Anne Schleper's day with the Lightning needs to be just a beginning
The Lighting's invitation to the Olympian is a great step. Now it's up to everyone to make sure it's followed up on.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have a history of breaking ground--of a kind--with women athletes. To this day Manon Rheaume remains the only woman ever to actually play in an NHL game of any kind. So it isn't surprising that they'd be in on bringing a female Olympian to the Amalie Arena ice. USA defenseman Anne Schleper took part in the Lightning's morning skate Monday. This makes the Lightning one of three NHL teams to have a female Olympian in practice in the past year (Shannon Szabados with the Edmonton Oilers and Hilary Knight with the Anaheim Ducks are the other two.)
But our excitement ought to be tempered by the realization that Rheaume's "groundbreaking" moments with the Lightning happened more than twenty years ago and we're still waiting for that to be a true precedent.
I suppose it's better than it used to be.
The Lightning, like many NHL teams, do quite a bit of work with girls' hockey in the local community. There are teams getting money and support that barely existed ten years ago.
Schleper's time with the Lightning occurred in conjunction with the IIHF's Girls Hockey Weekend, as did Knight's appearance with the Ducks. And Girls' Hockey Weekend is the beginning for many young girls. It's sometimes a girl's first chance to learn about the game, to get on the ice, and to discover that they're capable of playing what's often considered a "boys' game." The event has only been around since 2011.
It may be a coincidence, but both Knight and Schleper's opportunities came on the eve of the opening of the Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL) 2014-15 season. (Both used to play for the Boston Blades. It's not clear at this time if either will be on that team this year.) The league began operations in 2007
Arguably, all of these are signs of the growth of girls' and women's hockey around the world since 1992, but for as much media attention as these events garner, that attention has always faded very quickly afterward. And that fact makes it a little harder to embrace these kinds of things fully. When you've been waiting for over a generation to build on something, incremental change can induce frustration and skepticism as much as excitement.
That's not to say that it's a bad thing that Anne Schleper was invited to practice with the Lightning or that the Lightning are somehow to blame for the state of things. It's simply a statement of the facts of the situation.
There is a "professional" women's hockey league in North America, but players don't actually get paid. They work full time and then go to practice. The CWHL hopes to begin to be able to pay players something in the next few years. The number frequently mentioned is $15,000. Try to live on that in Boston or Toronto. Still, it's better than doing it for free.
At this point there are less than a handful of women playing in professional men's leagues: Shannon Szabados plays for the Columbus Cottonmouths of the Southern Professional Hockey League, a team featuring players she played with in college, where she was on the men's team. Noora Räty is playing in Finland's third league (Mestis). She is signed with Kiekko-Vantaa, although to date she has only played for BeWe TuusKi on loan. Florence Schelling and Hayley Wickenheiser have played in men's leagues in Europe. Yep. Still counting on one hand.
In essence, we're working hard to bring girls into the game, but we don't have anywhere for them to go after they graduate from college. They're not being forced out of the game because they're "not good enough." They're being forced out because the doors are closed against them.
Whether we provide elite women players opportunities in men's leagues or in a robust women's league is almost irrelevant at this point. There are good arguments on both sides of the question of integration vs non-integration. It's probably best to develop the opportunities in tandem, with each reinforcing the other. Regardless of where we come down on that issue, we have much work to do to provide elite women with any opportunities at all. In the words of the women at High Heels and High Sticks,
I don’t see "the men’s league" as the ultimate goal for any female athlete. I see women getting compensated for their play as the ultimate goal. I see having the very best of the best in the NHL as the ultimate goal.
To date, two NHL teams have committed to partnerships with the CWHL: the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Calgary Flames. As impressive as it is to be one of three NHL teams to invite elite female players to practice or to be the only team ever to ice a female player in an NHL game, it would be more impressive to see the Lightning lend their name and publicity power to something that will last more than a day.
In the meantime, fans can do their part by supporting the CWHL this season. Or by attending girls' hockey games and supporting girls' teams in their local area. Or by supporting the women's team at their college. Let's not wait another twenty years to take the next step.