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What are the unique elements within particular interpretive frameworks? Examine qualitative journal articles that adopt different interpretive lens, such as Therberge (1997) from a feminist interpretive framework, and identify such as elements as the feminist issue(s), the directional question, the advocacy orientation of the aim of the study, the methods of data collection, and the call for action. 
Please put a header for each section: elements as the feminist issue(s), the directional question, the advocacy orientation of the aim of the study, the methods of data collection, and the call for action. 
Link to article: https://www.jstor.org/stable/190226?seq=1″It’s Part of the Game”: Physicality and the Production of Gender in Women’s Hockey
Author(s): Nancy Theberge
Source: Gender and Society , Feb., 1997, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Feb., 1997), pp. 69-87
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/190226
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Gender and Society
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Physicality and the Production
of Gender in Women’s Hocke
University of Waterloo
Contemporary developments in sport pose a powerful challenge to the historical connections be
gender, physicality, and power This process is examined through an analysis of the production of gen
in women ‘s ice hockey. Drawingfromfieldwork and interviews with players and coaches who part
at elite levels, the author considers the place of physicality in the practice of women’s hockey.
analysis suggests that while women ‘s hockey provides an important challenge to historical construct
of gender, the challenge to masculine hegemony is weakened by its construction as an alternat
men’s hockey, the version of the sport that “really counts.”
Competitive sport is one of the most important arenas for the production an
pression of gender. Connell (1987, 85) writes that “images of ideal masculinity
constructed and promoted most systematically through competitive sport,” in w
“the combination of skill and force” in athletic experience becomes a defin
feature of masculine identity. This experience is variable and for some men, o
frustration and disappointment (Klein 1993; Messner 1992). Nonetheless, as K
(1993, 4) notes, all men must “make peace” with the symbolism of male mus
ture, and the relationship between masculinity and power.
The contribution of sport to ideologies of femininity has been no less powe
Historically, sport has been a setting in which gender differences were establ
and celebrated (Cahn 1994; Lenskyj 1986). When women were admitted, it wa
restricted terms and according to an adapted model whereby events were adju
(races shortened; rules altered, as in six-person basketball) to conform to a vi
women as fragile and weak. In contrast to the experience of empowerment
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I would like to thank the editor of Gender & Society and the reviewers for t
comments on earlier drafts of this article. Thanks also to Margot and Don Page for their suppo
my work in women’s hockey. The research reported here was funded by grants from the Univer
Waterloo-Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Small Grants Program
the Sport Canada Applied Sport Research Contribution Program.
REPRINT REQUESTS: Nancy Theberge, Department of Sociology, University of Waterlo
University Ave. W, Waterloo, ON, N2L 3G1, Canada.
GENDER & SOCIETY, Vol. 11 No. 1, February 1997 69-87
? 1997 Sociologists for Women in Society
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70 GENDER & SOCIETY / February 1997
constituted sport for men, the contribution of sport to the “myth of female frailty”
(Theberge 1989) has been a lasting legacy of the history of women’s exclusion or
admission on restricted terms.
Perhaps as much as any social setting in the contemporary period, the world of
sport is seeing considerable change regarding the condition of women and gender
relations. To be sure, professional sport remains largely a male preserve in which
the majority of opportunities and rewards go to men. In other contexts, including
school and university sport and international competitions including most notably
the Olympics, opportunities for women are expanding, performances are improving, and public interest is rising. These developments pose a challenge to ideologies
of gender and to the historical association between gender, physicality, and power.
A particularly significant challenge to gender ideologies is the increased involve-
ment of women in sports that Bryson (1990, 174) calls “flag carriers” of masculin-
ity. These are sports that “quintessentially promote hegemonic masculinity and to
which a majority of people are regularly exposed” (Bryson 1990, 174). Writing from
an Australian setting, Bryson cites as examples cricket and football (i.e., soccer).
In the North American context, the best examples are football and ice hockey. In
these sports, which celebrate force and toughness and involve direct confrontation
between competitors, it is “dominate or lose” (Whitson 1994, 359).
The ideological significance of contact sports such as football and ice hockey is
heightened in the contemporary period of shifting gender relations. The historical
grounding of masculine hegemony in force and power has been eroded by the
willingness of the legal system to intervene in domestic violence, increasing
automation and the growth of the service sector in the economy, and the declining
importance of physical work (Whitson 1994, 359). Whitson (1994, 359) notes that
“body contact sports are one of the few areas of public life in which force and
intimidation are still allowed to triumph, where men who love to hit can still enjoy
doing so, and others will celebrate their toughness and willingness to pay the price.”
The movement of women into these sports is thus a particularly important instance
of the shifting terrain of contemporary gender relations.
This article provides an analysis of challenges to hegemonic masculinity posed
by women’s participation in the “flag carrier” sport of ice hockey. Data are taken
from fieldwork and interviews with players and coaches participating at the highest
levels of the sport in Canada. The analysis begins with a discussion of the satisfaction
players derive from the physicality of sport. This is followed by a detailed examination of the material and ideological conditions that structure the experience of
physicality. A key determinant of the practice of women’s hockey is rules that limit-
but by no means eliminate-body contact. Debates about the place of contact in
women’s hockey and its relationship to injury occur within a framework in which
men’s sport is positioned as the “real” thing. The conclusion contrasts the transformative potential of sports organized within the dominant model of masculine sport
with possibilities presented by activities organized outside the framework of
institutionalized sport.
