In late November, in the first period of a regular season National Hockey League game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Keith Yandle, a defenseman for the Florida Panthers, took a puck to the face and left the ice, bleeding profusely. About an hour later, Yandle returned for the third period, minus nine teeth. (This is basically equivalent to taking a long lunch to have an appendectomy.) It was reported afterwards that Yandle would not miss any further time, and thus his “Ironman streak” of what at the time was 821 consecutive NHL games played would continue, unbroken.
Let’s review: An established, respected player for whom nothing—not the Stanley Cup, not even a playoff spot—is immediately at stake, gets nine—nine!—teeth knocked out of his mouth, then misses only twenty minutes of play, likely because it took that long for the team’s trainers to stop the bleeding. For while hockey offers—some might even say encourages—ample opportunities to make people bleed, it forbids players from staying on the ice if they are actively bleeding.
So, is Keith Yandle a crazy person who should at the very least have spent the rest of the night in the press box with an ice pack? Or is he an icon, an elite embodiment of that essential hockey quality known as grit (or sometimes, sarcastically, “#grit”)? Standard dictionaries define grit as pluck, determination, fortitude, and strength of character, but does staying out on the ice even after involuntary dental work rearranges your face really show “strength of character”? Or does it reveal something else—say, a toxic culture, resistant to change, rooted in pain, silence, and sacrifice?
Enter Gritty. In case you were wondering where the Philadelphia Flyers’ wildly popular, Muppetish orange mascot got his name, it’s because old-school hockey culture prizes grit above all else. Yet the definition of grit explains little or nothing about Gritty; in fact, Gritty has been embraced enthusiastically by the very fans who view traditional “grit” as a downside of the game, as opposed to its defining characteristic. Grit represents everything these fans hate about the sport they love. Grit killed Derek Boogaard. Grit demands quick and vicious retaliation for real or perceived offenses. Grit keeps players on the ice at all costs, even after they shatter bones far bigger than teeth. (When the New York Rangers’ Lias Andersson recently requested a trade, he complained that coaches had forced him to play on two broken feet. According to his agent, Andersson’s were so misshapen that he could no longer wear skates.)
No one understands exactly how the Philadelphia Flyers, Gritty’s parent organization, first created and then embraced a mascot one fan described as an “enby socialist chaos demon.” (Flyers reps confirm that Gritty is nonbinary and uses “they/them” pronouns.) What has become clear is the fault line running through hockey’s comparatively small community, with #grit on one side and Gritty on the other.
Where you fall on #grit vs. Gritty likely correlates with how you feel about Jeremy Roenick, former NHLer and potentially former talking head for the NHL on NBC Sports, who, just before Christmas, made inappropriate comments on a podcast called, coincidentally, Spittin’ Chiclets. (In hockey parlance, chiclets are teeth, just in case that wasn’t clear.) Spittin’ Chiclets is hosted by Barstool Sports, an outlet best known for its shamelessly sexist slogan, “Saturdays Are For the Boys”; your grit feels may correlate with that, too.
No one was surprised that Roenick, who looks and sounds like one of Berke Breathed’s “Bloom County” frat boys come to life, appeared on the podcast. Some, however, had the good grace to be flabbergasted that he used the platform to speculate, out loud, about his chances of group sex with his NBC Sports co-anchor, Kathryn Tappen. (When asked if he might also have sex with Patrick Sharp, the McDreamy-esque male member of the NBC Sports broadcast team, Roenick replied that he “wouldn’t say no right away.”) NBC Sports, to its credit, suspended Roenick indefinitely. Tappen released a statement: “While Jeremy and I continue to be good friends, what he said was unacceptable, especially among workplace colleagues. I do not condone his comments.”
