls just like me in rinks across the country.

Meanwhile, our Olympic women are slaying in Beijing and inspiring the next generation of girls. The United States-Canada Olympic rivalry is as good as you will find in sports. But equity in sports has to be about more than a few weeks of excitement. If we want more opportunities for girls to play then the national and international organizations must lead the way and set an example on a regular basis.

For all the young female players out there, and really for all the players experiencing this as business as usual or somehow OK, it’s long past time to make a change. It’s about hockey, but also about much more than hockey. 

Susan Rotherham
Susan Rotherham is a high school sophomore in Northern Virginia. She plays forward for the Washington Pride.

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