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Theberge / WOMEN’S HOCKEY 71
Women’s hockey is now experiencing a period of growth and developm
the most notable event in this regard being its inclusion in the Olymp
for the 1998 games in Nagano, Japan. The first World Championships w
1990, with subsequent events in 1992 and 1994. Canada has won all thr
In Canada, the sport is growing; the number of female players regist
the Canadian Hockey Association increased from 8,146 in 1990-91 to
1994-95. These figures do not include girls playing on boys’ teams, for w
are no reliable statistics (Etue and Williams 1996). While school and u
programs are expanding, the sport is primarily organized in clubs that ar
with provincial associations, which in turn are affiliated with the nationa
body, the Canadian Hockey Association.
The analysis presented here is part of a broader study of women’s ice
Canada. The primary focus of the research is a team I call the Blades, w
in a league located in a large Canadian metropolitan area. The league in
Blades play is generally considered to be the strongest in the country.
cation of this strength, several players from the Blades and from other t
league were members of one or more Canadian national teams that w
Championships in 1990, 1992, and 1994.
The research began when I attended the Annual General Meeting of t
cial Women’s Hockey Association in May 1992, where I met a woman
on the Blades and also operates a girls’ hockey camp. In July I spent se
at the camp, where I met the Blades coach and told him of my interest in
search in women’s hockey. He was supportive, and in November, shortl
start of the season, I attended a practice during which the coach introd
the team. I then met with the players in the coach’s absence, explained m
and asked for permission to spend time with the team for the purpose of doi
Following this meeting, I began to attend games, practices, and other e
as the annual Christmas party. The fieldwork continued from Novembe
the completion of the season in April 1993 and through the following s
October 1993 until April 1994. I had cormplete access to team activitie
access to the team change room where I spent time with the players befo
games and practices. I also accompanied the team to out-of-town tour
including the provincial and national championships. Following each ga
tice, or other event, I wrote field notes. The field notes cover a rang
concerned with the practice and organization of the sport, team activities
In the first year of my research there were 18 players on the Blades; in the second
year this was reduced to 15 with the departure of 5 and addition of 2 players. Players
ranged in age from 16 to 30. The team included students and women who worked
in a variety of occupations, including health professions, teaching, financial
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72 GENDER & SOCIETY / February 1997
services, office work, and recreational management. I interviewed all but 1 of the
women who played on the team during the two-year period, or 19 members. Most
of these interviews took place between the first and second seasons of the research.
Two interviews were conducted during the first season, and three took place after
the second season. These interviews covered many of the same issues as the field
notes, as well as topics related to individual players’ careers.
To provide some perspective on experiences of players from elsewhere in the
sport, I interviewed an additional eight players from three provinces, all of whom
played at an elite level. I also interviewed 11 coaches from three provinces, all of
whom also have experience at the highest levels of women’s hockey. These
additional interviews, conducted between 1993 and 1995, focused on the practice
of the sport and the organization of women’s hockey in Canada. All of the interviews
were tape-recorded and transcribed.
There is no professional women’s hockey in Canada, and the women who are
the subjects of this research have “day jobs” or are students. Their involvement in
hockey is nonetheless of a very high caliber, and they are committed athletes. For
the purposes of the analysis provided here, it is important to note that the data are
taken from athletes who participate at the highest level of the sport.
In an effort to construct a profile of players’ athletic identities, respon
asked to discuss their “games,” specifically their strengths (and weaknesse
players. Descriptors covered a broad range: being unselfish, commit
play, hard working. Others cited being a digger, having desire, having
being a fast or strong skater. In the midst of this variety, a striking
was the use of the term “aggressive,” in some cases by players who othe
terize their styles and abilities quite differently.
The following are several players’ descriptions of being aggressive
Notable about these statements is the manner in which these women con
of taking initiative, of being powerful and fearless. One player said:
I like to be first to get to the puck. If the other person gets the puck, I want
sure I get them off the puck. And sometimes that’s physically aggressive
always within the rules. Well, . . . usually [laughs]. I will never let another
physically overpower me.
Q.: Never?
Okay, I guess I should say I never want another person to physically ov
me … One of the things I think is my strength is being able to get there firs
stronger one able to manipulate my base of support. Like just to be able to ma
the body to be able to beat them to the puck.
A second woman, who also described her playing style as aggressive,
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Theberge / WOMEN’S HOCKEY 73
I’ve always been a stronger player. I’ve always had the satisfaction of being on top
of people … It’s hard to describe. How can I say it? It’s just knowing that the other
person’s helpless. She can’t do anything. She’s totally out of the play. You’ve just
won … I mean it’s great satisfaction.
This sense of satisfaction was echoed by another player: “It’s great to go into a
corner and come out standing when someone else is on the ground. You’ve done
your job. You’ve got them.” Later in the interview this player spoke of another skill
she felt she had, which is to “keep your cool better than your opponent…. I can
get people to do something stupid to take a penalty when I know I’m not going to
retaliate.” She was then asked to discuss the satisfaction she derives from these
different abilities. Both, she noted, are important to the game, but
I think the most satisfying is the physical. When you run into somebody and you stand
up and they’re down, that makes you feel a lot better than if you outsmarted somebody.