Tappen’s choice of words reveals the dark side of the sport’s unofficial motto, “Hockey is for everyone.” Intended to signal inclusivity, “hockey is for everyone” might also suggest that, to be part of hockey, fans must accept the unacceptable and “continue to be good friends” with people whose comments they can’t condone—even when those comments objectify or dehumanize them. By this definition, fans and players with concerns about hockey’s sexism, racism, and homophobia (not to mention the NHL’s refusal to officially acknowledge CTE) aren’t helping to fulfill the sport’s other professed goal, to “grow the game.” They just need a little more #grit.
I love hockey. I love the dry scrape of blades on ice, the dull boom of puck on boards. I love how difficult it is, and that playing the sport at any level requires an elaborate concatenation of otherwise useless abilities. Seriously—try to do anything a hockey player does, from the moment they step into the rink. Even lacing up skates requires skill, not to mention standing on them, moving quickly across ice on them, and using them to carry the puck at high speed through opponents who want it badly enough to knock out nine of your teeth. (I should mention that I also love Keith Yandle, who spent a depressing stint being wasted by the New York Rangers.)
I even played hockey myself, terribly and long ago, in high school, and for one year in college. But the New York Rangers’ ill-fated Stanley Cup run in 2014 sucked me all the way in. I bought tickets, merch, and, for the first time in my adult life, a cable package, so I could watch all the games. And I wrote Facebook posts, tweets, and finally essays, which landed me an unpaid gig at a site for marginalized sports fans (which, for hockey at least, includes essentially everyone who isn’t cis, male, straight, and white) called The Other Half.
In any other sport, my story would dead-end here, but hockey is so small and so strange, simultaneously accessible and inscrutable, that new voices get noticed. Within a few months of blogging for The Other Half, I was invited to write for the leading Rangers fan page, part of the beleaguered consortium SB Nation. This was due in part to my connections with New York media people, but also to the fact that Americans just don’t care that much about hockey. According to Statista, as of 2019 the NHL ranked significantly behind the NFL, MLB, and NBA in popularity, coming in just a smidge ahead of Major League Soccer. (No women’s leagues ranked at all.)
One day, I was dipping a cautious toe into hockey Twitter; next thing I knew, I was sinking into a velvet sofa in the back of a Tag Heuer store on Fifth Avenue, beaming like an idiot at the Rangers’ famously handsome, future Hall of Fame goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, while trying frantically to record our conversation on my storage-full phone. (Reader, I failed.) Had I suddenly fallen for the Yankees instead, the likelihood of a similar sit-down with A-Rod would be only slightly greater than my chances of starting at shortstop.
My first lesson in sports media (after “back up your phone”): Never cheer in the press box. My second: Sportswriters spend a lot of time waiting around, ranking and revising their questions to optimize whatever time they get with whoever shows up. If the sport is hockey, this waiting will likely be near ice, and thus freezing cold. As I was when, less than a month after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, I attended a media event at Lasker Rink to celebrate Dunkin Donuts’ sponsorship of both men’s and women’s hockey.
The complex at Lasker consists of two rinks, side by side. Ryan McDonagh, then-captain of the Rangers, was there to accept an oversized check on behalf of Ice Hockey in Harlem, a non-profit organization that offers athletic and academic programs to neighborhood children. A couple dozen of those kids were present, as well as members of the other youth league that plays at Lasker, the Central Park Hawks. McDonagh frolicked with the kids, who chased him around the ice slashing at his ankles like gnomes trying to fell a giant. Fortunately, since it was a Dunkin’ Donuts event, I had all the hot coffee I could drink while I waited to interview McDonagh. But I couldn’t figure out how to ask my most pressing question, which was why the fuck the Ice Hockey in Harlem kids, most of whom were black, were playing on a separate rink from the Lasker Hawks, almost all of whom were white.
McDonagh spent time on both rinks, with both groups of kids, separately but equally. (Mentally, I christened the rinks “Plessy” and “Ferguson”; it seems fitting that Trump has since plastered his name on the rink as well.) I’m sure there were multiple logistical reasons for this division, on someone’s part, in terms of space and access and figuring out how many of who should be where and when. For me, though, it wasn’t just that the optics were terrible; it was that I couldn’t find anyone else who cared that the optics were terrible, much less what they suggested about the actualities of the event, its personnel, and the sport it was meant to be growing.
