Claire Palmer and the power of WoHo fandom — Annie Bélanger talks PWHPA, Olympics — Must-click women’s hockey links
The IX: Hockey Friday with Anne Tokarski, February 11, 2022
On February 3, Golden Star News editor and certified hockey fan Claire Palmer asked the Twitterverse — and her following of more than 700 — if anyone would be interested in making a group to chat about Olympic women’s hockey. She didn’t expect much: maybe a couple of friends of hers she knew were involved in the online women’s hockey community, maybe a few new faces in fandom. She didn’t expect anything out of the ordinary.
The response she got, though, was anything but.
“I sent the tweet out and went to work for the afternoon/evening,” says Palmer. “[I] was completely floored when I came back to my phone and I had over 100 responses from people who wanted to join the group chat.”
Jey Wong, a hockey fan who follows Palmer on Twitter, saw her Tweet and wanted to join in on the fun. “One of the main reasons I joined Twitter was to have a space to go on about hockey beyond my local circle of hockey friends,” they say. “So this seemed like an ideal opportunity.”
Palmer, Wong, and several others, including Maya Smith and Clio Reid, then created a group chat on Twitter that they dubbed “ARD is the goat.” “ARD” is, of course, in reference to Team Canada’s goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens, a fan favorite of the group and one of the primary factors in the country’s unbeaten streak in the preliminary round of the tournament.
“Being a Canadian hockey fan period is so much fun during the Olympics,” says Palmer, who’s Canadian, “and over the last two Olympics with NHL players not going to the games, there’s been an increased interest and support for the women’s tournament form what I’ve seen. Canada loves to be the best at hockey, no matter the level, and when the Olympics come around, even people who don’t normally pay attention to hockey will drop anything to cheer.”
Palmer’s experience as a hockey fan and journalist in Canada is mirrored by the experiences of Smith, a Calgarian, and Reid, an American living and attending university in Montréal. While the three agree that the sport is definitely more popular in Canada — after all, ice hockey is considered to be Canada’s national pastime, much in the sense that baseball is the United States’ — Reid told us that she doesn’t have an in-person community to watch games with, so she’s really appreciated being involved with the group.
“I think the lack of mainstream and everyday coverage for the women’s game leaves a gap that the fans are trying to fill,” Palmer says, emphasizing that the inaccessibility of non-Olympic women’s hockey coverage on platforms like SportsCentre means that fans are going to create their own communities to do what mainstream media refuses to. “One of the great things about sports is how it pulls people together, and women’s hockey is no different – and one of the nice things about women’s hockey is that no matter what team you cheer for, we’re all at the end of the day cheering for the same thing, which is the growth of the game and to bring women’s hockey into more of the mainstream, and creating these spaces to freely talk hockey helps normalize that and create a more cohesive fan base.”
“The memes are also fun,” Smith adds.
Though American, Wong says their experience as a young hockey player who grew up admiring Olympian Julie Chu is very similar to that of the Canadians, who attended hockey camps frequented by stars like Cassie Campbell, Hayley Wickenheiser, and Carla McLeod.
“Lack of visibility in hockey had me feeling like the odd one out, especially when a few close friends took up ice skating lessons and I was on the opposite end of the ice, in my hockey class. So I’m forever thankful for Julie Chu for giving me the boost I needed,” they say.
The power of “ARD is the goat” extends far beyond just a casual group of young adults getting together to watch and crack jokes about women’s hockey. The group often discusses the disparities between the men’s and women’s games, and talks about ways they can build a strong foundation for the sport, making it better, more inclusive, and more accessible.
“It’s no secret that women’s hockey doesn’t get the support it deserves. It’s by no means from a lack of interest. … Women’s hockey fandom needs these spaces because there is interest, it just needs more opportunities and innovative ways to grow and reach more people,” Wong explains.
“Innovative ways” like the very group chat Palmer started last week. The group chat has served as a means of connecting hockey fans from different backgrounds, of different skill levels, and with different rooting interests from all across North America, giving each user a platform to share their thoughts and commiserate over tournament-ending losses in the same way one might commiserate over their death of their favorite NHL team’s playoff hopes.