It makes you feel better, the physical part.
For the women quoted above, the experience of sport is one of testing and
extending their physical capacities. Additional accounts of the experience of sport
and athleticism as empowering for women are provided in Blinde, Taub, and Han
(1994), Miller and Penz (1991), and Young and White (1995). While the experience
of personal empowerment is significant for the lives of individual women, the
political potential of sport rests on its ability to challenge dominant ideologies and
structures of gender relations (Young and White 1995). The remainder of the article
examines the potential for political transformation embodied in women’s ice
hockey through an analysis of the construction and practice of the sport.
One of the major determinants of the expression of physicality in
rules and regulations, formal and informal, surrounding the practice
The rules of play in men’s and women’s ice hockey are substantially th
one major difference: the rules of women’s hockey prohibit intent
checking-that is, intentional efforts to hit, or “take out,” an opposi
be sure, there is still considerable use of the body and body contac
hockey, both intentional and unintentional-as indicated by the play
above. To watch a game is to see players constantly try to outmaneu
muscle one another. At the same time, women’s games are noticeably di
the full contact game played at the higher levels of the men’s sport.
checking, the forceful collisions that are a defining feature of men’s ho
levels are largely absent (Theberge 1995).1
Interviews with players and coaches reveal a variety of views abou
nation of body checking from women’s hockey. Respondents genera
results in a game in which speed, strategy, and playing skills are fea
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74 GENDER & SOCIETY / February 1997
prominently than in a full-contact game, which emphasizes power and force.
Beyond this point of agreement, however, lies greater debate about the construction
of women’s hockey, with contrasting assessments of the relation of women’s and
men’s hockey.
Until the late 1980s, the rules regarding body contact in women’s hockey varied
across Canada. The sample of women interviewed for this research includes a
number who have played both full contact and the current game, which prohibits
body checking. These players see advantages to both versions. While most acknowledge the attraction of the game that favors speed and playmaking, a number of
these same players also express a sense of pleasure and accomplishment in playing
the full-contact game and in receiving and taking a body check well. In interviews,
these women describe body checking as “part of the game,” “the way it should be,”
and “part of the fun.” In this view, body checking is a skill, one among a repertoire
of abilities that players can master. The following statement by a player is a representative account:
It’s a certain aggressiveness. You’re putting your strength against, your technique
against. It’s still a technique. It’s not somebody, to me it’s not go and kill that person,
they hurt me, I’m going to get them back. It’s nothing like that. It’s a technique that
you’ve learned and you can complete, and maybe you can complete it better than they
can. You can prove your flexibility and your stamina, your stability on the ice.
This player’s reference to checking as “killing,” “hurting,” and “getting back”
alludes to the view, held by some, that body checking is uncontrolled aggression
often regarded as an occupational requirement in the National Hockey League
(NHL), the professional men’s league. As her comments indicate, it is a view
she rejects.
Other players support the limitations on contact. One woman, who has never
played the full-contact game, said:
I prefer it without. Maybe just because I’ve always played without. You know the
women’s game being a bit different from the men’s game, it may actually be better
without it. I like to think of it as more of a finesse game. And I don’t know if body
contact has any part in it, really if it would enhance it in any way. I mean I think maybe
the reason for having the body contact in the men’s game is possibly just to make it
more exciting to watch. I don’t know. It’s hard to say when you haven’t really played
that much.
Coaches also express a range of views. Some indicate that the women’s game
as it is played today is ideal-it is physical, sometimes very physical, and “just
right” in this regard. Some see the inclusion of body checking as the “wedge” that
leads to the unacceptably rough play that characterizes men’s hockey. One coach
offered the following comments:
I ask myself sometimes, “Would body contact be a good thing?” It could be good if
they stay within the limits, which seems very hard to do. And if the guys didn’t do it,
we’re not smarter than the guys …. Women’s hockey, if you were allowed body
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Theberge / WOMEN’S HOCKEY 75
contact, to me, we’ll end up as guys’ hockey with slashing and cross checking. In my
head, it’s hard to believe it won’t happen.
Other coaches have reservations about, or actively disagree with, the current
formulation. Like some players, these coaches say checking is “part of the game”
and a skill that can be-and should be-taught and used effectively. The argument
that body checking is responsible for the violence that plagues the men’s game is
also disputed. Several respondents noted that women’s hockey already has severe
penalties-usually suspension for several games-that limit the incidence of dirty
play. So long as these sanctions are in place, it is argued, introducing body checking
will not lead to an increased incidence of other, undesirable features of men’s
Efforts to promote women’s hockey often emphasize that it is not only different
from but superior to the men’s game. The superiority, it is argued, lies in the
emphasis on speed and playmaking and in the absence of the violence characteritic
of the men’s game and most dramatically displayed in the fighting that seems a
routine feature of the National Hockey League. The construction of women’s
hockey as different and the effort to promote the game on this basis is an important
aspect of the contemporary ideological struggle surrounding the construction of
sport (Theberge 1995).
