The Potential of the IIHF
(Approximately 6 minute read)
My second game in the EWHL featured my first road trip of the season. A twelve hour game-day roundtrip, to be exact.
I’m a little notorious among teammates for spiraling into deep conversations on post-game travel. This trip was no exception.
The IIHF Election
As we settled in for the ride back from Zeltweg, Austria, my instagram feed was lighting up with election results from the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Council. I was shocked by the dearth of diversity, though I shouldn’t have been surprised. The results trickled in: President, Senior Vice President, VP Americas, VP Europe and Africa; Not a lot of variety.
Then finally we saw that two women were re-elected as female council members. It made me curious. I don’t know much about the IIHF operations or council structure. One of my teammates explained that these positions aren’t considered “full-members.” The men on the council have say over the women’s game, but the two female representatives have no say over the men’s game.
Back home later, I wasn’t able to confirm that speculation over influence, but I did find that the IIHF has a quota for it’s nine council members.
“Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer (HUN) and Marta Zawadzka (POL) were re-elected as female Council members. The IIHF Council must consist of at least two female and at least two male members (IIHF).”
The election got us talking generally about resourcing and frustrations about the sometimes not so subtle feeling that women’s hockey is an after-thought. I will admit, things have gotten better in my time playing. Through this past week of Olympic Pre-qualification Tournaments, the coverage was great. There were articles reporting on each game and a multi-camera feed for the games. There is also the World Girls’ Hockey Weekend coming up, which is a great initiative for introducing new players to the game. At the same time, I can’t help but feel things are not progressing quickly enough.
Where We’ve Been
I got a glimpse of the IIHF’s approach to women’s hockey in the outgoing President’s farewell interview. René Fasel talked about being inspired to step into the role 27 years ago because of the need to speak up when he sees something unjust happening, yet he (and every other hockey organization) failed to harness the momentum the women’s game created during his tenure. The interview had a telling quote:
It still remains a challenge since there are over 100,000 female players in Canada, 80,000 in the United States and then you have countries in Europe that have 1,000 or 2,000 players.
Women’s sports in Europe isn’t as big as in North America and that’s why you can see the gap. But it has become smaller. Finland almost became World Champion in 2019. There’s a chance and they’re getting closer.(IIHF)
We need to see an attitude shift in hockey culture regarding ownership of participation gaps, both in gender and race. To be satisfied with women’s sports just not being “as big” in the rest of the world, shouldn’t be accepted as inevitable or outside of the control of the major hockey organizations (side note: the male global enrollment rates are not always reflective of rankings. German men are currently ranked number 5 with only 4500 registrants).
Fasel’s response goes on to say, “One advice I can give to the women’s hockey community is that they shouldn’t look too much at the men, like body-checking, but have their own style of hockey. It’s so much better when they play their own style and don’t try to copy men’s hockey.” I’m sure he is well-intentioned, but the message is tone-deaf and infantilizing. It spotlights how the IIHF leadership sees women’s hockey as “other” instead of equally it’s responsibility. It makes the need for female leaders to have a seat at the table even more apparent.
I’ve been lucky to play with women from several different nations. Playing in Canada, I got to hear and see first-hand how things operate for Team Canada and some insights on Russia and Japan. At the same time, the Team USA World’s Boycott was well reported on (SI, NPR, Money; Although, I don’t think sufficient credit was given for the impressive show of unity and organizing that it took to pull off what they pulled off). In Sweden, I met players from Hungary, the Netherlands, Sweden and more. For many European nations the conditions under which athletes are expected to represent their countries is dismally embarrassing.
I’ve been told of 10+ hour bus trips the same day as critical international matches and five-players-to-a-room hotel arrangements that are not conducive to proper sleep or bathroom access. I’ve heard about limited access to equipment and medical resources. I’ve even been told a rumor that until very recently, Team Austria had to pay a fee to participate on the national team (They are ranked at a fairly high 14th in the world).
Most outrageously, I’ve heard of (at least temporary) ousting of top players by at least three different federations when women have spoken out for better circumstances. When your own federation is actively working against you, before you can even meet your actual adversary, how can you ever being expected to succeed? It’s not just a matter of enrollment numbers, they are being set up to fail again and again.
It appears to be a frustrating chicken-and-egg: Players are told they need to be better to gain access to resources, but they need the resources to get better. But it’s actually not that paradoxical. It’s clear that nations that invest in their women’s programs are able to improve rapidly, such as Japan and Hungary (both with just over 1000 enrolled female players).
Instead of being inspired by those successes, federations seemed to have doubled down. Women’s teams are told that men’s teams, who are often lower ranked, still deserve greater governmental resources. The disrespect of this is only compounded by the fact that male athletes have access to better resources in the private sector. Creating a competitive team becomes an insurmountable challenge.
Hearing some of these stories over the last few years had me thinking about my first year playing in Calgary. At that time in the CWHL, we played three-game-series. That meant working full time Monday to Friday, playing Friday evening, Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning. Sometimes, that meant arriving at the airport at 2 am from a road trip and being at my desk by 830 am. The same day. Often there wasn’t a day off before the next weekend’s series. That schedule was brutal. By mid-season the mental burn out and physical toll was intense. It’s unquestionable that our performance on the ice suffered.
How many talented players do we lose because they are unwilling to go through this grind? How many players who manage to balance this circus, even once the schedule became more manageable, were performing below their potential because of the circumstances? It’s not a stretch to then wonder, how many nations could be true contenders on the women’s side if their athletes were given fair resources?
On the bus ride, we started wondering about solutions. Like most industries, it often takes regulation to break out of the status quo. The IIHF is the only organization with the power to regulate national federations through the rules they set for international play.
I’ve read that the tipping-point for corporate board rooms is a minimum of 30% representation. This is the distribution at which diverse backgrounds actually have the freedom to speak up and bring their different perspectives to an organization (I read this in Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping point, but here is some info. about the concept). Even though it’s a start, clearly, two council positions are insufficient. Let’s do more than the bare minimum so that Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer and Marta Zawadzka actually have the ability to push forward changes.
One radical, likely to be controversial and also likely to be incredibly effective solution, would be for the IIHF to instate a Hockey Title IX. Require national federations to invest in youth girls hockey and fund their male and female national teams equally. Don’t let them participate in international tournaments otherwise. Set targets for enrollment numbers that include gender diversity (and I would love to see North American countries do the same with racial and economic diversity).
One much less radical move would be rebranding the Men’s Tournaments. Currently the World Juniors and World Championships, denote the boys’ and mens’ tournaments, while the Women’s World Championship and Women’s U18 Tournament are gendered. This firmly places men as the default and women as a second thought. Language matters in creating a welcoming space. If the mission is to encourage new comers and grow the game, this step is a no-brainer.
The IIHF and national federations have to take responsibility for there not yet being more diversity in hockey. We need to become uncomfortable with the fall back excuse that “it’s just the way things are.”
Sport is both a representation of society at large and a driver of cultural norms. It’s what makes sport icons such important role models in society and what makes sport so impactful in uniting communities. Maybe the new President, Luc Tardif, will see things differently than the view taken thus-far in my lifetime. We still have a long way to go in creating a more equal society. How about hockey leads instead of follows, for a change?
I’m Jacquie and I’m an American hockey player living in Bolzano, Italy. I write about hockey, sustainability, and food.