Wherefore Ice Girls?

Sunday 01st, March 2015 / 09:02 Written by
Wherefore Ice Girls?

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.

(image: The vast majority of NHL teams have Ice Girls, dancers, or cheerleaders.)

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.

(image: The San Jose Sharks Ice Crew prior to the 2014-15 season. Photo Credit: Kyle Terada, USA TODAY Sports)

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.

(image: The new San Jose Sharks Ice Crew uniform for female team members. Photo Credit: Robert Stanton, USA TODAY Sports)

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.

(image: The San Jose Sharks Tank Patrol, a group that does promotional activities during games.)

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.

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2000/05/07/nyregion/islanders-unlikely-saviors-wang-kumar-computer-executives-say-love-for-long.html
  2. http://www.gameops.com/features/interview/brad-preston
  3. screenshot from http://www.hockeydb.com/nhl-attendance/att_graph.php?tmi=7085
  4. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10361061774095
  5. http://deadspin.com/flyers-fans-boo-ice-guys-for-not-being-ice-girls-1638061731
  6. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/06/philadelphia-flyers-ice-girls-los-angeles-kings-new-york-rangers-stanley-cup-finals
  7. http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nhl-puck-daddy/the-institutional-sexism-of-nhl-ice-girls-184301561.html
  8. http://web.archive.org/web/20140703164029/http://sharks.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=98848
  9. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Say-NO-to-Sharks-Ice-Girls/309473252552909
  10. http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/San-Jose-Sharks-Fans-Oppose-Sexy-Ice-Girl-Uniforms-267028331.html
  11. http://www.mercurynews.com/sharks/ci_26139239/some-sharks-fans-object-plan-using-ice-girls
  12. http://www.fearthefin.com/2014/7/2/5865589/sharks-decision-to-add-ice-girls-is-a-middle-finger-to-their-female-fans
  13. http://www.mercurynews.com/sharks/ci_26139239/some-sharks-fans-object-plan-using-ice-girls
  14. ibid.
  15. http://www.mercurynews.com/sharks/ci_26799819/sharks-sellout-streak-ends-at-205-games
  16. http://prohockeytalk.nbcsports.com/2015/02/14/pavelski-doesnt-blame-fans-for-smaller-crowds/
  17. http://sharks.nhl.com/club/news.htm?id=727877
  18. http://www.mercurynews.com/sharks/ci_26155639/purdy-sharks-offseason-issues-include-ice-girls
Christy Kondo
Christy is mostly known for her hockey related doodles, found on Twitter and TheSunshineSkate.com. What is less known is that she has a passion for slogging through the slush pile, composing prose, and otherwise playing with the written word. She loves an underdog, which is a really nice way of saying that she loves teams that would drive a normal person to drink 24/7. Christy lives with her husband and cats, Leela and Fry, in the perpetually moist Pacific Northwest.

24 comments on “Wherefore Ice Girls?”

  1. Aaron says:

    “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.”

    -Large/unattractive women do not get hired to work in a cheerleading role where the uniform requires tight, revealing clothing.
    -Large/unattractive women do not get hired to work at restaurants like Hooters.
    -Large/unattractive men do not get hired to be male strippers where the uniform requires tight clothing and a fit body.
    -Large/unattractive men & women do not get hired to be personal trainers.
    -Professional athletes must meet a certain physical mold to even be considered for most professional athletic jobs. Once they don’t fit that mold, they get fired.

    Private employers are free to set a monetary value on their employment positions. They’re also free to hire those who aesthetically fit the position better than others. People are free to work in whatever type of job they would like to work in, and should know what the job requirements entail before applying. I know several of the Storm Squad (Canes Ice girls) here in Raleigh and they love their job. Like you mentioned, there’s a lot of community outreach/networking involved and many of them love hockey, so there’s the added bonus of seasons tickets to some of the best seats in the house. A lot of the girls are college students at NC State and took the job just to make a little extra money on the side, and have worked for 2+ years. It isn’t torturous or degrading to them, although it may be different in other work environments.