A number of players recognized the dilemma of playing an alternative version
of the sport. The player quoted above on the technique of body checking had
extensive experience playing boys’ hockey before moving to women’s hockey in
late adolescence. She commented on the women’s game:
It is a different game and there are different rules … I think a lot of women think it’s
better. But I prefer the game where you’re allowed contact. I grew up playing that
game. I just think it’s different and why make it different… I want to be able to say
I play hockey and [people] understand it’s the same hockey. But now I have to say I
play girls’ hockey. It’s not the same game as boys’ hockey… They’re changing the game.
Another player, whose only experience is in women’s hockey, offered further
commentary. She described her reaction to a seminar she attended during which
an official from the Canadian Hockey Association emphasized the uniqueness of
the game:
When you’re playing a sport, you don’t go out there saying, “OK, I’m a woman. OK,
I have to play like one.” You go out there and you play aggressive, you play your
game and that’s that, whereas people are trying I think to give the image that it’s just
an all-skill game and it’s a woman’s game kind of thing. Basically they were saying
that you know women don’t compare to men. Which is true, when you get to the older
ages. I mean there’s no NHL calibre women in the game right now and that’s fine.
Strength factor and everything, I mean people are going to know that no matter what.
But you don’t have to go around saying that this is a woman’s sport, there’s no contact,
it’s totally skill, and make it sound like it’s a nothing sport either. I think that’s part
of the reason why women’s hockey went nowhere for so many years.
A third player, who played women’s hockey when body checking was allowed,
also expressed cynicism about efforts to de-emphasize the physical aspects and to
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76 GENDER & SOCIETY / February 1997
promote women’s hockey on the basis of its difference from the men’s game. This
player explicitly acknowledged a connection between the rules of play in women’s
hockey and concerns about its image:
It doesn’t make any sense to me. If they want to say, I don’t know, the words feminine,
I don’t like those types of terms, masculine, feminine, all that crap. If they want to do
it [promote women’s hockey], that’s not the way to do it, for my view. Hitting doesn’t
make you any more of a boy than nonhitting. I just don’t know what they are trying
to do.
The practice of the game depends not only on how the rules are written b
on how they are interpreted and enforced. This points to the importan
officiating. In most quarters of women’s hockey, an effort is made to hav
referees for games. This is done to increase the involvement of women, to
role models, and, most important for the practice of the sport, to insure th
are called by officials who are familiar with the women’s game.
The effects of this effort are evident on occasions when the policy can
followed. The most common examples are in large tournaments, in which
or hundreds of games are played over a course of several days. On these o
the limited pool of referees in women’s hockey often is supplemented by
brought over from boys’ and men’s hockey (who are always men). My obse
lead me to suggest that on these occasions complaints about referees incre
most common explanation for poor officiating is that the “borrowed” ref
not know how to interpret and apply the rules of women’s hockey, particula
rules regarding body contact. Players often are frustrated by the inferior re
wherein penalties are called for practices normally allowed or play that is no
restricted is allowed. In either case, the result is a diminished experience for
and spectators alike. In these instances, the limited development of wom
hockey, evident in the need to reach out to men’s hockey for officials, is on
affecting the practice of the game.
Refereeing is also implicated directly in the debate around body checkin
interview sample for this study includes a number of coaches in areas of the
where there is little history of women playing full contact. When aske
reasons for prohibiting body checking, two (of five) respondents from o
jurisdiction volunteered that one reason is to make the game easier to o
These coaches indicate that because officials in women’s hockey are less f
with this aspect of the sport, eliminating contact has the advantage of im
the quality of the refereeing.
A coach from another jurisdiction, one of the most experienced in the c
with extensive involvement in the highest levels of women’s hockey, o
contrasting perspective. This respondent argued that players today are
stronger, and more skilled, such that at higher levels, they are routinely pus
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Theberge / WOMEN’S HOCKEY 77
limits of rules on contact. In deference to “allowing the game to be played,” officials
must rely too heavily on judgments, rather than a clear interpretation of the rules.
In this coach’s view, the rules should be reviewed and rewritten to better reflect and
accommodate both players’ abilities and the game itself as they evolve. In contrast
to the argument that the difficulty of refereeing the game is a basis for removing
full contact, this respondent believes that the challenges posed to officiating by the
development of the game require a reexamination of the rules, and by extension,
the training of officials.
A concern that figures prominently in discussions of physicality
hockey is the risk of injury. During the first year of my fieldwork
benefited from the services of a therapist who worked with the team o
basis. Before games and practices, he ministered to players in the mann
massaging, applying ice, and otherwise attending to their bodies-sho
knees, ankles, hips, backs, and necks. This ministering was part of
change-room activity before the players went on the ice.
