The institutional sexism of NHL Ice Girls

By Melissa Geschwind

The NHL has made a strong statement over the past couple years that it welcomes fans of all sexual orientations. There are still slip-ups, but teams are working to eliminate casual homophobia from the rink.

Casual sexism, on the other hand, remains a constant hum that teams not only tolerate, but generate.

Arena organists play “Big Girls Don’t Cry” to taunt opposing players headed to the penalty box. Mike Milbury refers to Daniel and Henrik Sedin as “Thelma and Louise.” Chris Neil calls out Johan Franzen by suggesting Franzen “drop his purse [and] take his lipstick out.” And in about half of NHL arenas, the ice is shoveled by women in various states of undress.

For the most part, these women are more than capable of doing the job. They’re seasoned skaters who clear the ice quickly, efficiently and without interfering with the game. And they show leg, midriff and cleavage for some reason.

Some teams have fully-clothed people (sometimes men and women, sometimes just men) clearing the ice. No teams have half-dressed men shoveling the ice, nor would anyone expect them to. Why should they? There are plenty of places for gay men and straight women to go for that kind of thing, and a hockey game just isn’t one of those places.

But it is a place to go if you want to see scantily-clad women, because EVERYWHERE is a place to go if you want to see scantily-clad women. It’s so pervasive that the people it appeals to can no longer recognize when it’s inappropriate, or even just out of place.

"It's what every college in the country does. It's what every NBA team in the country does. It's what every lacrosse team in the country does," says Steve Johnston, Executive Director/Producer of Game Presentation for the Colorado Avalanche, which introduced ice girls for the first time this season. "It's a tried, tested and true method."

He’s right, of course. Cheerleaders and their skimpy costumes are nothing new and, as Dallas Stars Executive Vice President/Chief Revenue Officer Brad Alberts says, “I think for the most part women are accustomed to seeing it.”

Women didn’t have to get accustomed to seeing scantily-clad women on the ice during in-period timeouts, though, until the New York Islanders introduced the NHL’s first ice girls squad in 2001-02. What was once on the sidelines is now on the playing surface, and not just during intermissions. It’s a step backwards, and it again reinforces the idea that the NHL says it’s for everyone, but it’s not really for women – or at least, it’s not for women who are in it for the hockey. Ice girls look a lot like professional puck bunnies, and their presence undercuts the notion that teams value female fans as highly as male fans.

“I don't like when women are unnecessarily and overtly sexualized, and I don't like being a female fan in an environment where that's the way women are presented. And sitting the crowd while guys howl at the ice girls really makes the experience less fun and more hostile,” says Laura Brown, a 27-year-old Islanders fan. “The Islanders also have their ice girls show up at events and just... pose sometimes, and I hate that too.”

The ice girls’ presence both in and out of the arena also means the teams think their on-ice product – the actual hockey - isn’t enough. It isn’t enough even when you bring in music, giveaways, mites on ice, trivia games, off-day player appearances… none of it is enough without some T&A.

Alberts freely admits that the Stars feel they need cheerleaders and ice girls to help attract and keep fans.

"We have to be more than just the game," he says. "In Texas we live in a major football culture and cheerleading is a part of that culture, and we felt like we needed cheerleaders."

Johnston and Islanders Vice President of Game Operations Tim Beach, though, claim their respective teams don’t need ice girls in order to satisfy their fan bases. Both say that during games, the ice girls’ costumes, hair and make-up are secondary to their practical role: Clearing snow during stoppages in play. They also insist that every aspect of game presentation is designed to be family-friendly and that the ice girls are extremely popular in their communities, where they make hundreds of public appearances a year.

But when the Islanders’ ice girls give presentations at schools, they wear track suits rather than their regular game day regalia. “Schools have enough problems with dress codes,” Beach says, “that the last thing we want is for them to have to worry about our dress code.”

Those track suits are nowhere to be found on the ice girls page of the Islanders’ web site, which consists entirely of photo galleries of each squad member posing in an assortment of midriff-baring cheerleader uniforms.

About half the teams in the NHL have ice girl squads with similar presences on the clubs’ official web sites. It’s soft-core porn with team logos, and it gets clicks – according to Beach, the ice girls gallery is the second-most popular section of the Islanders’ site, after game stories.

Some teams don’t even bother making sure all their online ice girls content includes some connection, however tenuous, to hockey. The Los Angeles Kings’ ice girls calendar is month after month of women in string bikinis – and not even in team colors posing on the beach.

The 2012 edition of the Stars’ annual “Lake Day” video shows women cavorting on a boat while suggestively lip-syncing to Little Big Town’s “Pontoon.”

The 2013 edition at least includes passing mentions of the Stars, but it’s mostly just two-and-a-half minutes of bikini-clad women jumping into the water and running on the sand.

These things might sell, but they’re also degrading – not necessarily to the women involved, who are actively choosing to fill this role in return for a paycheck, but to the ones who are supposed to grin and bear the fact that this is how their favorite NHL team views women.

“It's purely for entertainment of the male fan base, and it perpetuates the myth that women and girls don't follow sports, don't understand sports, and shouldn't be at a sporting event unless it's to dress up,” says Angela Braithwood, 39, a hockey player herself and lifelong Red Wings fan (one of the few teams in the league with neither cheerleaders nor ice girls). “Yes, I understand that they are out there for a practical purpose (scraping the ice), but specifically in revealing clothing and pretty makeup? What's the need to be pretty for that job?”

“It has to do with social norms in sports,” says Avalanche Manager of Game Presentation Amanda Erdman, who notes that "there were plenty of females, myself included, who were on the committee to pick the uniforms."

Obviously, not all women are bothered by the presence of ice girls at games, but that’s at least partially due to “social norms” established long before women began not only cheering for hockey, but actually playing it. Regardless, teams are unlikely to address these concerns as long as there’s a chorus of male fans celebrating every calendar shoot and up-skirt shot. Without a high-profile champion for the cause - like the gay community has found in You Can Play - fans like Brown have little chance of getting through to team brass.

“There's going to be things that when you come out to the games that you like and there's going to be things that you don't like,” Beach says. “If we have something that works really well for us, we don't see a reason to change it.”

When it comes to homophobia, the NHL has demonstrated its unwillingness to accept ‘That’s how it’s always been’ as reason enough to maintain the status quo.

The days of taunting rivals by putting two men in the opponent’s jersey on the Kiss Cam together are, mercifully, coming to an end; it’s too bad the same progress doesn’t seem to exist when it comes to objectifying women as part of in-game “entertainment.”

Melissa Geschwind is a former Buffalo Sabres beat writer, now a freelancer and a regular contributor to You can follow her on Twitter at @mgeschwind.