Palmer is confident that the response to women’s hockey at the Olympics — including “ARD is the goat” — is a massive step in the right direction, and if she can be even a small part of it, that’s a win in her book.
“The response to this also shows that if you build it, they will come – one simple tweet has led to a new community. If you promote women’s sports, if you reach out to people, they will engage with it. People may not know this community is out there, and I can guarantee that the more we create positive spaces like this, the more people we will reach and the faster the sport will grow.”
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This Week in Women’s Hockey
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Five at the IX: Annie Bélanger
Annie Bélanger is a semi-retired women’s hockey player who spent four seasons playing at the University of Connecticut before making the jump to the CWHL with the Calgary Inferno. With the Inferno, she helped the team to a Clarkson Cup in 2019, and has since competed for one season with the PWHPA. The IX sat down with her to chat about the PWHPA, the Olympics, and what her future looks like in the sport.
Question: You spent your second season as a professional hockey player with the PWHPA, competing in two showcases alongside many of your former Calgary Inferno teammates. How was that first year for you, and how have you watched the PWHPA change and evolve since then?
Annie Bélanger: It was good — you know, at the time, the CWHL had just folded and the leaders of the group turned around really quickly to create playing opportunities for all of us; I was very appreciative of that. I have a good number of friends that still play in the PWHPA, [and] I think it’s improved since I’ve been there and I would expect them to have big plans post-Olympics.
Q: You aren’t on a PWHPA roster at the moment, but that doesn’t mean you’ve hung up your skates for good. What would it take to get you back between the pipes?
Bélanger: Well, that’s a good question. It would take a good amount of effort to get back into playing shape first, and then if a team was interested I would consider it; it would have to be in Toronto. Women’s hockey is very goalie-heavy and there [aren’t] that many spots to start with. I’ll always play in some capacity — whether it’s my Senior A beer league or professional.
Q: The PHF recently announced a $25 million investment into the league, and the PWHPA has been attracting sponsors since its inception. What does it mean to you to see so many big name brands aligning themselves with women’s hockey (e.g. Harvey’s, Sonnet, adidas, etc.)
Bélanger: So awesome. I work in private equity now and over the past few years, we’ve seen so many different types of companies at different stages raise capital that it seemed deliberate to me that we weren’t seeing money come into women’s sports. $25 million dollars is a big deal — and it takes serious, legitimate work to get that done. I think it sets a great standard for the sport and the PHF members should be very proud of what they’ve done. The PWHPA received good investments as well if memory serves, nothing is ever perfect but the two organizations have pushed each other and the sport is better for it.
Q: Marisa Ingemi, one of women’s hockey’s most accomplished journalists, recently reported that the PWHPA is in the works of launching a full-scale professional league after the conclusion of the Olympics. What would the ideal professional league look like to you, and how close do you think North America is to making that dream a reality? (Note: Ingemi’s article is available for you to read here.)
Bélanger: I’ll be interested to see — I think if there’s 2 leagues that are paying women to play hockey in North America, we should be pretty happy about that. An ideal league? I don’t know, people talk a lot about that and sometimes I feel like it’s diminishing the product we have right now. “One league” would also likely push a lot of good players into retirement, and is that what’s best? I don’t know, probably depends who you ask. We’re getting close, women’s sports are on the rise, and with additional investors, we should expect structural changes.
Q: Speaking of the Olympics — they’ve been on for a week now, and we’re just moving into the quarterfinals. In your expert opinion, who do you have taking home gold?
Bélanger: Let me plug in my UConn girls here: we have 3 girls at the Olympics representing China and they’ve done well so far. Must’ve gone to a hockey school. Canada has been better this year and the US got unlucky with a big injury early on. I wouldn’t count them out [and] I’m sure they will lean into the underdog narrative. I’m excited to watch; they give us an incredible show every time.
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