The need for a therapist or some other health professional in the ev
of the players was clarified in their accounts of their hockey careers. In
players were asked to discuss their “history” of injuries. The collecti
provide a lengthy list of conditions. Profiles of five players include t
Player A, age 27, has had back problems that she is certain will lead t
separated shoulder, and a broken arm, ankle, and fingers; Player B,
considers her career to be largely injury free identifies only hip and
in addition to “the odd bruise” and groin pulls; Player C, age 26, who
career as largely injury free, suffers a chronically sore back due to a
is permanently out of alignment; Player D, age 28, and one of the few
sees her career as marked by injuries, has had separated shoulders, a b
and other thumb injuries, a hyperextended elbow, shoulder tendinit
fracture, a “blown-out knee,” and a neck injury; Player E, age 30, has ha
disk that kept her on her back for six weeks and a knee injury requiring
surgery, in addition to muscle pulls, sore knees, and turned ankles.
When asked to discuss their injuries, most players initially respo
partial account that was limited to “major” concerns like broken bone
routinely experience bruises, sore joints, muscle pulls, and cuts. Often
omitted from their initial response, and when asked about them, p
indicate, as one did, that these are “minor stuff’ and “you just warm
During the course of my two years with the team, injuries were a regula
and at any given time, one or more players were dealing with major
others were managing less serious conditions. The following is an acc
aspect of team life over the course of a weekend. At a game one Satur
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78 GENDER & SOCIETY / February 1997
noted injuries that were serious enough to be a topic of discussion in the change
room before the game. One player injured a shoulder playing earlier in the week
and intended to play that evening but avoid taking a slap shot (the shot taken with
a big windup) for fear it would cause further damage. Playing was itself a matter
of some risk, as she chanced being hit and further damaging the shoulder. Another
player was not dressed for the game because of an injured knee that would later
require arthroscopic surgery. A third player, nursing a pulled groin muscle for some
time, had come out for her first skate in several weeks and was testing the muscle.
Yet another player was tending a sore wrist, from a play involving a teammate, that
occurred a week earlier. As they dressed before the game, these two players spent
considerable time discussing how the injury had occurred and trying to reconstruct
exactly what had happened. There was no sense of blame or guilt from either
woman; rather, the play was clearly understood as something that “just happens”
in hockey.
The picture developed further in a game the following night. The player who
was already suffering from a groin pull took a skate blade in the same area and left
the game for some minutes but returned. She was not cut but badly bruised and
would be walking and skating very tentatively for more than a week to follow.
Another player was blindsided (hit hard while looking the other way) by an
opposing player and for a few moments lay immobile on the ice. She left the game
but later returned, reporting that she only had the wind knocked out of her. The
player with the sore shoulder played extensively and took several slapshots. When
later asked about this, she said it was too hard to hold back once she started playing.
In addition, she was preparing for an upcoming tryout for the Canadian national
team that would compete at the 1994 World Championships and was eager to get
her game up to par.
There is an important relationship between the players’ experience of injury and
pain and their sense of themselves as skilled athletes. Injury and pain are not an
excuse for less-than-full effort or best performance. Rather, a measure of a player’s
ability is her capacity to play and play well despite these concerns. One player was
asked, “What’s it like to play when you’re injured?” She responded:
In between shifts and before and after the game, you’re very conscious of it. If you’re
in the game and you’re thinking of the game, you should not realize you’re injured.
It could kill you like anything when you stop skating, but when you’re playing you
shouldn’t realize it.
Q.: Does it affect your game?
If you’re capable of playing, then it shouldn’t.
Q.: Are there times when it does?
Well, then you shouldn’t be playing.
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Theberge / WOMEN’S HOCKEY 79
Another player discussed her approach to playing with an injury. Player D,
quoted above as one of the few who sees her career to be marked by getting hurt,
said of most of her injuries,
I played through those. I was able to. I try mostly to, if I can play without really doing
that much more damage then I usually try and play.
Q.: Do you play often with pain then?
I wouldn’t say often. I’d say enough…. Especially now that I’m older [she was 28
at the time] it’s a little more consistent.
Hughes and Coakley (1991, 308) have characterized the acceptance of pain in sport
as “positive deviance,” which they suggest is “caused by an unqualified acceptance
of and an unquestioned commitment to a value system framed by … the sport
ethic.” The sport ethic is what athletes “have come to use as the criteria for defining
what it means to be a real athlete.” This ethic promiently features in the Blades’
value system. Playing through pain is an indication of a player’s ability and an
affirmation of her commitment to her team and her sport.
The relationship between the risk of injury and the place of body checking
one of the contested features of the debate about the construction of women’s
hockey. Some coaches and players believe that a main reason for eliminating body
checking is to reduce the risk of injury. Others dispute this association and believe
that eliminating body checking has actually increased the risk of injury.2 The
explanation is that without checking, there is more illegal contact and stick work.
One player who said, “I think I’ve had more injuries with the no intentional body
checking rule in,” explained the effect of this rule on the practice of the game:
I think because [with no body checking] I’m not expecting some of the hits that I’m
getting because some people don’t play within the rules. And if they can hit you or
hurt you and hit you and put you into the boards or whatever when you’re not
expecting it, which usually I don’t, because I think, no, we play within the rules, they
don’t want to get a penalty, they don’t want to hurt me. You know I’m a nice person
[she laughs]. So I don’t expect it.
Another player offered further explanation:
I think most of the players at first liked the idea of no checking, no intentional body
checking. Some of them I think have come around and said, “hey, yeah, less stick
work.” So okay, say you get frustrated out there and you hit somebody clean and you
know it’s coming, like if you know it’s coming you’re not going to get hurt. That’s
the way I always feel. If… there’s body checking I know I’m going to get hit. Fine.
