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This week marked the arrival of the first round of the NHL playoffs: the greatest postseason of the four major sports. No disrespect to the NBA playoffs, which also started this week, but it is a scientific fact that hockey playoffs are better. It cannot be disputed, and I will be happy to explain why at another time.

Anyways, I watched a lot of hockey this weekend, including the Washington Capitals game on Sunday. First, let me apologize to Caps fans everywhere for the start of their annual playoff choke. I know I have no room to make that dig because the Sabres haven’t made the playoffs since 2011, but I take my shots when I see them. Hockey playoffs are incredible for everyone, and full of memorable moments.

However, prior to the Caps’ imminent OT collapse, I saw an extremely troubling video of the pregame skate:

So there’s a lot of unpack here.

I want to focus on this little girl.

She’s so excited to be at this game. Connolly has clearly signaled to her that he’s going to flip her the puck, so I was instantly mad at the objective injustice that had just occurred by the adult reaching over and giving the pucks away. But then I thought for a second, and what really filled me with rage was this display of systemic sexism.

I’m sure the adult didn’t mean it as a gender related slight in the moment. They’re at a hockey game having fun, and it’s neat that all three kids got pucks. But Connolly was definitely trying to get this girl the puck first, and by prioritizing the boys getting the puck before the girl, the adult is saying he values the boys’ love for hockey more than hers.

The bottom line: men are not gatekeepers of sports.

Girls should be valued for their passions. They don’t need some over-involved dad figure to intercept their excitement and distribute it to nearby boys. If this girl likes hockey, and Brett Connolly wants to give her a puck, let her have the damn puck. But let’s zoom back out for a minute to celebrate childhood.

Being a sports fan as a kid rules because the only emotional attachment you have for your team is joy.

Games are strictly fun. They’re occasions. You get to dress up. Your parents and family are excited. You have something special. You get to yell in public. And it’s really the beginning of how you are able to choose your likes and dislikes. And this girl was having a holy grail moment in terms of sports fanhood—she’s getting to be at a playoff game this early in her life as a fan! And now, a professional athlete—someone she idolizes and looks up to and probably wants to be like someday—chose her, wanted to give a puck to her. Wanted her to feel special and appreciated and noticed.

That first puck should have been hers.

I’m so thankful that my dad and mom were so enthusiastic about my fandom, even if they knew it would eventually cause me stress and agony as an adult. I remember working so hard on a sign for Rob Ray, in the hopes that he would toss me a puck during the warm up skate. He did, and I still treasure the memory and the puck itself. My sports fandom made me who I am today, and the same should apply to this little girl.

I’m glad she eventually caught a puck. I’m just mad it took so long.

A caveat: I don’t know the full story behind the group attending the game. From what I gather in the video, this is a family, and the guy catching pucks is their dad, or clearly knows all three kids in some way. Whatever their relationship, he’s acting like a dick.

And I’m not sure the NHL social media manager thought about the message this video would send to female fans.

“Haha, isn’t it funny that all the men took these pucks away from this little girl? That this little girl was last priority at this sporting event! That female fans are somehow less deserving than male fans?” Not everyone read into the video as much as I did, but I’m sure it garnered a fired up response from every other girl who’s ever been tested by many dudes over the years about her sports knowledge. If you’ve ever been asked to name 5 players on your favorite team, chances are a) you’re a girl and b) the person asking you that question is a guy. This video felt like the visual embodiment of those belittling conversations or cross examinations of fandom that all boiled down to, “Oh, because you’re a girl, your sports knowledge is less valid than mine.”

Sports culture has a lot of work to do in the realm of gender dynamics, and it’s on both the establishment and fanbases alike. Connolly’s puck flip was an attempted demonstration of this girl being celebrated and singled out for being a fan, and shouldn’t be ruined by inherent gender bias. I want her to grow up a lifelong hockey fan—even if it brings her playoff disappointment every year, because Caps. I don’t want her voice to be discounted because she’s standing around taller boys. She’s as much of a fan as they are.

Erin Vail

Erin is the 2003 West Reading Elementary Geography Bee champion, a TV obsessive, and never not thinking about Buffalo sports.

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