Content warning: Discussions of sexual assault.

About a year ago, my mental health was the worst it’s ever been. Looking back on that time in my life, I credit three things with pulling me out of my despair: my community of loved ones, my therapist, and hockey. If you would have told nine-year-old me, the one who was constantly in and out of hockey rinks to watch my brother play and who was thoroughly disinterested in the sport, that being a hockey fan would later save my life, I would have been shocked.

It all came about quite unexpectedly. I had formed a new friendship with a first-time visitor to Edmonton, and it seemed appropriate to take her to her first ever professional hockey match. From there, I’ve been hooked, rarely missing a broadcast with friends or family. Not only was it an entertaining (and consistent) break from my regular routine, but it also provided an excellent opportunity to build and deepen relationships with the people in my life. As surprising as it may seem, hockey fandom allowed me to find the community support and sense of belonging that I had been craving.

However, this unexpected joy hasn’t come without its difficulties. It’s no secret that hockey, through a series of cultural practices and cost barriers, has a history of exclusion for both players and spectators. My recent involvement within the sport has allowed me to see this exclusion firsthand. As I engage with hockey fandom, I have been forced to negotiate these contradictions: how a sport can be so joyful and so instrumental to community building, yet also so inaccessible and so determined to maintain structures of inequality.

Hockey has been explored by scholars as a place of cultural construction, a space in which narratives of identity are formed and reformed, but also, as a space where these constructions can be challenged, confronted and reimagined. The potential for the transformation of hockey culture to ignite grander cultural and structural change makes it a relevant and exciting landscape for activists, athletes and fans. As a hockey fan, I feel a responsibility to engage with this culture as it is, recognizing both the challenges which prevent change and the spaces that marginalized fans are carving out for themselves in these cultural landscapes, despite its surface-level hostility.

Hockey Is for Everyone (but is it really?)

Since 2017, the most prominent professional hockey league, the National Hockey League (NHL), has promoted an initiative called “Hockey Is for Everyone”. The initiative intends to combat many of the stereotypes and barriers that limit diverse involvement in hockey at all levels of play. Yet, within the few short years that the initiative has been implemented, it’s received intense criticism, notably from the Hockey Diversity Alliance, who broke their partnership with the league after the NHL’s continued inaction and performativity surrounding issues of systemic racism. So, is hockey really for everyone, as the league claims?

In many ways, it isn’t.

It isn’t for young families who lack the financial resources to pay for the exorbitant costs of youth hockey, one of the most expensive sports a child can play. It isn’t for BIPOC players who face racist remarks or for the fans of colour who are forced to re-evaluate their safety within these spaces as a result. It certainly isn’t for the people, players or otherwise, who have reported that they have been sexually assaulted by those involved with elite-level hockey, and who, instead of support, are met with a culture of silence and institutional cover-ups. This issue has been suddenly thrust into the spotlight again because of the ongoing legal proceedings regarding the 2018 World Junior Championship group sexual assault case. This case calls into question both the impact and intentions of major hockey institutions, like Hockey Canada, and the culture of violence which permeates elite hockey.

Perhaps the most recent (and public) instance of the NHL going back on its “hockey is for everyone” stance occurred when it banned the players’ use of Pride Tape and themed jerseys during on-ice warm ups prior to the 2023-24 season (the Pride Tape ban was later reversed after player resistance). These special nights, which have historically celebrated a variety of topics and marginalized communities, drew severe controversy the season prior, as several NHLers refused to wear jerseys for one night in particular: pride night. Seemingly, the bans were the result of this controversy. Rather than asserting the inclusion of 2SLGBTQ+ players/fans, the league chose to protect itself and a small group of homophobes, clearly demonstrating its stance on the issue and going back on past promises which pointed towards the possibility for change.

These issues are incredibly important to address in order for hockey culture to move forward in a meaningful way. Yet, despite these challenges, hockey continues to draw players and fans of a variety of backgrounds who refuse to let institutional norms dictate the extent to which they participate in the sport they love.

The Future of Hockey

“Hockey is a great game. But it could be a whole lot greater.”

NHL player Matt Dumba reminded us of this fact during a speech he gave prior to a playoff game in 2020. Though he was directly referring to systemic racism in hockey, it applies across multiple hierarchies of power, including sexism and heterosexism, all of which are intimately entwined. As we imagine and create a better future for hockey, it feels necessary to both recognize these issues and recognize the meaningful work that is being done by organizations and individuals that are fighting against them.

In addition to player-created organizations like the Hockey Diversity Alliance, grassroots organizations such as Black Girl Hockey Club work to increase Black girls’ involvement in the sport and to educate allies on how to make hockey spaces more inclusive and welcoming for racialized folks. Through community campaigns, educational initiatives, and scholarship programs, Black Girl Hockey Club works to eliminate many of the cultural and financial barriers which prevent the involvement of Black women in the sport.

Individual fans also push back against toxic hockey culture by asserting their right to hockey fandom and community. Despite the NHL’s unwillingness to fully support 2SLGBTQ+ communities, fans continue to make space for themselves by, for example, designing and creating their own pride-themed jerseys using Pride Tape. These jerseys are an act of defiance, of self-love, of communal care. They say, “Queer people deserve to enjoy the game we love. We’re here to stay”.

And though the NHL continues to falter when it comes to meaningful social justice, the recent establishment of the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) points the game in a hopeful new direction. A mere week after its inaugural game, the PWHL has made history, breaking the professional women’s hockey attendance record not once but twice (and as of writing this, it is set to break it for a third time later this month). While imperfect, the new league provides the best opportunity for professional women’s players to date, and this is largely a result of the involvement the players had in forming the league and negotiating their collective bargaining agreement. With all of the games incredibly accessible and free to stream live on their Youtube channel, women’s professional hockey is reaching new heights in terms of visibility, economic viability, and, hopefully, longevity.

All things considered, I have immense hope for the future of the game. In spite of all its toxicity and hostility to change, hockey has the power to shape lives, strengthen relationships, and foster a sense of communal belonging. And it’s fun! It’s worth changing, worth investing in, worth improving. I look forward to the moment when all people have an equal opportunity to experience the joys of one of the world’s greatest games.

Click here for a list of local sexual assault resources. Please know that you are never alone. Support is available.

About the Author

Hi! I’m Brynn, and I’m super excited to be writing on the blogs committee this year. I am a third-year Women’s and Gender Studies student with interests in film, feminism, theatre and social justice. Blog writing provides me with the perfect opportunity to combine all of these passions. I hope you will join me on my blog journey!