I know how to go into the boards a little differently…. So with that in mind, yeah, I
prefer the body checking, myself. It’s the game.
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80 GENDER & SOCIETY / February 1997
When asked why players seem to see an inevitable trade-off between checking
and illegal stick work, she explained:
Well because you’ve got to slow them down somehow. You’ve got to get in front of
them somehow and usually if you can’t hit them or at least take a piece of them, that’s
the only thing left. And that’s your stick to slow them down. Myself-unless you can
outskate them. Well, that’s not me.
This player’s comments speak to the view that checking is part of the repertoire of
a hockey player’s skills. When it is not available, players resort to other tactics to
accomplish their task. These tactics include illegal and sometimes dangerous practices.
Other players who spoke of the risks of body checking attributed these risks to
the fact that players are not taught to receive and take checks. One player said that
when there was body checking:
It wasn’t clean at all. Girls aren’t taught how to hit. ‘Cause you don’t hit all the way
up. Then all of a sudden you get to senior A and there’s contact. No one knows how
to hit; sticks are up, hands are up.
A second player provided a similar analysis. When asked about playing the game
when there was body checking, she said:
Well to be honest with you checking was fine but I believe that the women weren’t
taught properly how to check. And there was a lot of injuries, like I was pretty scared
of a few people out there just because I know, they were going to hit you like this
[demonstrates], with their fists up or whatever. If checking had been taught, you know
properly at a young age, just like the boys, they learn checking at a young age up,
then maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Like you know, to take a hit on the boards is fine.
It’s just, I don’t think women know how to check properly.
The experience of injury is also conditioned by the availability of medical a
therapeutic support. In interviews conducted between the two seasons I spent w
the team, players were asked about the importance of having regular access to
services of a qualified therapist or other health professional. Most indicated t
was important, in light of the level and intensity of play and the injuries a
conditions that players contend with over a season. Some cited instances in th
own biographies when such treatment was essential to their ability to play.
This assessment took on a new meaning in the following year, when there w
a personnel change. The therapist who worked with the team on a volunteer b
did not return, and another was unable to maintain a regular commitment. Relian
on volunteers meant that at most games and practices there was no qualified pers
on site to tend to injuries as they occurred and to the players’ ongoing conditio
The absence of a therapist in the second year brought little notice or discuss
among the players. Conversations with players revealed that like bruises and injur
the women saw lack of onsite medical care as a reality of the sport they play.
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Theberge / WOMEN’S HOCKEY 81
is, they understand that in most quarters of women’s hockey, players cannot expect
to have regular access to the services of a qualified therapist or other health
professional (whereas the reality of injuries was a feature of hockey generally,
women’s as well as men’s).
This point was remarked on by one of the more senior players, during a period
in which back problems forced her to miss part of the season. In an earlier interview
this player indicated that when the same condition plagued her in a previous season,
the regular services of the therapist were essential to her ability to play. When asked
to comment on not having a therapist with the team in the current year, she indicated
she was not surprised, that every season is new and has different circumstances.
She then volunteered that if this were a men’s team, there likely would be three
trainers or therapists to work with players.
This discussion has focused on two aspects of the debate around physi
women’s hockey: the risk of injury and the appeal of a full-contact versi
sport versus one that prohibits body checking but is nonetheless very
Debate over these issues occurs within a material and ideological contex
conditions the practice of the sport.
Suggestions that a “problem” with body checking is that girls are not tau
skill complement the observation that eliminating checking improves the
making it easier to officiate. Both imply that the “problem” with checki
the practice, per se, but limitations in the organization of the sport regardin
and skill development of athletes and officials.
The discussion of injuries also offers a critique of material conditions.
identified the availability of medical and therapeutic support as importa
tions of their participation, in light of the intensity of the game and the inj
incur over the course of a season. Yet, among the teams that competed in th
reported on here-which offers the highest caliber of competition b
international level-the presence of qualified medical and therapeutic pers
the exception rather than the rule.
Some respondents linked their support for the inclusion of body chec
women’s hockey to the professionalization of the sport. When asked abou
for the prohibition of body checking, a coach and a player both responde
people [we] aren’t being paid to play” and “they [we] have to get up and g
the next day.” Another coach who endorsed the inclusion of body check
on to note that it would only be feasible if the game were organized prof
and women could earn a living by their efforts. In effect, he was arguin
structure that offers material rewards to athletes commensurate with their
investment and commitment.
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82 GENDER & SOCIETY / February 1997
Gender equality has received increased attention in many sports, including hockey,
in recent years (Williams 1995). Calls for better training of players, coaches, and
officials, and improved material conditions, including medical support, are an
important aspect of the struggle within women’s hockey to gain legitimation. At
the same time, this struggle heightens the significance of the debate around the con-
struction of the sport. As women players become bigger, stronger, and more skilled
and as the practice of the game becomes more intense and physical, the question
“How should women play hockey?” raises the ideological stakes.