    Does hockey need “ice girls”? Of course not. All the NHL cares about is the bottom dollar. If the majority of NHL fans were women, the ice girls would be muscular ice men shirtlessly scraping the ice off to whistles and cat-calls. It would be no more degrading to the employment of men than hiring women who voluntarily apply to be cheerleaders would be to women. Private employment is private employment. You’re eligible for the jobs your education/experience/abilities have made you eligible for. Women are being hired at the executive levels of teams across professional sports, women own entire sports franchises.

    It’s an issue that is slowly being fixed, but the existence of “ice girls” has absolutely no impact on it.

    • Maria says:

      What a brilliant example of Missing The Point, while somehow also Emphasizing the Point. Congrats!

    • >Large/unattractive men & women do not get hired to be personal trainers.

      Having dealt with personal trainers and physical therapists, its not cut and dry like that. Ive had larger male PT’s, its usually dependent on their personal skill level to most people. Would you want a good looking shitty PT, or a good PT that isnt anything special on your eyes.
      Your whole point of going to PT/getting a trainer is to get better/healthier.

      >Professional athletes must meet a certain physical mold to even be considered for most professional athletic jobs. Once they don’t fit that mold, they get fired.

      Professional athletes need to preform at a high level. If they cant, theyre canned. Its not like theyre solely judged on their figure. If their figure affects their play, then theres an issue. Phil Kessel wouldnt be considered svelte, but he doesnt miss any games and continues to score.

      • Aaron says:

        “Having dealt with personal trainers and physical therapists, its not cut and dry like that. Ive had larger male PT’s, its usually dependent on their personal skill level to most people. Would you want a good looking shitty PT, or a good PT that isnt anything special on your eyes.”

        My point as far as personal trainers go was more that they are in great physical shape, not necessarily that they all have a pretty face. There are a few out-of-shape personal trainers here and there, but the vast majority are naturally in amazing condition physically. I’ve yet to see a single overweight personal trainer at any respectable gym in my lifetime, but I’m sure some are out there. I’d imagine it’s a much tougher sell getting clients to believe you know what you’re talking about when you don’t take care of your own body.

        As far as Kessel goes, he may not have the mugshot of a greek god, but he’s probably one of the strongest players in the league in terms of lower body strength. His skating stride and power are unreal. Pro athletes probably wasn’t the best example, but there are plenty of examples in private employment for both men and women where physical attraction is an element of the hiring process. Look at pharmaceutical/medical equipment sales, or really any type of sales.

    • Eliza Eaton Eliza Eaton says:

      Thank you for sharing your perspective, but I think it largely misses the point of the piece – not that ice girls themselves are bad people, but that the statement teams make when they choose to make ice girls a part of their marketing regarding what women are for is detrimental to the larger goal of fan engagement. The point Christy was making, which she backed up with cited evidence, is that “the bottom dollar” as you put it of the San Jose Sharks has actively been harmed by the implementation of ice girls because of the attitude shown by management to female fan concerns.

      Just because you, personally, like a franchise that has ice girls doesn’t mean that ice girls aren’t harmful to the overall goal of building a fanbase beyond people who already attend, and there’s evidence that it has harmed at least one franchise in terms of ticket sales, though correlation is not equal to causation. That was the point of the piece, which you did not address.

      • Aaron says:

        “The point Christy was making, which she backed up with cited evidence, is that “the bottom dollar” as you put it of the San Jose Sharks has actively been harmed by the implementation of ice girls because of the attitude shown by management to female fan concerns.”

        Christy does make the point that the ice girls are one factor in combination with the Sharks losing that may be causing the drop in ticket sales. I’m more inclined to believe the drop in ticket sales has much more to do with the Sharks struggling for the first time in years coming off yet another heartbreaking & disappointing season than it does with 12 girls who are on the ice for 5 total minutes of a game and spend the rest giving out t-shirts and taking pictures with fans.

        Look at the Blackhawks.. in terms of provocative dress, I would argue they push the boundaries the furthest of all the NHL teams. Their “Halloween Costume” nights look like a frat party on the ice. Yet they sell-out over and over again because the team is a winner. Winning is everything in terms of putting butts in the seats.

