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Commentary: Protip -- Stop comparing men's and women's hockey, for the good of the sport

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There are plenty of reasons why women's hockey isn't as widely watched as men's hockey. "Because it's not as good" shouldn't be one of them.

Hilary Knight could or could not hang with the boys, but that doesn't eliminate her dazzling talent as it stands within her side of the sport.
Hilary Knight could or could not hang with the boys, but that doesn't eliminate her dazzling talent as it stands within her side of the sport.
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

If I could pinpoint the number one reason why women's hockey isn't as popular as men's hockey, I'd probably say it's due to lack of sustained exposure, combined with the relative inaccessibility of the Canadian Women's Hockey League (which they're figuring out how to fix, in fairness to them).

If I could pinpoint the number one assumption that gets on my nerves every single time I bring up women's hockey, it's that no one cares about the women's game because "the caliber of play is so much lower."

This "argument" has cropped up every so often in my collective two years of covering the women's side of the game. We all agree that women's hockey has slightly different rules, different players and a different set of expectations -- and somehow, we decide that "different" in this case means "inferior." Why? Because look at the men's side of things! The speed! The HITS! The toughness! The MASCULINITY!

We make such a big deal out of women's teams supposedly losing to boys' teams; we complain about the perceived lack of physicality; we talk about it "having a hard time keeping up" with men's hockey as though that's the ultimate goal. We talk about how women "could never hack it" in the NHL whenever someone mentions the idea of female substitutes for NHL players, because "they would get wrecked by a big hit."

(By the way -- why is that always the focus? Is hockey not based primarily on scoring or saving goals, or do people just bash into each other all over the ice for 60 minutes? Do people talking about the size of women's players not realize there are guys like Brian Gionta, Nathan Gerbe and Martin St. Louis, the latter of whom has been playing in the league since 1997 without much incident? And before you bring up muscle mass and all of those other "biological determinism" arguments: don't.)

We salivate over high school boys' hockey (at least in places where it's big, like Minnesota) and junior hockey, which is nowhere near the level of the NHL for obvious reasons. Then again, I suppose it gets a pass because all of those boys have NHL potential, right? Is the fact that these kids could one day play in a league that "matters" really what keeps people interested? And if so, why not help, say, the CWHL become a league that matters if you really care so much about the quality of the women's side?

I'm not here to validate women's hockey's existence. I'd like for most of the people who read this site to try and watch it, just once, but ultimately I can't control what you do. What I don't care for is comparing two sides of the same sport as though men's hockey is the default and women's hockey is a poor substitute. I know it's tempting; men's hockey is well-established and its professional players have been getting paid for decades at this point. But the arguments behind this sound very much like the Victorian-era crap that kept women out of college and away from the voting booths. They "just can't keep up," people (usually male hockey fans) say, without realizing that men's hockey's had a much longer head start to begin with.

Comparing women's hockey to men's -- or any women's sport to a men's sport -- implies there is a standard that women cannot or will not ever live up to. This is simplification at best, and ridiculously sexist at its worst, as it's holding people back from watching a game and a league with amazing athletes in their own right. It implies women's sports will never be as important or as "good" as men's because "they will never be on the same level." Maybe they're not meant to be. Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe you should actually watch a game and see for yourself what these women are capable of without comparing them to men as though it matters.

Part of growing the game and getting it to realize its full potential, whatever that may be, is supporting it, so maybe put aside the part of you that says "women's hockey is inferior to men's" and enjoy watching Rebecca Johnston speed down the wing, or Charline Labonte make a sparkling glove save, and shut up about the differences between the games. We know about those. We don't care. These women deserve respect regardless of whether or not they can "hang with the boys."

