An exploration of the modern development of an archaic new tradition.
Just before the start of the 2001-2002 season, a New York Islanders team that was struggling both financially and in the standings made a move that was the first of its kind in the NHL. Charles Wang had acquired the team in 2000 and knew that changes needed to be made, stating, “Let’s face it, the Coliseum is a dump, and the team, well, they’re losers. It’s a real shame. We want to see it change because this is our home. We all deserve better.”1 It was not simply the on-ice product that he meant to change, however, but also the brand surrounding the team. The NHL mandated that excess snow be removed from the ice during TV timeouts, and the Islanders, who had struggled in attendance figures due to lackluster play on the ice, saw this new mandate as an opportunity to help improve the situation. Tim Beach, then Director of Game Operations for the Islanders, came up with the idea2 to use a team of attractive young women to clean the ice as opposed to the arena maintenance crews that other teams had been using.
(image: New York Islanders attendance between 1996-2003.)3
The results were fairly clear – at least on the surface. Attendance was up just over 28% from the previous year. Whether that was due to the improved eye candy during games or improved play on the ice, however, is a matter of some contention. We do know that the advent of Ice Girls was considered a solid move by a few very vocal fans, and that the program was successful enough – or at the very least appealing enough – to merit phone calls to the Islanders office from other NHL teams looking for advice on starting their own Ice Girl squad. After all, the Ice Girls were about more than just improving attendance, they also were an opportunity to sell corporate sponsorship. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal4 written in the second season of the Islanders Ice Girls’ existence, Pepsi’s sponsorship of the Ice Girls was bringing in $100,000 a year. For a team having difficulty staying in the black on the ledger, $100,000 a year is a serious boon.
Today, 21 of the 30 NHL teams have a crew of Ice Girls, dancers, cheerleaders, or some combination of these. Uniforms vary from group to group, and not all of them are composed solely of women or tagged with the rather infantilizing title of “Ice Girls”. None of the men on the coed crews are in sexualized uniforms, however, generally wearing track suits or similar practical outfits. Of the nine teams without Ice Girls or similar squads, two of those teams (Florida and New Jersey, who both had dance teams rather than Ice Girls) only recently disbanded their programs. The Philadelphia Flyers attempted to replace their Ice Girl crew with an all-male crew, only to have them booed off the ice during the few games of their existence.5 The Flyers hastily reinstated their Ice Girls. A Mother Jones article6 published this summer may have something to do with why these three crews were disbanded at the start of this season. Some of the concerns raised in that article include:
- Low pay combined with the expectation for hair and makeup to be done at the employee’s own expense.
- Not being allowed to be in the same place as a member of the hockey team outside of work hours. This meant that if a hockey player walked into a restaurant where one of the crew members was eating, she’d have to leave.
- Wearing skimpy uniforms in cold and uncomfortable environments for long periods of time.
- Not being allowed to eat while in uniform combined with long times expected to be in uniform.
- Workplace sexual harassment.
Other issues with the institution have been well outlined elsewhere7, and over the past year, more concerns have been raised regarding this new tradition. It seems somewhat anachronistic, like a relic of the past rather than an invention of 15 years ago. One would expect that just about the worst time to announce a new Ice Girl team would be right after this kind of controversy surfaced. Well, as it turns out, there is at least one club in the NHL capable of this kind of poor decision making.
(image: Female and Male uniforms for the San Jose Sharks Ice Crew as proposed in the original announcement, archived here: http://web.archive.org/web/20140703164029/http://sharks.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=98848)
On July 2nd, a mere three weeks after the Mother Jones article was published, the San Jose Sharks twitter feed announced auditions for their Ice Team. The San Jose Sharks have had a coed ice team since its inception. Having women on the ice is nothing novel for them. But where the women once wore team-branded tracksuits, a practical outfit for the job which was identical to that worn by male team members, the images of the proposed new uniforms sparked more than a small amount of controversy. An emphasis on the “Physically fit/athletic appearance”8 of the members of the Ice Team also raised many eyebrows. Even more telling was the fact that while there were guidelines for the hair and makeup of those auditioning, there was no need for the candidates to have any skating skill. Keep in mind, this is for a job that requires skating swiftly and performing quick cleanup of the ice. The changes to the Ice Team may not have been branded as Ice Girls, but fans were able to read between the lines to see what the Ice Team was becoming. Of course, plans for the changes to the Ice Team had almost certainly been in place well before the release of the Mother Jones article, but the timing certainly didn’t help the fans’ reception of the news.
The outcry was immediate. A Facebook group entitled “Say NO to Sharks Ice Girls”9 was started, and local media outlets on television10, in print11, and online12 covered the controversy. Some fans threatened to cancel season tickets, stop bringing their children to the games, or stop buying Sharks merchandise. Ultimately, however, these concerns were dismissed by John Tortora, Chief Operating Officer of the Sharks:
Tortora said the volume of complaints from fans is about at the level he expected. And Tortora suggested that concerned fans should take a wait-and-see approach.13
While both male and female fans were clearly riled up, there was absolutely no intention from team management to step away from this decision. Management attempted to soothe fans by saying that the uniforms pictured were not the final uniforms, and that things would be done in a “tasteful”14 manner. And so at the Sharks’ home opener on October 11th, 2014, the public caught its first glimpse of the new Ice Crew. While the outfit ended up not being as risque as had been thought, the intention behind creating the new look remained.