I mention this not only because I should have mentioned it a long time ago, but also because it aligns, disturbingly, with the fact that, out of 700+ NHL players, only approximately thirty (four percent) are black. And far too many hockey fans think this percentage is just fine. (Willie O’Ree, the first black man to play in the NHL, was not inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame until 2018.) Whether you think the sport should do something about this probably also aligns with your opinion on grit, Yandle’s teeth, Roenick’s suspension, and the firing of the ludicrously-suited longtime Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster Don Cherry.
In November, Sportsnet terminated Cherry after a diatribe in which he lambasted immigrants for not wearing red poppies to honor members of the Canadian military for Remembrance Day (Canada’s Memorial Day). Referring to immigrants as “You people,” Cherry claimed that “you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey,” and “at least you could pay a couple bucks for poppies or something like that…[the military] paid for your way of life.” The NHL made a statement acknowledging Cherry’s forty years of service but supporting his dismissal: “the opinions [Cherry] expressed are in direct conflict with the values of diversity and inclusion that we embrace as pillars of the sport.”
“Pillar” seems like too strong a word for the “values” the powers-that-be “embrace” only when it suits them. Later that same November, then-head coach of the Calgary Flames, Bill Peters, quit over allegations that he had called former player Akim Aliu a n—– back in 2010, when Peters was coach of the Rockford Ice Hogs. In 2011, the team’s equipment managers even dressed up as Aliu for Halloween—in blackface. Aliu had nowhere to turn. “If you play the race card, it’s most likely the end of your career,” he told TSN (The Sports Network). The whiteness of the sport makes hockey a safe space for racists, like the fans who threatened and taunted Detroit Red Wings prospect Givani Smith so relentlessly that he required a police escort for a 2018 playoff game.
Bill Peters, it turned out, also kicked and punched multiple players, who were expected to simply take it. In hockey, you don’t bleed on the ice, and you don’t complain off it—another instance in which grit seems less like pluck and more like pathology.
Dan Carcillo has spent a lot of time thinking about the difference. A former journeyman enforcer who, since the death of his former teammate and best friend Steve Montador from CTE-related depression, has dedicated his retirement to advocating for better concussion protocols and mental health treatment, Carcillo told the CBC: “They prey on young men’s dreams. If you say a word, all of the work and time and energy and sweat and blood is all for naught. So you do whatever they tell you to do and take whatever abuse they throw your way. You shut up.”
These days, fewer fans are shutting up, and the NHL and broadcasters actually seem to be listening. Enter Black Girl Hockey Club, an organization that seems fantastic until you realize that it shouldn’t have to exist in the first place. Founded by Renee Hess in 2018, the Club works to create a supportive community for women of color who often feel out of place at hockey games and events. Hess told me via email that, “as a queer, black woman, hockey hasn’t always been the most welcoming to me or folks who look like me. Racism, homophobia, and sexism are rampant in the hockey community, simply because hockey has, historically, been for cisgender, straight, white men.” Hess hopes to change that by providing safety, support, and visibility for fans like her, but she’s very aware of what she’s up against: “I enjoy hockey in spite of the fact that the relationship between my identity and the sport of hockey is tenuous, at best.”
Still, Hess’s outreach has paid off. BGHC has coordinated events with the Washington Capitals, the Carolina Hurricanes, the New Jersey Devils, and other NHL organizations. Hockey’s smallness helped to amplify her voice; at the same time, however, it has also consolidated the community that sees fans like Hess as whiny social justice warriors, and stories like Smith’s and Aliu’s as insignificant ruptures in the clean white sheen of their beloved sport.