        There are obviously some disgruntled Sharks fans who refuse to pay for tickets while the ice girls are present. I would bet that the management of the team has calculated it to an exact cent whether the positive impact of the fan interaction and presence of the ice girls outweighs the amount of people who wrote in and said they would no longer be buying tickets.

        Really the underlying issue and the only reason ice girls are even talked about is whether the position is degrading toward women or causes women to be unfairly objectified because they wear tight clothing and showcase their bodies on the ice. Ultimately I would argue that their positive impact with the fans and the community through charitable events greatly outweighs the few amount of fans who attend a hockey game to ogle a girl dancing and clapping her hands in spandex pants. Kids, both boys and girls, line up by the dozens to take pictures & get autographs with the team’s “cheerleaders” just like cheerleaders at any level of sports. It’s a simple way for the organization to create “team interaction” knowing that it isn’t really possible to socialize the players with thousands of fans every night.

        • Eliza Eaton Eliza Eaton says:

          Again, all this is covered in Christy’s article, particularly the fan engagement issues. We’ve got a followup article coming at some point on ways to engage fans without the use of ice girls, including elements like the Tank Patrol, but Christy has made the point repeatedly that fan engagement in the Sharks market was happening effectively without ice girls. I’m beginning to think you didn’t read the article.

          As I said in my previous comment – just because you, personally, like ice girls doesn’t mean that it doesn’t isn’t detrimental to fan engagement. Just because you, personally, prefer to look at scantily clad women during your hockey game doesn’t mean other fans aren’t put off by the watching freezing cold women skate around during stoppage of play.

          • Aaron says:

            I assure you I read the article in its entirety, and I can further assure you I do not attend hockey games to look at ice girls. My point is that these articles are really generated from a manufactured issue; and neglect to acknowledge how greatly the positive impact of cheerleaders outweighs the negatives.

            The casual fan does not associate a person walking around in a neon shirt and blue jeans as being part of the organization. Cheerleaders are able to attain a celebrity status with younger fans that other groups simply cannot.

            I’ve been to hundreds of hockey games and have yet to hear a single fan say anything to the effect of the ice girls causing them to buy more tickets. They’re really a non-factor to anyone but the casual fan and are simply an aesthetic element of the environment. These articles are never written by women who are ice girls/cheerleaders for pro sports teams because those girls generally love the job and appreciate all the benefits it brings.

            Personally I would love to see a poll done by this site of ice girl employees on their experiences with their employment. I think it would generate some very interesting discussion.

            • Aaron says:

              And on that note, if you guys would like contact info for current & former ice girls I would be more than happy to facilitate that discussion. Would be valuable to get some opinions based on personal knowledge rather than stick our heads and in the sand and hypothesize about the ramifications of being a hockey cheerleader.

              • Eliza Eaton Eliza Eaton says:

                I don’t think you quite understand how condescending this comment reads. We really aren’t looking for some guy off the internet to “facilitate that discussion” for us. By all means, though, write your own article on your own site about how ice girls are the best thing ever for an NHL team. Feel free to link it to us when you do that, and we’ll even signal boost it on twitter.

            • Katie Brown Katie Brown says:

              “These articles are never written by women who are ice girls/cheerleaders for pro sports teams because those girls generally love the job and appreciate all the benefits it brings.”

              The tone of your comment suggests that *we* must be the only ones who have a problem with the way ice girls are treated, since the ice girls aren’t the ones writing about it.

              You may not realize that since these women are team employees, they would face termination of their employment for flaming the organization that writes their paychecks.

              I guarantee you that these women do not enjoy all aspects of their job and are well aware of their objectification.

              I am also confused as to why you have such an issue with this subject being written and talked about when you say the presence of ice girls doesn’t affect your fandom in any way. If say you don’t care if ice girls are there or not, and you’ll go to a game regardless, why protest now?

