A database search tells me it was Saturday, March 21, 2009. I was on the sports desk and putting together a package of hockey notes. Among them was an item about Montreal’s team in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League winning the inaugural Clarkson Cup, a trophy designed as the women’s hockey version of the Stanley Cup.
A hockey championship for a Montreal team, and it was essentially a brief.
I helped it a bit by taking a photo of the team with the cup that the league had put out through Canada Newswire. If there wasn’t going to be much text, there could at least be a nice photo. But there’s just so much an editor can do without copy.
Three years later, Montreal has won its third championship and women’s “professional” hockey is being taken a bit more seriously. The Gazette had a story advancing the tournament, and had a freelance story about the championship final afterward, though there wasn’t a photographer so we had to use a file photo to illustrate the story.
The championship game was televised. On TSN2. On tape delay.
Gazette hockey writer Pat Hickey wrote a column about the Stars, about how women’s hockey is still far from professional, and the players have to spend their own money to participate. But, as he points out, it’s getting better. They have to pay less, partly because more people are going out to see the games. As in more than 200, paying $5 a pop.
I wanted to go see a Stars match this season, but my work schedule didn’t give me an opportunity. By the time I could find the time, they weren’t playing any more home games.
Okay, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League has a lot of work to do. It only has six teams, for one, and one of them doesn’t play a full season because it would require too much travel.
But if there’s any hockey team that deserves support, it’s them. A championship team with locally-bred stars (many Olympic champions) who play not because they get millions of dollars for it but because of their love for the game. A team who, despite having dirt-cheap ticket prices can’t draw a significant crowd at home games.
They are, in just about every sense, the anti-Canadiens.
But public support is tied with media support. The Stars and other CWHL teams are covered as much as amateur and university sports. Local media send dozens of people to every Canadiens game even after they’ve been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, but nobody is seriously covering the Stars.
I’ve used this team as an example when talking to young people who want to get their start in journalism. When they say they want to cover the Canadiens, I wonder: Why? What could you possibly report about this hockey team that dozens of veteran professionals haven’t already dug up and rehashed ad nauseam?
Yeah, it’s cool to go to Canadiens games and sit in the press box (or so I assume – I’ve never been). But journalism is about finding out things everyone else doesn’t already know. And there’s little opportunity for that at the Bell Centre.
And yet, across town, there’s a team of dedicated hockey players who would be happy to grant you interviews, to talk at length about their games and their lives without resorting to sports clichés. There’s an opportunity for a young journalist to own a beat that nobody else seems to care about, to instantly become the expert in something rather than a forgettable also-ran in an overcrowded dressing room. An opportunity to uncover fascinating stories about real-life people who are at the height of athleticism while others celebrate the chance to be the seventh person to ask Mathieu Darche what his favourite food is.
It’s a golden opportunity, but nobody is taking advantage of it.
When I brought this up with one up-and-comer in the journalism industry, his response was that he doesn’t really care about women’s hockey, but he is very interested in the Canadiens.
I can’t tell him he’s wrong. I understand why a fan would feel that way. But I don’t understand how a journalist would.
UPDATE: The New York Times, of all things, has a story about the CWHL and the Stars along the same lines.