Consider the case of John Vanbiesbrouck, the former Rangers goalie who, while coaching in the minors in 2003, referred to his team’s captain, Trevor Daley, using a racial slur. Daley’s teammates reported the incident, and Vanbiesbrouck resigned. Four years later, far from “cancelled,” “Beezer” was inducted into the US Hockey Hall of Fame; today, he serves as the assistant executive director of operations for USA Hockey, and is responsible for choosing players to represent the US in international competitions, including the Olympics. The team from which he resigned as coach retired the number he wore as a player. For the hockey powers that be, Vanbiesbrouck’s racist behavior was just a blip in an otherwise-illustrious career, easily forgotten—for some.
Andrew, a features writer for The Victory Press who focuses on transgender issues, considers this par for the course. “[Hockey’s] homogeneity has led to very narrow parameters for what is acceptable to discuss,” he explained. “Hockey narratives follow strict conventions because of that homogeneity.” A fascination with the way hockey stories are told inspired playwright Liza Birkenmeier to create Islander, a play about the New York Islanders’ ill-fated 2017-18 season, which repurposes verbatim sports coverage of the team to construct and explore a crisis in white male identity. Early in the play, the protagonist tells the audience, “Really, I have been as advertised. I’ve been a hardworking, gritty guy.”
This crisis speaks of course to our Trumpian moment, a time when the adage “stick to sports” has been repurposed to demonstrate the impossibility of isolating politics and entertainment into separate spheres. (See for instance the recent Saturday Night Live skit “White Male Rage,” a response to the overwhelmingly male stories in the running for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars.) But hockey’s stage is so small and its voices so loud that the drama feels both easier to follow and harder to ignore. For some, it’s simply not worth the constant ethical recalibration. I know several knowledgeable, committed hockey fans and writers—mostly women, almost all queer—who decided at some point that they simply could not support the NHL any more, in any fashion. Zöe Hayden, editor of The Victory Press, explained her decision to me via email:
Getting into women’s hockey took a lot of my focus starting in 2014, so I was gradually disengaging from the NHL, but I was holding onto being a Penguins fan because it felt like such a part of me. But eventually it became obvious that any emotional attachment I was feeling towards the NHL or the Pens was really nostalgic at best, and I wasn’t getting anything productive from it in my life. The last straw though was definitely after the Penguins’ repeat championship in 2017 when they then went to meet with Trump in the White House. The whole league honestly became dead to me at that point. I had absolutely no joy in it anymore because of the very obvious, rather than implicit, evidence that nothing about the NHL (or really anything in major men’s pro sports) is part of the world I want to live in.
Fans and writers who share Hayden’s sentiments often use the phrase “200 hockey men” to describe the NHL’s more reactionary elements. This catchphrase was inadvertently (and unironically) coined in 2017 by Mark Spector, a writer for Sportsnet. “Conduct a poll of 200 hockey men, and it might be unanimous: Edmonton got what it needed in that deal,” Spector wrote, conjuring the image of an authoritative all-male tribunal for the adjudication of hockey takes. “200 hockey men” has now become shorthand not only for the sport’s literally toxic masculinity, but also its unwavering faith in people, practices, and narratives that simply refuse to change.
For many fans, women’s hockey has long offered a more welcoming, less “problematic” alternative to the NHL. Meredith Foster, a writer for SB Nation’s women’s hockey site The Ice Garden, explains, “LGBTQ+ visibility is much higher in women’s hockey than it is over on the men’s side: players are out, reporters are out, fans are out. There’s a clear sense of community and connection.” This connection has been both visibly and legally reinforced by intermarriage across the game’s biggest rivalry: former Team USA captain Julie Chu and former Team Canada captain Caroline Ouellette have been together since 2005; they have one daughter, Liv, and another on the way. Meghan Duggan of the USA and Gillian Apps of Canada wed in 2018, and are expecting their first child next month. These relationships seem to promise a different set of stories, new narratives for a new, more progressive generation of fans. Even the game the women play, intensely physical but without the hitting and fighting so prized by a certain strata of NHL fans, seems more sustainable than the NHL version (although it is worth noting that men’s college and international competitions also prohibit fighting.)