But while intent is known – placing an emphasis on female crew members’ appearance rather than their ability to perform the job – the reasons why this move was made remain somewhat elusive. Unlike the Islanders of the early 2000’s, the San Jose Sharks were not suffering from an attendance problem. At the time of the announcement in July, the Sharks had a sellout streak of 203 regular season and playoff games, which reached back to the 2009-2010 season. In spite of a failure to deliver in the playoffs, fans still came to the SAP Center, lovingly nicknamed the Shark Tank, in droves. The Sharks still have yet to win the Cup, but their performance during the regular season was strong enough to position them as formidable opponents.
This season, however, marks a stark change in the Sharks. They were 51-22-9 in the 2013-2014 season, but the Sharks currently stand at 30-25-8 so far this year. Even if they win all of the 19 games remaining in their season, they have no chance of matching last year’s numbers. There is the very real possibility that for the first time since the 2002-2003 season, the Sharks will not make the playoffs. None of this, of course, has anything to do with the presence or lack thereof of the sexualized Ice Team. It may, however, explain why the Sharks broke their sellout streak at 205 games on October 25th, 2014.15 They’ve struggled to fill all the seats ever since, and the players on the team have certainly noticed.16 Combine this struggle to perform with the fans who have chosen to stop attending games because of the change in the Ice Team, and you have a recipe for continued difficulties with ticket sales.
Not that every fan in San Jose is against the new look for the Ice Team. The argument has been made that women being sexualized by their own choice is nothing to be demonized, and that disagreeing with this choice is merely prudish behavior. The problem with Ice Girls, ultimately, is not really about what they do or do not wear on the ice. They could be wearing a muumuu and the problem of the how and why they are there would still persist. The mere fact that their physical appearance is a factor in whether or not they remain employed is hugely problematic. True, physical appearance can be a factor in whether or not someone gets hired, and can be a de facto issue even when it isn’t supposed to be. But to specifically have a position where a woman must fit a certain physical mold to even be considered for the job makes the statement that the marker of monetary value for a woman is her attractiveness. By placing on public display the fact that women are treated in this manner while men are not, businesses and organizations who perpetuate this kind of behavior continue to place women in a subordinate role to men.
Another defense of Ice Girls is that they do a great deal of community outreach and promotional activities on behalf of the team. This, however, is an irrelevant argument, as these activities could just as easily be completed without including the objectification of women. The Sharks, for example, have a team known as the Tank Patrol that does promotional activities during the games. This team has not gone away17, so there is no need for a replacement to fulfill this function. Charitable work has been done by both the team and their family members. Not having Ice Girls does not keep these things from taking place.
The addition of sexualized uniforms for the female members of San Jose’s Ice Team may well be a “distraction”18, as San Jose beat writer Mark Purdy asserts. After all, it directed attention away from a few questionable personnel decisions made by the team over the summer and had fans talking about something other than the on-ice product. Maybe, in the grand scheme of the sport of hockey, what the people who are cleaning the ice are or are not wearing doesn’t really matter. Maybe, in the greater picture of issues related to sexism, this is just a tiny thing compared to the myriad horrors that women must contend with on a daily basis. But this one small thing is another incident in a neverending series of tiny messages that women face each day which quietly and gradually erodes away the self-esteem, confidence, and feeling of comfort in their lives.
- http://www.nytimes.com/2000/05/07/nyregion/islanders-unlikely-saviors-wang-kumar-computer-executives-say-love-for-long.html ↩
- http://www.gameops.com/features/interview/brad-preston ↩
- screenshot from http://www.hockeydb.com/nhl-attendance/att_graph.php?tmi=7085 ↩
- http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10361061774095 ↩
- http://deadspin.com/flyers-fans-boo-ice-guys-for-not-being-ice-girls-1638061731 ↩
- http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/06/philadelphia-flyers-ice-girls-los-angeles-kings-new-york-rangers-stanley-cup-finals ↩
- http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nhl-puck-daddy/the-institutional-sexism-of-nhl-ice-girls-184301561.html ↩
- http://web.archive.org/web/20140703164029/http://sharks.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=98848 ↩
- https://www.facebook.com/pages/Say-NO-to-Sharks-Ice-Girls/309473252552909 ↩
- http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/San-Jose-Sharks-Fans-Oppose-Sexy-Ice-Girl-Uniforms-267028331.html ↩
- http://www.mercurynews.com/sharks/ci_26139239/some-sharks-fans-object-plan-using-ice-girls ↩
- http://www.fearthefin.com/2014/7/2/5865589/sharks-decision-to-add-ice-girls-is-a-middle-finger-to-their-female-fans ↩
- http://www.mercurynews.com/sharks/ci_26139239/some-sharks-fans-object-plan-using-ice-girls ↩
- ibid. ↩
- http://www.mercurynews.com/sharks/ci_26799819/sharks-sellout-streak-ends-at-205-games ↩
- http://prohockeytalk.nbcsports.com/2015/02/14/pavelski-doesnt-blame-fans-for-smaller-crowds/ ↩
- http://sharks.nhl.com/club/news.htm?id=727877 ↩
- http://www.mercurynews.com/sharks/ci_26155639/purdy-sharks-offseason-issues-include-ice-girls ↩