Commentary: A Power Play for Acceptance and Accessibility

Concordia Graduate Student Hosts Panel on Women in Sports Journalism and Hockey

  • Left to right: Robyn Flynn, Safia Ahmad, and Meg Hewings. Photo Daren Zomerman

As part of his Master’s project, graduate student in Concordia’s Media Studies program, Aaron Lakoff, curated a panel held in Concordia’s Feminist Media Studio. “Powerplay” not only covered women’s hockey, but also what it’s like to be a woman in sports media.

The project itself is a podcast, however Lakoff felt it necessary to open the discussion up to the public, turning it into a live recording session.

“It’s a really unique conversation that you don’t hear very often, and it’s so rare that you would even put the words ‘feminism’ and ‘hockey’ in one sentence,” he said. “I think it’s crucial with what’s going on in our world today.”

Powerplay featured three women in the industry. Robyn Flynn, a McGill alumna, host of TSN 690’s Centre Ice, and contributor for Montreal’s division of The Athletic, spoke aside former Concordia student, former Link staff writer, and Media Relations Manager for Les Canadiennes, Safia Ahmad, and the team’s General Manager, Meg Hewings.

With all the movements taking place in our society, be it Black Lives Matter, You Can Play, or #MeToo, it is of great importance we make ourselves heard and to question the state of the media. This panel was a tool in opening up the doors to discussions of feminism and activism through the lense of sport.

Robyn Flynn. Photo Daren Zomerman

Frankly, it should have been promoted on the same scale as past Concordia panels, like Jonah Keri’s “Up, Up, & Away,” panel held Nov. 16 in Concordia’s D.B Clarke theatre. Keri’s panel garnered an attendance of nearly 400 people, and those same 400 some people should have been exposed to the experiences and knowledge of these three panelists.

Flynn, Ahmad, and Hewings all have a background in journalism, and all three have unique experiences that make them excellent resources when it comes to the current state of the media and what it’s like to exist in this media environment as a woman.

As much as we’d like to believe it’s getting better to be a woman covering sports—there are many talented writers and broadcasters to be found in women like Flynn, Chantal Machabee, Amanda Stein, and Shireen Ahmed, to name a few—this is wildly untrue. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that the world of journalism and sports journalism seem to be a toxic and sometimes unsafe space for women.

“After I wrote a piece for Habs Eyes on the Prize in 2015 about the Patrick Kane rape allegations, I started to receive rape threats and death threats,” recalled Flynn after Lakoff asked about backlash from readers.

While Flynn admits being used to receiving threats via social media, having covered politics and labour issues for CJAD, but the threats she received after publishing this piece were graphic and truly harrowing.

“I hope you get raped with a hockey stick until you bleed to death,” wrote one reader.

Flynn described the flurry of tweets and direct messages she was getting. Every time she refreshed her feed, Flynn recalls a constant stream of hate.

“There’s this perception that it’s just losers in their mom’s basements, but you look at their profile and it’s a picture of them holding their four year old daughter,” said Flynn.

Perhaps even more disturbing were the comments she received from other women.

“I remember there was a girl who said to me, ‘Well you’re just jealous because Patrick Kane would never rape you,’” she said.

Despite the unsettling nature of the treatment she receives as a woman in sports media, Robyn doesn’t let it get to her. She said what pisses off the people who attempt to push her out the most is that she sticks around.

Women in sports media aren’t the only ones who experience negativity and microaggressions. Even the athletes themselves aren’t safe.

In an article written for The Athletic’sl Montreal site, Eric Duhatschek referred to this year’s captain of Canada’s Olympic women’s team, and Les Canadiennes centre, Marie-Philip Poulin, as “The Sidney Crosby of Women’s Hockey.”

In terms of star power, they may be comparable. But on any other level, they could not be more different.

Women’s hockey is inherently different from the men’s game. It’s a different style of play, much quicker and more accurate compared to the physicality of the NHL. Not only is the game itself different, but as Ahmad and Hewings said, there is a whole different atmosphere surrounding the game that sets women’s hockey apart from men’s hockey.

“Ultimately our values as the [Canadian Women’s Hockey League], and I think in the Canadiennes especially, is to build a community,” said Hewings.

The goal, which is in my opinion very unlike the NHL and other professional leagues, is not for the teams to take money from their fanbase. They strive to include their fans, and make them feel welcome at games and make them part of the experience. The Canadiennes are a volunteer-based organization that allows anyone to get involved one way or another, which just isn’t a possibility with leagues like the NHL that feel very cold and corporate.

“The idea has always been to make hockey accessible to more people,” Hewings said. “That’s what the women’s game is truly at its heart.”

Knowing that hockey is an expensive sport to play and to watch, the CWHL offers a low-cost experience that opens the game up to a wider audience. The Canadiennes’ home arena has a homey feel, and fans are welcomed to go up to the players after the game.

“Your young kid is able to meet [former olympian] Caroline Ouellette in person, and be forever changed by someone who is an incredible mentor and generous person, and an amazing athlete,” said Hewings.

This is something that can’t be said about NHL games and its superstars. Very few fans will ever get the chance to meet the Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavids of the world.

“There’s, like, a disdain for the fans, it seems in a lot of professional leagues,” said Flynn. “Not just the Habs, but they don’t need the fans.”

Safia Ahmad. Photo Daren Zomerman

Lakoff noted that the fans feel like a commodity in a lot of professional organizations, which is true. When one fan abandons ship, there’s a whole bunch more ready to hop on. Individuals don’t matter to teams like the Canadiens or the Toronto Maple Leafs.

With the Canadiennes, there’s more comradery. It’s a more human environment, comparable to the days of the NHL’s original six when players had second jobs, which is a reality for nearly every player in the CWHL, given that their salaries sit between $2,000 and $10,000 dollars, which is not a living wage by any means.

The accessibility of women’s hockey and the CWHL creates a special type of bond within the community. Ahmad told a story of one family in particular who attends every single Canadienne’s home game. It’s three generations of women, the grandmother, the mother, and the daughter.

“Everyone comes up to them,” she said. “Players, staff, other fans, just to talk to them. The grandmother even has her own seat, and I call it her throne. It’s such a great sight to see.”

These three women could be considered the unofficial mascots of the team, and they are representative of the community that Les Canadiennes have fostered.

* * *

It’s time for women’s hockey to gain more recognition for the caliber of play it offers and the bonds the game forges. With the Olympics on the horizon, women will step into the spotlight. Sadly, after the two weeks are up, they’ll retreat back into the shadows. People like Robyn Flynn, Safia Ahmad, and Meg Hewings are trying their damndest to make sure that one day, this won’t happen because they deserve that spotlight as much as anyone.

Caroline Ouellette gave birth on Nov. 5. Some 90 days later, she’s back out there doing what she does best. That’s the kind of spirit that the women’s game carries. It’s beautiful to see, and myself, along with the rest of the women’s hockey community, I think are excited to see what this league will blossom into with time.

In a previous iteration of this article, the author said that Robyn Flynn was a Concordia alumna when in fact she graduated from McGill. The Link regrets the error.

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