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Why I'm a fan of women’s hockey: Growing the game

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After finding a team to love in the Islanders, switching over to a new kind of underdog was only natural

Al Saniuk

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I grew up in Brooklyn as a member of a fairly traditional Puerto Rican family, so my stepping into hockey fandom was more of a stumble. I was 13 years old and had never really known much about the sport other than The Mighty Ducks (because come on, everyone knows that movie). So when I saw Miracle, the movie about the beloved 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team, I was floored by how fast, how intense, and how very beautiful hockey could be.

My initial fandom was with the NHL, and the underdog in me chose the New York Islanders as a team. Something about that absolutely horrendous 2005-06 product caught me, whether it was that each win felt like a gift or because I got caught up in the charisma and skill of a young, not-yet-broken Rick DiPietro (fun fact: I wore his number for two years of high school lacrosse because we were both goalies). Either way, I was hooked, and I remained hooked for 11 seasons. I even began my hockey writing career at 16 because of them, blogging every week with another fan on a fantastically minimalist Blogspot account.

But even as DiPietro faded and John Tavares became the new franchise player, even as the Islanders moved from Nassau County to my beloved (now former) borough, even as I spent money for a few seasons on GameCenter Live just to be able to keep up… I lost track. I started to lose interest in the league that promised a lot, but continuously let down women, people of color, gay and queer people. I started to wonder why I was supporting a league that didn’t much care about me as all three of these things. And simultaneously, I had started to write about women’s hockey, which I’d covered for my college newspaper, in far more depth.

Soon, I found myself gravitating away from the NHL and focusing solely on pro women’s hockey, which needed exposure in order to survive. I found a way to combine my love of the sport with my desire to bring women to the forefront, something the feminist side of me delighted in. When the NWHL was founded and a team was created in Buffalo, I was absolutely floored and excited to be able to experience the growth of a team and league firsthand. As of 2017, I have witnessed dramatic roster issues, multiple comeback wins, salary cuts, the emergence of the first transgender player in a professional U.S. league, and an Isobel Cup win for the Buffalo Beauts -- and all of this in two seasons!

Women’s hockey is an incredible thing to watch live, and being able to speak to Olympic athletes and see them in person on a regular basis is pretty freaking cool. Part of me wishes I couldn’t, because then that would mean these women were being paid and treated on a level equal to the men. But I am honored to be one of the writers helping provide that platform for the past four years, and I have no intention of stopping.

The CWHL and NWHL are not without faults. Both leagues struggle with diversity, with delivering on promises to pay players, with business issues, personnel access, and the same kinds of racism and sexism men’s sports do. As media, we’ve failed to address that as a whole, and I want to help lead the way on that front. With that said, I still have the same love for the sport that I had at age 13, and that is the driving force behind all of my work to come.

A lot of people think a reporter should be impartial when covering sports, and I try my best to be. But the fact is, I started out as a fan and will always be a fan in some way. Without my love for hockey, I don’t think I could do this as well as I have or for as long as I have been. We all started out because we loved the game, just like any athlete, and it’s that passion that will prevail. I already can’t wait for next season to start!

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