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Watch her play

For players and fans who just love the game, women's hockey is the best hockey of all

Derek Drummond

It's probably human instinct to want to pattern ourselves after what is bigger, stronger, faster and better than we are. If you ask a grade schooler who his favorite hockey player is, he or she will likely give the name of an NHL All-Star. Growing up in Montreal, when a kid scored at the local outdoor rink, I'd usually hear him reference Saku Koivu or Mario Lemieux while raising his arms to the sky. In general, we want the best for ourselves, so it's only normal that we look to the best as role models, too.

But there's another way to look at things. When I gave a presentation on some of the work I had been doing at the DC Hockey Analytics Conference this spring, I said:

"Women's hockey fits the platonic ideals of possession hockey. It's a different proving ground for testing new ideas about the game." And that's what makes it great.

Sure, elite women hockey players may have some physiological disadvantages compared to their male counterparts, but those same attributes are what makes the women's game something worth observing for coaches and players of any ability level, from house league right up to the NHL.

Photo credit: Montreal Stars

First, there is no fighting and open-ice hitting in women's hockey, which means that teams will never waste a roster spot on a designated fighter, or even anyone who do not have the hand and foot skills to keep the puck moving in the right direction on the ice. The women's game, played at the highest level, has plenty of body contact, but all of those hits along the boards serve an important purpose: to maintain or recover possession of the puck.

Sports is all about problem-solving on the fly, and being asked different questions is a sure-fire way for wonderful, creative solutions to emerge.

Second, since female players are smaller, cover less ice, and do not shoot as hard, a regulation-sized rink plays "bigger" for women than it does for men. What they lack in strength and speed is made up by patience and teamwork. Powerplays based on cycling the puck to the point, screening the goalie and praying that the puck squeezes through are usually losing propositions. The best teams rely on difficult, but high-conversion cross-crease passing plays to score goals, which means that the best women players have every bit of the decision-making skills and hockey sense of top NHLers. Many physically gifted male players never quite learn how to maximize their skills. Playing "like a girl" once in a while could be just what they need.

Third, inexpensive ticket prices allow families to attend every game and discover the unique talents of each player. Watching Leslie Oles slice through the offensive zone is like watching Mike Cammalleri as a Hab in the 2010 playoffs; she brings it every single week. Katia Clement-Heydra's favorite Canadiens player is Tomas Plekanec, but my spreadsheets and I know that she plays a much better two-way game than Plekanec ever will. Michelle Daigneault is one the smoothest skaters I've ever seen, NHLers included. In another lifetime she could've stolen Duncan Keith's job in Chicago. (Don't take my word for it - I'm incredibly biased in these three cases. Go see them play with the Montreal Stars this season.)

There is nothing better for young players looking to improve their hockey than to watch high-level players in person, up close. What their gender is doesn't matter because kids will soak up the experience like a sponge, anyway. They can sit as close as you want from ice-level for $10 (McGill Martlets) or $15 (Montreal Stars), and they might even get to have a chat with a player who's honed her craft to a national or Olympic level after the game. Even if you are a die-hard NHL fan, experiencing the speed, sound and smells of the game up-close will give you a new appreciation of the sport. It certainly beats sitting in the nosebleeds in an NHL arena, where you can't so much as make eye contact with the players, or staying at home and watching the game on television.

Those are just some of the reasons why I feel profoundly uncomfortable when the main marketing message of the women's game is "come support female athletes, because gender equality is good and it's the right thing to do."

There's certainly nothing wrong with that message in and of itself, because these players (at least the ones I've had the pleasure of working with) give their entire selves to the game in the same ways that NHLers earning seven figures per year do. It makes me sad to think that two people born with the same talent, drive and family support could have such different outcomes due to a single chromosome.

But as I outlined, there are much more compelling reasons to go watch women's hockey. It'll make you a much better player and thinker of the game, and teach you things that you'd never learn from behind a screen.

That's what I hope more people promoting the CWHL, NWHL and CIS will think about going forward. Anything less is selling their game short.

Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team. He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.