Women's hockey is hockey in its purest form: speed, skill, and passion. This past week at the IIHF Women's World Championship, however, we were reminded that the mainstream media coverage of the sport still has a lot of improvement to do in order to catch up with the quality of the on-ice product.
There are many who know a lot about women's hockey and have amazing insight into the game and its players. There are broadcasters with a depth of experience in play-by-play. There needs to be more teamwork between these two groups in order to put forth a more respectful and entertaining finished product. Coverage of the women's game has come a long way, but there is still a lot of work to be done. The good news is, it shouldn't be that hard.
If you watched more than one period of hockey from the recent Women's World Championship tournament, you'll never want to hear about Meghan Agosta being a police officer, Meaghan Mikkelson being a mother, or Alex Carpenter having a famous father ever again. If Canadian goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer watches a replay of the game, she might be disappointed to hear that her most memorable career moment to date gets belittled by the millionth identification as the sister of her hockey-playing brother who played in the same rink for the Kamloops Blazers.
For the record, I have no idea who he is; I'd never heard of him before this tournament. Emerance played her way into the hearts of Canadian hockey fans this week in Kamloops, and that's where the focus should have been.
Veteran broadcasters with decades of experience and sports broadcasting awards should know by now that they need to learn more than one fact about the players they are covering. When they're behind the microphone for a tournament that lasts a week, or a playoff series, it is even more important to dig deep on research. If you assume you have repeat viewership, you owe your audience a depth of knowledge, insight, and analysis which focuses on the game and its players.
When covering a women's sport, it is particularly important not to continuously repeat how they're related to men who viewers may or may not know from their own hockey careers. These women are stars and deserve to stand on their own merits.
However, that doesn't mean you can't mention these facts. They are interesting. But mentioning them several times a game for four games is a little much. We also sometimes see the reverse. When Canadiens defenceman Ryan Johnston made his NHL debut, he was mentioned as the brother of Canadian Olympic Gold Medalist (and the more well-known) Rebecca Johnston.
The broadcast wasn't all bad though. There are signs that coverage of women's sports is getting more inclusive and more entertaining. Cheryl Pounder was the biggest surprise during this tournament. She added thoughtful analysis, and was not only the best person on the TV crew, but was superior to most NHL in-game analysts. She clearly understands the game and knows its players, and has a rare ability to translate that knowledge to both casual and hardcore fans in an entertaining manner. ‘Pounder's Points,' essentially the keys to the game, were tremendously well-thought-out and far more relevant than what we've become accustomed to during NHL broadcasts.
Tessa Bonhomme is a legend in women's hockey for her playing days, and has been a great hockey analyst and personality since 2014. She provided intermission analysis from the eyes of a former player with the added benefit of knowing the women on the ice. Tessa has hosted events and coverage of the CWHL and is forging herself a career as an intelligent and respectable sports broadcaster.
Beyond this tournament, the coverage of women's hockey has grown significantly, and there are amazing blogs and radio and television programs for fans to follow. Sportsnet's John Bartlett provided play-by-play for the CWHL playoffs and has been a long-time supporter of women's hockey. His knowledge, understanding and passion of the game is fantastic. I am proud to work with Robyn Flynn at EOTP, and she has done a great job as a colour commentator during CWHL game live streams, and aspires to one day be calling play-by-play in hockey. Robyn also hosts a hockey show on TSN Radio 690 every Sunday.
The ideal future for women's hockey broadcasts is the continued inclusion of more women, including play-by-play commentators. The number of women covering the sport is increasing in all areas, and it's a sign of the change that has begun to take place. There are great female journalists and bloggers covering the game (too many to start mentioning for fear of leaving some out), yet no women currently doing play-by-play for major women's hockey events with national audiences. There is a lot of talent poised to take that next step, and need only the opportunity to get started. The future looks bright, which is a good thing given the amount of ugliness still associated with women and sports.
This, in contrast to ESPN who has had women in both play-by-play and colour commentary roles of not only women's sports but of men's sports. Jessica Mendoza is in ESPN's Prime Time booth on their Sunday Night Baseball telecasts. Beth Mowins does play-by-play of men's college football and basketball. In Canada, Cassie Campbell gets the spot duty in the broadcast booth but is usually the reporter at ice level.
Female sports journalists and broadcasters have never had it easy. This year alone, the Erin Andrews case helped shed light on what many women in sports media have to face compared to their male counterparts. Women are constantly objectified, put in harm's way, reduced to sideline roles, and tasked with challenges most men would never even think of. Julie DiCaro has written and spoken at length about how the sport of hockey, particularly the NHL, ignores the feelings of its fastest-growing demographic by turning a blind eye to the issues of sexism and violence against women. Having more women covering women's sports is going to create a safer entry point for future on-air talent, and become an example of an unbiased, fair environment for the rest of mainstream sports media to follow.
In defence of broadcasters who are tasked with covering many sports at various levels, they cannot possibly become experts in every sport. Their job is to be able to smoothly describe a game or event, which is no easy task. Try muting your TV next time you watch a sporting event and try to do play-by-play commentary without stumbling. You'll see it's not easy.
Perhaps a reason why women with extensive knowledge of hockey haven't broken into mainstream play-by-play roles yet is they've lacked the exposure and opportunity to do so. This highlights the responsibility that all media outlets have to foster a crew of capable and knowledgeable broadcasters for the future of women's hockey.
From puck drop in the first game through the gold-medal match on Monday night, we were hammered with the same inane facts about the players - at best they were irrelevant after one mention and at worst demeaning after repeating them, but it didn't have to be that way; imagine if a network enlisted the help of a women's hockey expert to help provide research and fact sheets for each game to the play by play announcer. The result might be strong game-calling with interesting facts where we might actually have learned something interesting about these amazing women's sporting careers. The casual fan might not be turned off by a repetitive commentator game in and game out.
The added bonus to combining an expert/research role with a play by play announcer is that a budding broadcaster with a passion for women's hockey could take her broadcasting knowledge to the next level by having her learn from a veteran broadcaster who simply doesn't share the same knowledge of the game. The result would be better coverage today, and better broadcasters tomorrow. This is a model that can and should be adopted in covering all of women's sports, and perhaps all sports broadcasting in general.
An important fact to retain is that there is now women's coverage for us to criticize. Years ago it might not get the attention it currently has from major sports outlets. Women's hockey has come a long way as a sport, and the business that goes along with it has grown by leaps and bounds as well. During coverage of the CWHL this past year, media crews multiplied on a weekly basis, culminating in a full contingent of press at the 2016 Clarkson Cup Final at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa. Women's hockey stories have appeared on the front page of newspapers. We can critique the coverage we have because it is being covered. This, however, is just the beginning; more needs to be done to make the presentation of a game as entertaining as possible.
There are many people who have watched women's hockey for a long time and have a lot to say about it. They are men and women who are smart, insightful, analytical and often very entertaining. A partnership between the experts of the sport and veteran sports broadcasters would pave the way for a bright future. I look forward to a day when I can watch women's sports on television and not have to worry that the experience will be sullied by a lack of expertise, broadcasters relating back to the men related to the athletes who are actually playing and having the same facts repeated ad nauseum at every opportunity.