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The Puck Stops Here: A Hockey Coach Analyzes Palin’s Brand

Today's post is from Michelle McAteer, an Assistant Coach for the defending National Champion Women's Ice Hockey team at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She's a proud Canadian who desperately wishes she could vote in the U.S.

In case you haven't heard, Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin is an "average Alaskan hockey mom." For anyone who didn't grow up on skates, like I did, it's a relatively new colloquial term that plays off of the term "soccer moms," a moniker used extensively in the 1996 election season to neatly describe the type of white suburban woman who voted for Clinton (Bill, that is).

Lately, I can't seem to watch the news, read a paper, or browse the internet without coming across the effusive lingo of hockey moms. As a member of the hockey world, this is extremely odd to me. I'm used to my sport being largely ignored, but suddenly it's the newest political catch phrase. Bowling gets more television airtime than hockey (so does cheerleading), but suddenly the word "hockey" is coming out of the mouths of Anderson Cooper, Bill O'Reilly, Larry King, and is at the heart of the political dialogue. Will this newfound fame propel my sport? Will hockey become this country's sporting darling?

No, it won't. After its 15 minutes, hockey will continue to be a marginalized sport. Partially, because it's played regionally in the United States—along the east coast in New England, in the mid-west with Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan being hot-spots, and in pockets elsewhere. The NHL, the highest level for hockey players in the world, is like the red-headed step-child (or Cindy McCain's half sister) compared to the NFL, NBA, and MLB in terms of marketability, money, fans, and viewers. Hockey is also a more expensive sport to play due to higher startup costs, pricey equipment, ice rental, and travel expenses, making it less attractive than more affordable recreational sports for kids like basketball or soccer. Hockey is a sport that thrives in roots but often is unable to grow in unfamiliar markets. So if Sarah Palin's use of the term hockey mom isn't going to help the sport, then how does the sport help her?

I always imagined NASCAR as the official sport of the Republican party, appealing to flag-waving, country music loving-fans who are mostly white, straight, blue-collar, Christian, and middle-class. But, in this piece in the Guardian, columnist Steven Wells suggests hockey is more fitting for conservative rhetoric because it "represents an idealized form of American masculinity - unthinking, brutish, willfully ignorant, easy to manipulate, unquestioningly patriotic, proudly reactionary, quick to respond to any perceived threat with overwhelming violence." Perhaps Palin figured she already locked up the NASCAR voters after naming two of her children Track and Bristol (as in the Bristol Motor Speedway and not the port in southwestern England).

Palin presents herself as the anti-thesis to Clinton's soccer mom, whom Wells points out "has mutated out of her political pigeonhole . . . [becoming] an SUV-driving, road-hogging, sweatpants-wearing, latte-sipping, brat-spewing, strip mall-shopping, suburban folk devil." But Palin's "hockey world" resembles nothing like the one that I know—that is, the world of women's hockey. Palin claims that the only difference between a hockey mom and a pit-bull is lipstick, suggesting her own connotation of the term is a one-size-fits-all. I've played and coached and have happily resided in the hockey world my entire life, and we are not all white, Christian, "pro-life," gun-touting, gas guzzling, and certainly not all Republican. Women's hockey struggles for support and respect, and while men's hockey is marginalized on a national scale, women's hockey fights even harder for a piece of the pie. In addition to inadequate financial support and respect, women's hockey players battle stereotypes that force them to defend their "feminity" as they play a "masculine game."

Time magazine wrote last week that at the moment, women identify with Palin's complex life as a working mom and raising a child with special needs. But pit-bull Palin doesn't seem to understand the complexities of women in the women's hockey world. It's safe to say she wasn't trying to associate herself with me, my community, or my experiences. I'd also wager that the large subset of gay women in the hockey world never crossed Palin's mind as she branded herself part of the hockey minority. At the collegiate level, though, lesbians are a visible part of game. In some cases, we are even the majority. Do I know the statistical breakdown? No, but I'd say that the subset "lesbians in hockey" is comparable to "gay men in dance." And, yes, some of us are lipstick lesbians.

Palin's claim to authority as a "hockey mom" is useful to her because this paradoxical phrase symbolizes the essence of Palin's brand. The unflinchingly patriotic masculinity associated with hockey allows Palin to take on a powerful position, but by fusing it with motherhood politics, she's kept within her God-given role as a submissive wife, mother, running mate, and perhaps even as a sort of First Lady. So, if I could chose between having my sport plugged nationally through Sarah Palin's frame of reference, or return to the status quo of being overlooked, let's just say that I'd watch bowling any day without complaint.