Breaking through barriers
It can feel like sports have a long way to go to become inclusive, but World Girls' Ice Hockey Weekend is one step in the right direction
Does reaching out matter? When a sport makes an effort to include a new audience, does it make a difference? It’s easy to be cynical, especially when confronted with Akim Aliu’s stark take-down of racism in hockey or the recent Brendan Liepsics scandal, complete with hints that his comments may be sadly commonplace in pro hockey. Suddenly, all the noble talk about inclusivity can feel like so much window dressing while age-old prejudice lives on.
But when outreach actually brings a new audience into the building, gives them the kit and encourages them to take part, it can change attitudes. The International Ice Hockey Federation has, for many years, championed World Girls Ice Hockey Weekend. Working in partnership with clubs everywhere from hockey’s traditional heartlands to its most remote frontiers, it aims to put girls on the ice and show them that figure skating is not the only option for them. The event also helps to lower the prohibitive barrier of costly equipment, helping families to let their daughters try out without enormous expense.
As a correspondent for the IIHF’s website, I’ve written about WGIHW events all over the world. From attending an open practice in a Moscow shopping mall to early morning phone calls with event organisers in South Africa or Morocco, the weekend has always been in the diary. This season, though, it was a bit different. For the first time, my own daughter was old enough to take part.
Our nearest event was at Whitley Bay. Alicia, just turned three, was by some margin the youngest girl involved. And, like any toddler, she greeted a new activity with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Watching the public skate prior to the coaching session was fine, but when it was time to get on the ice the nerves took over. After a flat refusal to get involved, we reached a compromise: she would if Daddy came too. And so, two of us wobbled onto the ice. For Alicia, it was the first time on skates; for Daddy, the first time in years. Progress was slow, but we managed a short yet satisfying skate across the rink and back before she decided to take up a spot behind the bench, the better to monitor proceedings.
All around us, better skaters were practising their hockey skills. Shooting the puck, weaving through the cones, then bringing it all together for a scrimmage. The mood was upbeat, the girls engaged and enthusiastic. Last year, the first time the event came to Whitley Bay, it attracted a few kids. This year they were back with their friends. About 40 girls got on the ice at some point – not a huge number, but comparable with similar events in Moscow. And this, don’t forget, is on football-crazy Tyneside, not the capital of one of the most enthusiastic hockey nations on Earth. Give the kids a chance, give the game a chance, and the outreach programme can bring hockey to a new audience.
And what of Alicia? Happily, it wasn’t a one off. True, her attention span when Daddy is trying to write up a game recap remains low. But she’s eager to get back on the ice. A few weeks later, a different, toddler-friendly session at another venue had her grabbing a penguin and demanding to be whisked around the rink. With fewer people turning up on a Friday morning, we got up some speed and commentated as we rushed from the face-off circle towards the crease. Over the goalline with a cheer, and a little face looks up, grinning broadly. “Hockey is fun, Daddy!”
So, yes. Outreach can work. It probably won’t send Alicia to compete at the Olympics. It might not even see her play rec hockey at home. But it’s helping to persuade her to explore something new, to test herself with a new challenge, to feel that she can be a part of something different. And that’s all a Dad can ask for his daughter.
World Girls Ice Hockey Weekend takes place each October. At the time, I wrote about this event in Whitley Bay for iihf.com