When the National Women’s Hockey League came on the scene in 2015, the only professional women’s league in North America, the CWHL, was based in Canada (with one team in Boston) and did not pay its players. Still, it was the only post-collegiate game in town, and women who weren’t part of the Olympic program but didn’t want to drop their gloves for good had no other choice. The NWHL seemed to offer an alternative, one that not only kept US players stateside, but also scheduled all games within driving distance of each other. Dani Rylan, the league’s peppy, personable commissioner, seemed to be everywhere; at the same time, she was weirdly unwilling to reveal the new league’s financial foundations.
Cracks were visible almost immediately. The first game I attended featured the Boston Pride, a squad made up almost entirely of the US women’s Olympic team, against the New York Riveters, a lovable, motley collection of college standouts and beer leaguers. The Riveters made up for an 8-1 loss on home ice by happily beating the shit out of their elite opponents. (Imagine a sequel to Slap Shot in which Wayne Gretzky gets jumped by the Hanson brothers.) At the end of the game, I saw Hilary Knight, alternate captain of the US team, screaming at someone on the phone, in tears. Whoever it was—agent? mother?—Knight was right to be upset: The game had been unsafe, the officials were unprepared, and it was unclear exactly who was in charge.
I think of that moment often now as a harbinger of discord to come. It seemed inevitable at the time that the Canadian and American organizations would merge to form a single women’s league, perhaps under the aegis of the NHL; instead, like the identical but alienated twins in Disney’s original The Parent Trap, the N and the C seemed to loathe each other on sight. The NHL, refusing to take sides, invited both leagues to play an exhibition game as part of the 2016 Winter Classic hosted by the Boston Bruins at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
What should have been a PR coup for women’s hockey on one of sports’ biggest stages became a disaster when the elite American players had to pull out due to previous obligations to USA Hockey, leading to the substitution of less-elite local players including Denna Laing, who was seriously injured while scrapping in the corners on horrifically inadequate ice.
By the time Kate Cimini and I wrote about the disastrous Women’s Winter Classic for VICE, the inevitable analogy was King Lear: “To some, it seemed as if the CWHL and NWHL reacted like King Lear’s daughters the first time the men’s organization stepped forward to promote the women’s game on an international stage: sucking up to the throne while simultaneously stabbing each other in the back. For others, the Lear analogy worked the other way, starring the NHL as a patriarch with too much power and illogical preferences.”
The next few years did little to dispel tensions. NWHL players took unexpected pay cuts, and worried that their insurance coverage was inadequate for the demanding game they were being asked to play, essentially for free. Then, after their ecstatic gold medal performance at Pyeongchang, members of the USWNT shocked fans by signing with the CWHL, instead of coming home. It was clear that the NWHL’s early missteps had not been forgotten or forgiven. Still, with what can only be described as grit, the NWHL ground it out and stayed in the game, even forging partnerships with individual NHL teams, if not the Lear-like league itself.
In the spring of 2019, the CWHL folded for good. Yet instead of flocking to the NWHL, elite American and Canadian players formed yet another organization, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association. On May 1, 2019, the PWHPA issued a statement: “We cannot make a sustainable living playing in the current state of the professional game. Having no health insurance and making as little as $2000 a season means players can’t adequately train and prepare to play at the highest level… it’s time for a viable long-term professional league that will showcase the greatest product of women’s professional hockey in the world.” They invited the women of the NWHL to join them. Some did; others decided that they’d rather just keep playing.