Women’s hockey is played in a cultural context in which men’s sport is hegemonic. This view that body checking is an integral”part of the game” is emblematic
of hockey as it has historically been conceptualized, practiced, and epitomized by
the National Hockey League. Debates about what version of the game is most
appealing, and the relation between physicality and the incidence of dirty play,
occur in a context in which this version has been positioned as the “real” game and
the model against which others have been compared and evaluated (Theberge 1995).
The dominance of the “NHL model” of hockey is under challenge today not only
from women’s hockey but also from within boys’ hockey, about which parents and
officials have expressed concern. Targets of criticism in boys’ hockey are the style
of play, which emphasizes intimidation and domination, and the competitive and
elitist system that eliminates boys by early adolescence boys who are unable to
perform by these standards. In response to these concerns, some provincial and
local hockey associations have implemented programs that prohibit body checking,
reduce the emphasis on winning, and stress the enjoyment of participation (Gruneau
and Whitson 1993). Other alternatives to the dominant model are recreational men’s
leagues that prohibit body checking in the interests of safety and make the game
more attractive to participants. As Gruneau and Whitson (1993, 162) note, however,
“NHL-style customs and values remain those ones that really ‘count’ in the subculture of Canadian hockey.”
The dominance of men’s hockey provides the background to much of the debate
over the construction of the women’s game. Against this background, to argue that
women’s hockey need not be the same as men’s is to position the women’s game
as not only different from but inferior to the “real” game. Alternatively, to argue
women should play the same game as men is to capitulate to the violence and other
problems that plague men’s hockey. Within the confines of a debate structured by
the model of the “NHL style” of play, the challenge posed by women’s hockey to
dominant views of how the game should be played is severely diminished.
As noted, some of the players and coaches interviewed for this research dispute
the contention that playing by the same rules as men will inevitably lead to the
reproduction of the problems in men’s hockey. They argue that women’s hockey
can be constructed, and the rules enforced, in a way that eliminates the violence
and other unacceptable features of the men’s game while including full body
contact. Some contest the view that body checking increases the rate of injury. These
views are significant because they suggest that debate about the construction of the
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Theberge / WOMEN’S HOCKEY 83
women’s game should not be contained by the practices and experiences of men’s
hockey. These arguments, however, are rarely part of the public discussion of
women’s hockey.
The prohibition of body checking is central to a strategy to promote women’s
hockey by emphasizing its differences from the men’s game.3 While the game
clearly is different from men’s hockey in the absence of body checking, evidence
of troubling similarities is provided in the discussion of pain and injury in women’s
hockey. A growing body of literature examines the violence inflicted on athletic
bodies through the routinization of pain and injury in sport. Initial interest in this
issue focused on male athletes (Curry 1993; Messner 1990; Young 1993; Young,
White, and McTeer 1994). More recent work has extended the discussion to women.
Young and White (1995) examined experiences of pain and injury among a sample
of elite women athletes who had incurred a variety of injuries, including broken
bones, separated shoulders, dislocated knee caps, and herniated disks. These athletes
normalized the presence of pain in their lives, through strategies of denial and
“disrespect” or indignation toward painful injuries. Citing comparisons with earlier
work they conducted with male athletes, Young and White (1995, 51) identify
similarities in the acceptance of physical danger and injury and conclude that “if
difference exists between the way male and female athletes in our projects appear
to understand pain and injury, it is only a matter of degree.” In a study of university
students, Nixon (1996) found higher pain thresholds among athletes than nonathletes and no significant gender differences in their acceptance of pain.
Injury and pain were routine features of the lives of the hockey players examined
here. For these athletes, overcoming injury and pain is a measure of both ability
and commitment. Like the athletes Young and White (1995) studied, the hockey
players in this study showed little critical awareness of the physical dangers of their
sport participation. In interviews, players were asked to comment on the element
of risk in women’s hockey. Most denied that it was risky, often following this
assessment with rationalizations about the presence of danger in everyday life, for
example, the possibility of being hit by a car while crossing a street. The increasing
evidence that women athletes readily accept violence inflicted on their bodies in
competitive sport suggests an incorporation, rather than resistance, the dominant
model of men’s sport.
Testimony provided at the outset of this discussion indicates the satisfaction and
sense of accomplishment women hockey players derive from their sport participation. These sentiments are directly tied to the physicality of sport and the possibility
for the exercise of skill and force in athletic competition. A number of writers
(MacKinnon 1987; Theberge 1987; Whitson 1994) have identified these features
as the basis of sport’s potential to challenge traditional ideologies of gender and
empower women. While women hockey players experience empowerment from
their sport participation, the challenge to masculine hegemony posed by the sport
is diminished in two key ways.
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84 GENDER & SOCIETY / February 1997
The transformative possibilities of women’s sport are seriously compromised
by the uncritical adoption of a “sport ethic” (Hughes and Coakley 1991) that celebrates
toughness in the face of physical violence. One of the troubling ironies of improved
material resources in women’s hockey is that players now have greater affinities
with a system that normalizes injury and pain.
Ideologically, the challenge to masculine hegemony is weakened by the location
of the debate about the practice of women’s hockey within a framework that
positions men’s hockey as the “real” game. While women’s hockey provides clear
and compelling refutation of the myth of female frailty, the potential of the sport to
challenge traditional ideologies of gender is diminished by its construction as a
milder version of the sport that “really counts.”
