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Hockey is for Everyone: No more Sister Golden Hair

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The NHL has a long way to go on its efforts for inclusion and diversity.

2018 Honda NHL All-Star Game Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

— Will you meet me in the middle, will you meet me in the air? Will you love me just a little, just enough to show you care? Well, I tried to fake it, I don’t mind sayin’, I just can’t make it. —

I was born to a woman who thought she couldn’t have a daughter. Three boys in twice as many years meant that by the time I was a thought in her head, it wasn’t even a question of if she’d have another boy, but when. As much as my parents wanted a girl, they had already accepted the reality that they wouldn’t get that chance.

For my entire life, I’ve been told this story: there were complications when I was born and it was hours before my parents got the chance to see me. My mother, who had been knocked out for the procedure, refused to believe that they’d had a girl until they wheeled her out into the giant nursery of the hospital near the navy base where my dad worked. And when they finally got me — a month premature baby girl with tufts of blonde hair — back in their room and in their arms, my parents sang “Sister Golden Hair” to me.

It’s a great story, really.

But what it does is explain that, despite how desperately my parents wanted a daughter, they were unprepared for that reality from before I was ever born.

For my entire life, I have been the afterthought. When planning activities for four kids, the easiest route is appealing to the majority and that majority happened to be boys. At some point, the nickname for me was no longer “Sister Golden Hair,” but “Dirty Sally,” a moniker I earned by pulling out my pigtails and playing outside with my brothers. I was deemed a “tomboy,” but what other opportunities did I have? With four kids and a limited income, it was all but impossible to make room for traditionally feminine interests.

I learned how to snowboard and competed at a time when there weren’t enough girls to give me a division to compete in. I played street hockey and inline skated. I’d come home with bruises and the braids in my hair knotted.

The thing is, I loved it. But I knew it was never meant for me to love.

My dad didn’t buy me a snowboard because he thought I’d enjoy it. He wasn’t thinking of me when he would pack up the four of us for Kalamazoo Wings hockey games. He did it because the boys wanted to and he couldn’t leave me out. The fact that I fell in love with these things became a convenient by-product for my parents.

I was able to pursue other interests as I grew older. I took piano lessons and dance classes and started theatre. These were the things I was told were meant for me. It wasn’t that I loved them any less, but I loved them differently. Ultimately, I stuck with them for so long because I had started to realize how exhausting it is to love something that doesn’t love you back. The world of theatre was curated for a bisexual woman like me and the relief I felt pouring my heart into something that never made me feel like I didn’t belong was immeasurable.

After college, I found my way back to sports. Fueled by a particularly tricky bout of depression and a childhood love of hockey, I threw myself in with everything I had.

And slowly, a familiar feeling crept over me.

It wasn’t one big thing — though, of course, there were many big things that have happened to remind me I’m not wanted. But there was a culmination of small things on top of it. Things like having to buy men’s fangear because the women’s section is full of things like a cheap lipgloss with a logo slapped on it, or cheetah print sandals, or team logo thong underwear. Things like “Ladies Night” events that include wine and treat female sports fandom as a novelty inspired by their husbands.

The bigger things hurt more. Players dropping homophobic slurs. Organizations defending players who are good at hockey, but rape and assault women. Seeing my work get criticized on an extra layer based on my gender and sexuality.

More often than not, I’m the only woman in any given press box I’m in. I have to worry about the way I dress being criticized by men who think a polo is a dress shirt. I have to find ways to navigate the men who surround me in sports still only seeing me as something to pursue instead of someone who is there to work and do the same job as they are. I have to do all of this without offending them, because being a woman makes my position something that could go away at any second.

Two years ago, my dad — a life-long Red Wings fan — told me that I know more about hockey than he does and it was a victory I felt in my bones.

The NHL isn’t much different from my parents. They never planned on having a queer daughter with depression fall in love with something deemed traditionally masculine.

But I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. And I’m not the only one.

February is Hockey Is For Everyone Month, something set aside for organizations to promote equality in this sport across the board, including racial, gender, sexuality, economic equality, among others. They’ve partnered with You Can Play, whose message is simple: “If you can play, you can play.”

It’s a great thought. But when the month is over, and the Pride Tape packed away, there’s another Sister Golden Hair out there putting her skates in the back of the closet, never to be seen again. There’s someone deciding to keep themselves in the closet based on how the people around them reacted to the likes of Andrew Shaw and Ryan Getzlaf using slurs on the ice. There are still kids begging their parents to let them play hockey and their parents having to find a way to tell them they can’t afford the equipment without breaking their heart. There are kids falling in love with the sport, but wondering why no one playing looks like them.

We get a month, but we get so little action while there’s still so much work to be done.

This month on Fear the Fin, we will be taking the opportunity to learn and listen to those whose life experiences don’t match up with the idealism of “if you can play, you can play.” We’ll be highlighting those fans’ stories, as well as organizations and sites run by marginalized fans, and talk about the history of inclusion in this sport and where to go from here.

Inclusion starts by recognizing our differences and learning about each other’s needs. At the end of the month, I hope we can all walk away a little kinder and a little more open.

But what I hope more than anything, is for the NHL to start planning for those daughters, those people of color, those LGBT kids. There’s only going to be more of us.