              • Aaron says:

                >>”I am also confused as to why you have such an issue with this subject being written and talked about when you say the presence of ice girls doesn’t affect your fandom in any way. If say you don’t care if ice girls are there or not, and you’ll go to a game regardless, why protest now?”

                It’s not the subject matter that’s the issue. The meat of this particular article is the point of correlation = causation where Sharks ticket sale drops coincided with a change in their ice girl outfits. I mean, really? Are we sure it wasn’t because they removed the Cinnabon cart from the 200 level this year? Any hockey fan with knowledge of the last 5 years of the sport could tell you exactly why the Sharks sell-out streak came to an end, and it has everything to do with the team’s failures and nothing to do with a girl shoveling ice in a hockey sweater and yoga pants.

                If the real issue is objectifying women, where is the data backing up that ice girls are a legitimate problem for female fans? Anything beyond sourcing a Facebook group with ~100 people amongst an NHL fanbase of millions? Chicago’s female attendance numbers were up to 38% from 28% (2008-2013; http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20131015/BLOGS04/131019941) with arguably the most scantily clad ice girls in the business. If anything you would think there would be a pretty solid public outcry there, yet there doesn’t seem to be much of a negative reaction at all.

                • Christy Kondo Christy Kondo says:

                  Hi Aaron,

                  Thank you for your responses. I am working on a response article that should address some of your other concerns. Because I wanted to keep the length of this article somewhat manageable, I had to pare down a lot of the material I found and commentary I had to what you see in this post.

                  That being said, I am troubled by the fact that you seem to believe that I was attempting to make a correlation=causation argument in my article, because I specifically pointed out that the Sharks were struggling, and that’s why ticket sales have dropped. My point, which perhaps I should have articulated differently, is that because the Sharks are struggling and losing ticket sales as a result of bad play, it would behoove them to not alienate the fans that they do have. Fans who are otherwise passionate, but who have expressed concern because of sexual exploitation and creating a family-friendly environment only to be wholly dismissed by team management. If someone likes a company but their management does something to aggravate that customer, they are less likely to purchase the company’s product, simple as that.

                  Thank you again for reading, and I hope you’ll take a look at the second article when it is completed.

                  • Aaron says:

                    Looking forward to it. Part 1 was really well written, I’d like to see a new take on the issue. Quotes from female fans, female NHL analysts and executives would be a nice touch. I won’t let Katie and Eliza’s bullying on social media deter me either ;). I want my man tears to be the hydration that grows this awesome concept of a website!

                    • Masha says:

                      “Quotes from…female NHL analysts and executives would be a nice touch.”

                      or to paraphrase: “I’d like this new fan run sports blog to get quotes from the small handful of very busy women who manage to fit either description before I approve.”

                      Are you for real?

                    • Aaron says:

                      I’m sure you know what “be a nice touch” means.

  2. Emily says:

    Love this. MORE HOCKEY, PLEASE.

    • Sasha Davis Sasha Davis says:

      I have a whole list of hockey articles that we’re going to release into the wild in the coming days and weeks :)

  3. Allison says:

    This is actually the first time I’ve ever seen the (Sharks) ice girl uniforms. At the two games I’ve been to this year, they were wearing modified (ladies fit, but not skin-tight) stadium series jerseys with leggings. From my upper level seat, their uniforms looked very similar to the guys’, which were stadium series jerseys and track pants, and looked tasteful. The uniforms that are pictured here are pretty ugly, though. What are those terrible boot sock things supposed to be?

    On the topic of the existence of ice girls, I don’t like the idea much, but I don’t believe it’s enough of a problem to merit removing ice girls from teams that already have them. I do think that choosing to employ ice girls when you already have a satisfactory ice team, as the Sharks did, is a dumb idea. Well, *was* a dumb idea. I guess it’s over and done now.

    I’m looking forward to more posts on this blog!

  4. Precious says:

    Aaron, the article, like all articles you find, are at the discretion of the author. And naturally are infused with the author’s opinion along with, in this case, a plethora of facts. I think it is also important to learn to agree to disagree with someone respectfully.

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