The analysis presented here suggests the complexities inherent in women’s
involvement in “flag carrier” sports such as ice hockey. Drawing from Connell’s
(1983) observation that every sport involves a balance between force and skill,
Whitson (1994) suggests that the more force is decisive, the more a physically
dominating hegemonic masculinity can be celebrated and the more likely it is that
the culture of sport will be part of the defense of the existing gender order. Whitson
acknowledges that sports such as hockey and football do allow for empowerment
in the absence of domination and cites testimony from former NHL player Eric
Nesterenko (in Terkel 1974) on the pleasure of performing the skills required in ice
hockey. This pleasure, however, was never allowed to be the central purpose of
participation and usually was subordinated by the quest for victory, a quest that
demanded an emphasis on force and domination. This quest, Whitson argues,
becomes the norm in organized male sport at an early age.
Empowerment is perhaps more readily available through activities separate from
the dominant model of masculine sport. The most well known examples are
activities engaged in outside organized sport, such as running and cycling. Another
important example is aerobics. From its beginnings in the fitness boom of the 1970s,
aerobics has been promoted mainly among women. For some women, aerobics has
provided a safe space in which to pursue physical activity in an all-female
setting, free from the competitive pressures of institutionalized sport (Hargreaves
Possibilities for challenge to masculine hegemony also exist within the context
of team sports. An example is provided in Birrell and Richter’s (1987) account of
a women’s recreational softball league. The women Birrell and Richter interviewed
consciously rejected the view that the dominant model of sport, which many
referred to as the “male model,” is the only “real” version. Informed by this belief,
they rejected an excessive emphasis on winning and domination and an ethic of
endangerment that values performance over safety. Instead, they actively worked
to construct and practice their own vision of sport, which emphasized the pleasure
and satisfaction of participation and the development of physical skills in a
supportive context.
In an analysis of the historical significance of sport for the politics of gender
relations, Messner (1988) argues women’s increasing athleticism represents a
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Theberge / WOMEN’S HOCKEY 85
genuine quest for equality. This quest, however, is marked by contradictions and
ambiguities over the socially constructed meanings of sport and gender. Messner
concludes that in the contemporary period the women athlete is “contested ideological terrain.” This ideological struggle occurs across a variety of settings. The
above brief accounts of aerobics and recreational softball suggest possibilities for
challenge to masculine hegemony in contexts removed from institutionalized sport.
The transformative power of each, however, is limited. In many aerobics classes
and videos, the idealized version of feminine athleticism is “firm but shapely, fit
but sexy, strong but thin” (Markula 1995). The sexualization of women’s physicality counters the progressive possibilities contained within aerobics.
While the vision of sport realized in women’s recreational softball is a genuine
challenge to masculine hegemony, its marginalization within women’s communities diminishes its impact on broader ideologies and gender relations. Nonetheless,
in its commitment to an ethic of care and personal empowerment, this vision is
important as a model for change in the world of sport and beyond.
The cultural struggle in women’s hockey also is conditioned by its relation to
the dominant model. Unlike the recreational softball community studied by Birrell
and Richter (1987), in which participants consciously challenged the “male model,”
the struggle within elite-level women’s hockey occurs largely within a value system
regulated by this model. While women’s hockey provides participants with pleasure
and a sense of personal empowerment, it does so in a context that reproduces the
problems of institutionalized sport. A more fully transformative vision of hockey
would offer empowerment in a setting that rejects violence and the normalization
of injury in favor of an ethic of care.
1. As indicated, while there is considerable contact in women’s hockey, the rules prohibit inten
body checking. The distinction between body checking and contact is often blurred in discus
including some of the interview excerpts provided here, in which the women’s game is descr
2. Interviews with women who played full contact hockey during the 1980s reveal that part of the
collective memory of the league in which the Blades compete is stories of particular hits and players
who had an especially forceful game. While these stories are an important part of the history of the sport,
there are no data to test the relationship between playing full-contact hockey and rates of injury. Some
believe that to the extent body checking increases injuries, this is “limited” to serious injuries such as
broken bones.
3. The main challenge to the prohibition against body checking comes not domestically but within
the International Ice Hockey Federation, in which some countries argue for the inclusion of body
checking in international women’s hockey. Proponents of the rule change generally are from countries
where development lags behind that in Canada and the United States, the dominant countries in the
sport. Because the inclusion of body checking is generally agreed to slow the game down and reduce
the advantage of superior playing skills, body checking is thought to offer an advantage to weaker teams.
(My thanks to Elizabeth Etue for information on this issue.) It should be noted that it is unlikely that
Canadian support for prohibiting body checking arises out of a concern for a loss of competitive
dominance should the rules be changed. The first World Championships in 1990 were played with body
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86 GENDER & SOCIETY / February 1997
checking. Canada won this tournament, as well as subsequent tournaments in 1992 and 1994 played
without body checking.
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Nancy Theberge is Professor at the University of Waterloo, where she holds ajoint appointment
in the Departments of Kinesiology and Sociology. Her research is in the sociology of sport and
physical activity, the sociology of the body, and gender relations. She is currently working on a
book on women’s ice hockey in Canada.
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