Women's Hockey Roundup:

NCAA:

USCHO.com Rankings: (as of 2/23/15)

  1. Boston College
  2. Minnesota
  3. Wisconsin
  4. Harvard
  5. Clarkson
  6. Quinnipiac
  7. Boston University
  8. North Dakota
  9. Minnesota Duluth
  10. St. Lawrence
  • Minnesota opens the WCHA First Round as the No. 1 seed this weekend, as previously stated, against eighth-seeded MSU. The Mavericks are just happy to be here, as the saying goes -- they managed just three wins over the regular season, with one of them (one!) in conference play against St. Cloud State Feb. 2 (5-1 win). Freshman Nicole Schammel led the team in points with 21 in the regular season, and just 11 of those are goals. All things considered, senior Erin Krichiver has been excellent in net for them with a .907 save percentage -- when your opponents throw an average of 43 shots per game at you, that's not too shabby. Still, it probably won't be enough to get past a Gophers team that hasn't been as dominant this season but can still pack a punch, with plenty of offense and a solid back end. The good thing is, the Mavericks have a very young team (12 freshman altogether), so there's a lot of time to establish a foundation and get things going. Puck drop is at 7:07 p.m. Friday, 4:07 p.m. Saturday and 4:07 p.m. Sunday if necessary (all times Central) at Ridder Arena.
  • No. 4 seeded Minnesota Duluth hosts fifth-seeded Bemidji State in what should be an interesting matchup this weekend. The Beavers started off strong and faltered in conference play, but have still managed to be a sneaky speed bump for the ranked teams in the WCHA (Minnesota managed to scrape a couple of wins in its final weekend with late goals after BSU jumped out to an early lead). UMD had a strong finish, sweeping Ohio State in its final weekend, and are even in the season series with the Beavers in four fairly close games. The Beavers have more productive skaters this year in terms of points, led by juniors Kaitlyn Tougas and Ivana Bilic, but as noted before, their strength lies in their defense. Brittni Mowat has been excellent in goal, setting a new program record for most wins in a single season by a goaltender with 16. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are on a somewhat higher level in offense, with a dynamic presence in Zoe HickelAshleigh Brykaliuk and Lara Stalder and offensive output from the blueline in Bridgette LacquetteKayla Black should see the bulk of time in net, and her numbers are very comparable to Mowat's.
  • Meanwhile, seventh-seeded St. Cloud State will travel to Wisconsin for their second straight matchup in two weeks -- but this time, the stakes are just a bit higher. Wisconsin's got three 30-plus point players in Annie Pankowski, Karley Sylvester and Brittany Ammerman, and a stellar goaltender in Ann-Renee Desbiens (she's second behind only Katie Burt of Boston College with 21 wins, a 1.32 GAA and a .941 save percentage). The Huskies managed a 2-1 win against them last Friday, but then got blown out Saturday 5-0, so if that's any indication, they'll need some puck luck and Wisconsin to be off its game in order to get past the first round intact. Julie Friend stood tall in Friday's game, stopping 51 of 52 shots, so they'll need strong goaltending from her as well.

CWHL:

  • It's the final weekend of regular season play, and the Inferno find themselves now in third place with an identical winning percentage to Montreal, but with more overtime losses and fewer wins overall thanks to dropping two in Montreal, one against Toronto and two more to Boston. This weekend they look to finish strong against a non-playoff team in Brampton, while the teams ahead of them (the Blades and Stars) face off in Montreal for league supremacy. Game streaming will be available both Saturday and Sunday -- Saturday's game will be Boston/Montreal, while Sunday's matinee will be Calgary/Brampton.
  • Bad news for the Furies heading into the Clarkson Cup playoffs -- top scorer Jenelle Kohanchuk is done for the season with a broken forearm. This news came last weekend, just after Toronto welcomed Natalie Spooner back into the lineup after a couple of weeks off due to injury. While the Furies have proven from last year that they can win despite adversity, losing Kohanchuk's offensive output might be a bit too much for them, especially if they draw high-octane Boston in the opening series.
EDIT: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to Lara Stalder of UMD as a defenseman. She is a forward.