Women in the change room

By Erin Shumlich

On what should have been an average Monday night last December, third-year fine arts student Claire Berenger found herself in a change room with 15 half-naked men. On the third-last game of the intramural hockey season, Berenger and the two other females on the predominantly male team were not provided with a separate female changing room.

A dream come true?

“Maybe for the guys,” said Berenger. “It’s not that big of a deal, but I felt really uncomfortable. Some girls would probably be deterred from playing because of that, especially if they feel self-conscious of their body.”

Sneaking around in bathroom stalls, indecent exposure and going home without a shower are what the women had to face not only for this game, but for the remainder of the season. Berenger, who has been playing hockey since she was 12, said that although it is important to have an extra change room, it also makes her feel left out because it is the place where a lot of friendships form.

Discrimination in the sport is nothing new for women. When playing with males, Berenger has often felt self-conscious. Fewer passes, misogynistic comments and over-the-top apologies for slight bumps all are things women face in the male-dominated sport.

“Most of the guys are super nice, but I do sometimes feel stereotyped,” said Berenger. “People assume women who play hockey are really manly and boyish. I didn’t tell people in junior high that I played because I was scared to be judged.”

This perception has rapidly been changing. Team Canada, led by University of Calgary Dino Haley Wickenheiser, came out victorious in successive Olympics and the number of young girls joining the sport rapidly increased.

“Every year after the Olympics we see a major spurt in growth at the minor hockey level for young women,” said Wickenheiser. “We, the national team players, are all conscious of the role we play as role models and I am sure I speak for all of us when I say that we take that job very seriously.”

When Wickenheiser was growing up there weren’t a lot of female hockey role models so she looked up to Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky. Wickenheiser said she is pleased by how Team Canada’s success continues to build a path for future generations to follow.

Until the age of 13, Wickenheiser played in men’s leagues where she faced discrimination from player’s parents.

“They would say, ‘Girls don’t play hockey,’ and I would use that as motivation and think to myself, ‘Oh yeah, watch this!’ ” said Wickenheiser. “However, I think conversely it could be said that being from a small community, I may have actually had a great deal more support because people knew me. Of course there was some discrimination there — there is always some — but I often weighed it against how badly I wanted to play hockey at that level and what I was willing to endure to do that. It always balanced itself out or better.”

The female council for Hockey Alberta chairman, Laury Schmidt, said as men grow and get stronger it becomes harder and sometimes dangerous for women to compete.

“There is no restriction of the age women can play male hockey,” he said. “But when you got a young man that is 220 pounds and a young girl who is 120, there is a disparity there.”

Growing up, most girls have the option of playing on an all female team, although many choose otherwise.

“Depending on where you live, it will depend on if there is a female team to play on,” said Schmidt. “It’s a challenge finding the right skill level for women the older they get. When they are younger it is more about development; 11 year olds don’t really have skills yet.”

Executive vice-president for Girls Hockey Calgary Barb Bauer, who has been working with Girls Hockey for four years, said that in that time the skill level has only improved since she started.

“Female hockey has made great strides and continues to do so,” said Bauer. “Girls in girls-programs have a lot more puck time. That’s why it is beneficial and I think a lot of females are starting to realize that.”

Last year was the first year that girls Bantam AAA started across Alberta. Bantam is for females ages 13-14, gets them ready for higher levels and improves their skills earlier.

In Calgary, as of October, there are 908 females registered in the association, including mainstream hockey. Over 500 of these women are on female-only teams, but the numbers continue to increase past registration. These numbers include all levels of play from novice to junior.

Schmidt points out that retention — the number of women who stick with the sport to an older age — is also very strong. This has a lot to do with the number of opportunities becoming available for older female hockey players. In October, only 29 novice (ages 7-8) females joined while over 100 signed up for peewee (11-12) and up.

“Calgary as a group probably does one of the best jobs in the province or even in Canada as a development group for giving women opportunities,” said Schmidt. “There are lots of opportunities for post-secondary in Canada and the U.S. For the most part, a young girl being able to make a living playing hockey is not the same dream as a male. Consequently, studies are very important.”

Wickenheiser joined a men’s European hockey league in 2003 and became the first female to score a goal in a professional men’s league.

“Watch the players you admire, examine their skills and their approach and mimic it,” she said. “It’s what I did and what I still do. Just love what you do and remember that’s a privilege that not all women in all countries who want to play hockey have. Stay focused, but be well-rounded.”

Although success is measured in many different ways, Team Canada is definitely a goal for many young women. Role models like Wickenheiser give younger generations of women a glimpse into the degree of success that can be achieved.

“It goes to show that woman can do anything that guys can,” said Berenger.

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