Today the tension in pro sports surrounding race, hate speech and homophobia is palpable. Hockey is no exception. Too often we see headlines attached to the NHL because its players were caught using homophobic slurs during games. We've seen fines, statements and suspensions from the league in an effort to curtail the hate speech, but the headlines keep coming. Hockey has an inclusivity problem. Well, at least men's hockey does.
The rules of the game aren't all that separate the worlds of men's and women's hockey. There's no doubt about it: the women's game is ahead of the curve in inclusivity and acceptance, and sets an example many hope the NHL — and all professional sports leagues — will one day follow.
In December 2012, the CWHL became the first league to form a partnership with You Can Play. The NHL followed their lead four months later. You Can Play is dedicated to promoting equality, respect and safety for athletes regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But since those partnerships were made, the two leagues have had dramatically different track records in regard to the environments they've created for players and fans.
"I think that we're our own — I don't want to say circle or bubble — but at (CWHL) events it's 100 percent inclusive," Boston Blades goaltender Lauren Dahm told Sporting News in a recent interview. "It's OK to be who you are. Hearing stories about other leagues or just in society in general where that's not the case is eye opening.
"I think that this is across women's hockey, as a whole," Dahm continued. "When you come to the rink, you're a hockey player. There's never any judgment when it comes to that kind of stuff. For example, with the You Can Play games, the straight players are just as excited to wear the pride eye black or tape their stick (with pride tape)."
The CWHL and its athletes have embraced the LGBT community. South of the border, the NWHL has done the same.
Last season, the NWHL made history with its transgender player policy. That policy, displayed on the main page of the league's website, was put into place after Harrison Browne came out as the first transgender athlete in professional team sports.
Browne came out of a brief retirement to play with the Metropolitan Riveters this season, delaying hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery to do so. He believes that he has more to give to the game and to the trans community by continuing to play hockey at this level.
And the NWHL is the only professional league in the world where he can do that.
"Women’s hockey and women’s sports in general is very accepting of the LGBT community," Browne said. "There’s no question about it. On every team that I’ve been on, there’s been a lot of different sexual orientations and gender identities. If you’re gay, straight, bisexual or transgender, it doesn't matter. We’re not defined by that in women’s sports and women’s hockey. We’re defined by our skill level, our work ethic, our character and how good of a teammate we are."
Kelsey Koelzer, a teammate of Browne's, is no stranger to history herself. She is the highest-drafted black player in the combined histories of the NWHL, CWHL and NHL. Her experience as a pro has also been positive.
"On the ice, there's an understanding between players that this is everyone's safe space," Koelzer said. "In the NWHL, I've never run into any situation in which I feel uncomfortable or targeted. There's this understanding that even though we're competitors, we're all respectful. We're all working toward the same goal and that's to grow the game and keep it a healthy environment."
(Credit: Michael Hetzel, courtesy of NWHL)
The NHL dwarfs the NWHL and CWHL, both in popularity and influence. Dahm, Koelzer and others believe the accepting nature of the women's hockey community has something to do with its small size.
Many of the players in the CWHL and NWHL know each other on a personal level because of youth and/or college hockey. And that makes a big difference in their behavior toward one another.
"When you look at women's hockey, the locker room is so small," NWHLPA director and Connecticut Whale forward Anya Battaglino told Sporting News. "You can spend 45 minutes just getting changed and dressed up and maybe another 45 minutes getting dressed down. You spend a lot of time with each other. It's definitely a sport that lends itself more to something like a familial group. I think that leads to a lot less drama, a lot less hate and a lot less animosity between the groups."
Battaglino also believes that women, in general, are ahead of the curve in being understanding and accepting.
"I think first and foremost women are very empathetic to other women," the three-year NWHL veteran explained. "It's hard to turn your back when you know that someone is struggling with something, or maybe they're sensitive to a certain word. We're not necessarily the nicest out (on the ice). There are times when it gets a little heated and fiery. But in terms of hurtful, hateful words, these women are equals and we treat each other as such."
The CWHL and NWHL have both prioritized promoting a healthy environment for all fans and players. In September, the two leagues joined 15 other hockey organizations around the world in signing the Declaration of Principles, developed for and by hockey stakeholders. Encouraging an accepting environment isn't just the right thing to do, it's also a way to ensure the growth of the game.
"So long as there are people who are willing to promote the sport of women's hockey in a positive manner, we need to be inclusive," Battaglino said. "So long as we are looking after the wellbeing of our players — whether that's somebody who's gay, trans or lactose intolerant — it doesn't matter who you are or what you need from us. It matters that you're here and that you believe in the message."
For Battaglino, promoting a diverse, accepting community in the NWHL hits especially close to home. She cares deeply about mental health awareness and is one of a significant number of LGBT athletes in professional women's hockey.
— Anya Battaglino (@battaglinoa) October 11, 2017
"I like to speak out very publicly about my struggles with my mental health and also what coming out was like," Battaglino said. "There have been a lot of things that have been hard for me. If I was in a league that didn't accept me or give me that level of support, I'd feel pretty lonely."
Canadian Olympian Caroline Ouellette and American Olympian Julie Chu were on opposing sides of one of the most intense rivalries in all of sport for over a decade. Since the 2010-11 season, they've played together for the CWHL's Montreal franchise. Together, as a couple, they welcomed their daughter Liv into the world Nov. 5.
It's the kind of story that feels almost impossible in the world of men's professional hockey.
We've yet to see our first active gay or bisexual NHL player. Whereas in women's hockey, having an LGBT athlete in the locker room is commonplace.
(Credit: Troy Parla, courtesy of NWHL)
"It doesn’t matter what we do behind closed doors or how we present ourselves," Browne said. "I think it’s quite a scene in women’s hockey because you’re breaking down barriers just by playing a violent sport."
Female hockey fans are regularly challenged by their male counterparts and marginalized because of their gender. Don't believe it? Take a look at what female journalists have to deal with on a daily basis on Twitter. Things aren't much different on the ice. Women's hockey players are marginalized long before they reach the NCAA or the pros.
Unity and acceptance are crucial for athletes who play a game that is rarely given the respect and attention it deserves.
In the locker rooms of the NCAA, NWHL and CWHL, it doesn't matter who you love, the color of your skin, or the gender with which you identify. What matters is that you play hockey.
"I think we’ve all dealt with the struggle of finding our place in society in one way or another, whether you’re straight, gay or transgender," Browne explained. "We’ve all dealt with breaking some kind of norm. I think that allows us to understand the concept of empathy and use it to treat each other with respect."