It’s time for some intellectual honesty in the debate over women’s hockey. At the 2019 NHL All-Star Game skills competition in San Jose, Kendall Coyne made the world take notice when she blasted out of the gates as a surprise entry in the fastest-skater competition, ending with a time good enough to beat Arizona’s Clayton Keller. Coyne had been invited to participate by the Colorado Avalanche once their star center Nathan MacKinnon determined he was too banged up to take part – and clearly the Avs came up with a good sub.
Coyne, of course, is a highly decorated player, having won Olympic gold with Team USA and playing a key role in the NWHL with the Minnesota Whitecaps. Had she failed to keep up with the boys in her fast lap, there would have been a lot of I-told-you-so’s from those who seek to diminish women in hockey. No less of an authority than Cassie Campbell-Pascall noted that a failure could have set the sport back 20 years.
But Coyne exceeded expectations, as did U.S. teammate Brianna Decker, who demonstrated the precision passing drill and ended up with an unofficial time that beat almost all the NHLers who took part in that dreary all-star event.
So for those who refuse to accept women’s hockey, I have to ask: what’s the excuse now?
Clearly the elite women can skate and pass just as well as elite NHLers. You could say that women aren’t as physical as men, but Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau might win the Hart Trophy this season, and he was credited with just four hits in his first 51 games. Keller, who leads the Coyotes in scoring, had nine hits on his docket.
Could women compete in the NHL right now as skaters? OK, maybe not yet, but most men can’t hang at that level, either. Chris Lee is one of the best defensemen the KHL ever saw, and he topped out as an AHLer over here. Nigel Dawes is practically a god in Kazakhstan thanks to his KHL prowess; in the NHL he was a journeyman.
Only one league features the best, and it’s the NHL. But tons of fans go to games in the AHL or major junior or NCAA. Why don’t they go to women’s games as much?
I believe some men still have a problem with women playing team sports. Tennis has just as many female superstars as it does men, but that’s an individual sport that can market on both talent and sex appeal (for players both male and female). And traditionally, tennis has been seen by old-schoolers as an “acceptable” sport for women to play. I know specifically of at least one retired NHLer who wouldn’t let his daughter play hockey – but she was encouraged to pursue a tennis career. I’m sure he’s not the only one.
So for the guys who fill their social-media accounts with “Well, actually…” responses and keep moving the goalposts when it comes to women’s hockey, I just ask that you own your prejudice: you’re never going to watch women play, because you don’t want to watch them play. It has nothing to do with speed or size or skill. It just makes you uncomfortable for reasons I cannot fathom.
While I understand there are only so many hours in a day that we can watch hockey, we have the capacity to divert our attention away from the NHL every once in a while to support the women’s pro game, whether it be the CWHL or NWHL (or whichever unified league inevitably rules the landscape in the future). It shouldn’t just be the Olympics followed by four years of hibernation, because the athletes themselves aren’t taking that time off.
Coyne knew what the stakes were when she took to the ice in San Jose, but she also had confidence in herself. “My first impression was, ‘I can do this,’ ” she said. “My speed is definitely my strength. I was a little nervous, but I knew it was a moment that would break a lot of barriers and change the perception of our game, so it was so exciting.”
Frankly, it was the only exciting thing that happened on the ice in San Jose that night, and there weren’t too many entries during the actual mini-games the next day, either. I watched the CWHL All-Star Game on TV this year, and it was fast. The players were skilled, and the effort level was a lot higher than the NHLers put out at their mid-season classic.
So if you’ve got something against women playing hockey, just say it. Stop gaslighting the best on the planet with excuses about why they don’t measure up to the men because, at this point, it’s just nonsensical. Admit your own shortcomings. Don’t try to find them in others.