World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend felt like a perfect time to introduce my two-year-old daughter to the world of women’s hockey. She’d seen the men’s game before – barely six months old, she came to Belfast with me while I was covering Great Britain in World Championship Division IB action. But she hadn’t seen women play, and she hadn’t really attempted to watch a full 60 minutes. So, Whitley Bay Squaws vs Bracknell Firebees on a Saturday lunchtime was to be her debut.
The early signs weren’t good. A pre-match tantrum in the entrance to the rink almost had us back in the car and heading sulkily home. Had there been a football commentary to listen to at 12:30, we might have jumped ship. There wasn’t, and there wasn’t a Plan B on a windy afternoon beside the North Sea either, so we went in anyway.
After settling down, Alicia decided that she liked the music. And why not? A classic hockey playlist of AC/DC and Queen, leavened with blasts of Ricky Martin and Mambo #5. She liked it so much that when play resumed and the music stopped, she would complain about it. She also enjoyed romping around the large numbers of empty seats in the rink. For the uninitiated, women’s hockey in the UK isn’t exactly high profile. If the men’s game manages to draw surprisingly big crowds in the face of widespread media indifference, the ladies find their games squeezed into awkward time slots and given little or no publicity. We may have been the only people watching the game who weren’t related to at least one participant; with neither side dressing more than 16 skaters (and no reserve goalies in sight) the crowd struggled towards 50.
But, at times, she also paid some attention to the game. Certainly enough to point out when a ‘lady’ skated close by us, and enough to ask what was happening every time someone came to the penalty box next to our seats. With a bit more confidence, standing up at the perspex or running over to the Bracknell bench added to the repertoire of fun things to do (while Daddy tries to catch up). Goals were a bit more complicated, although dancing along to a bit of ‘Tom Hark’ kept us entertained. Right now, this is embarrassing for me; I’m looking forward to the age when my dancing is much more embarrassing for her.
Alicia wasn’t the only toddler in town. During the third period, and roaming more widely than before, we met another little girl. She’d come along to cheer on ‘Auntie Steph’ and had plenty to celebrate as Stephanie Towns scored four in Whitley’s 5-4 win. At this level, the game is strictly amateur; Towns, in her 14th season (13 for Whitley, one for the now defunct Billingham Wildcats) is a shining example of the kind of commitment required to keep turning out in deserted, often tumbledown rinks at awkward times. It will take a lot more girls like her niece or my daughter to start pushing the women’s game up the agenda for most arenas – and even more effort to encourage extra investment in ice across the UK. But it would be great to think that when she’s old enough, Alicia might enjoy more opportunities to take up the sport, if she’s interested.
For now, though, a day at the hockey works surprisingly well. With a concentration span that struggles to reach half an hour, a single period of play just about fits what a toddler can manage. The frequent blasts of music, anathema to many sports fans in Britain, help to provide a bit of a distraction. And, oddly, the constricted time slot played into our hands. With a gap of barely two hours between public skating sessions at the rink, the game had to be play with three-minute intermissions. Disastrous for the ice, which resembled a ploughed field by the end, but good for keeping toddlers distracted.
Whitley Bay, England. Hillheads Rink
Oct. 7, 2018. Women’s Premier League
Whitley Squaws 5 (Towns 4, Culshaw) Bracknell Firebees 4 (Beal, Evans, Lafitte, Remmington)
Att: about 40 (head count)