The PWPHA’s demands made perfect sense, except for the lack of clarity about who, exactly, was supposed to fulfill them. The NWHL couldn’t; the NHL, apparently, wouldn’t. (A spokesperson for the NWHL informed me that “the league is fully covered by worker’s compensation insurance, meaning all injuries sustained on ice or in practice or at any league sanctioned appearance is fully covered, as well as lost wages if a player is to miss any work due to said injury.”) In fact, the formation of the PWPHA effectively ended the NWHL’s supportive affiliations with the New Jersey Devils and the Buffalo Sabres, essentially turning remaining team members into scabs. Yet the NWHL forged on, building productive relationships with sponsors and broadcasting games online via Twitch, where they have reached over three million views, and building a diverse, loud, loyal following. Meanwhile, PWPHA players staged exhibition games, took online potshots at the NWHL, and waited for the NHL to call.
When the call came, it wasn’t about a new women’s league. Instead, the NHL invited American and Canadian stars from the PWPHA to take part in the 2020 All-Star Weekend. The women’s return to All-Star Weekend offered the NHL a do-over on a PR stunt that went south in 2019, when USWNT member Kendall Coyne Schofield placed within a second of four-time champion Connor McDavid in the speed competition, and Brianna Decker, asked to simply “demonstrate” the skills competition, ended up completing the challenge faster than any of the men actually competing for the money. (The hashtag #PayDecker immediately trended; the NHL refused. Decker was later compensated by hockey brand CCM.)
The NHL learned the hard way that reducing the most talented women in the world to a sideshow made the men look like fools. For the 2020 event, the league announced that the women would play 3 on 3, USA v. Canada, on the first night of the festivities—and, unlike the Winter Classic debacle or Decker’s winning demonstration, their game would be televised. The event, which Canada won 2-1 thanks to a standout performance from their goaltender Ann-Renee Desbiens, ended up being one of the highlights of the weekend. Still, the exclusion of the NWHL and the focus on stars like Schofield didn’t sit well with many women’s hockey fans. To them—okay, to us—Schofield’s criticism of Colin Kaepernick and her friendship with Patrick Kane, who was accused of rape in 2015, made her less a role model, more an embodiment of what might happen to women’s hockey if the NHL took over: grit, silence, sameness.
Gritty remains: a silent, grinning figure of chaos in a sport that can’t bring itself to color outside pre-existing lines. Meredith Foster tried to describe the mascot’s political appeal: “Something about Gritty feels incredibly punk to me, which is hard for me to reconcile because I know damn well they’re…a creation of the NHL, which is anything but,” she wrote. “I find it telling that a mascot of the most stubbornly BORING league in North America has been embraced by antifa and anarchists while being declared a non-binary icon and doing nothing to fight being embraced by any of those things.”
Hockey fandom is hardly dominated by “antifa and anarchists.” Yet weirdly, Gritty seems to be the single thing fans can agree on. Last month, when the mascot was accused of punching the thirteen-year-old son of Flyers season ticket holders hard enough to send him to the hospital, Twitter erupted in support of…Gritty.
“I would let Gritty punch my kid.”
“Gotta assume the kid is a fascist until proven otherwise.”
“I’d sue if Gritty didn’t hit my kid.”
Even SNL got involved. “He wouldn’t punch a kid in the back,” joked Colin Jost on “Weekend Update.” “He’s more of a ‘leap out of the shadows and stick you with a syringe’ sort of guy.” Ultimately, the family’s claim was dismissed due to lack of evidence and witnesses, not to mention their wait of over a month after the alleged attack to accuse the mascot. Perhaps the weirdest aspect of the controversy was summed up by Antonia Farzan for The Washington Post, who pointed out that “although a human was presumably inside the mascot suit, the statement from the Philadelphia Police Department referred to the alleged assailant only as ‘Flyers mascot Gritty.’”
Hockey, like so much else these days, asks its followers to determine what we love, what we’ll settle for, what we can look away from, and, ultimately, what we can support and still sleep at night. It claims to be for everyone. It also asks us to believe that stopping the bleeding is more important than soothing the pain—or fixing what’s broken. The slogans “grow the game” and “hockey is for everyone” only make sense if we believe that the sport’s existing structures can be reimagined, renovated, and, if necessary, rejected in favor of something radical, something utterly unforeseen.
Something like Gritty.