Goaltender Marti Riesen playing for Switzerland against the Soviet Union, circa 1950.
Goaltender Marti Riesen playing for Switzerland against the Soviet Union, circa 1950. ETH Library

Ice hockey — a hard man’s sport?

Sport always reflects gender roles and images. Ice hockey being a rather extreme example. This is largely due to the way in which the sport has evolved.

Simon Engel

Simon Engel

Simon Engel is a historian and is responsible for public relations work at Swiss Sports History.

Ice hockey is a tough sport: the battle for the puck is not for the faint hearted; some players even show their missing teeth as proof of their fearlessness on the ice. As soon as the playoffs start, the macho ice hockey stars start growing a beard, which they don’t shave off until they have either exited the playoffs or won the title – as manly as it gets. At least that is how people tend to see ice hockey. However, a look back to the origins of the sport reveals that – steady on, macho men! – women used to be just as involved as the men.
Women and men at a bandy game, St. Moritz, 1910.
Women and men at a bandy game, St. Moritz, 1910. Wikimedia / Swiss National Library
So, why is ice hockey now seen as a typically male preserve? And why were women part of the game when it started and later still to be seen skating around Swiss ice rinks, even when they had stopped playing with sticks and puck? The answers go back to the transition from the 19th to the 20th century: ice hockey came to Switzerland from North America and the United Kingdom (where it was known as Bandy) around 1880. Similar to other winter sports or football, it was a byproduct of Switzerland’s internationalisation, which led to ice hockey mainly becoming prevalent in the winter health resorts of Graubünden and the Vaud pre-Alpine area: Anglo-American tourists played the game while staying in the Grand Hotels, and ice hockey also featured on the curriculum of the elite and international boarding schools where it was mainly played by children from outside Switzerland. So, the origins of the modern game in Switzerland were cosmopolitan and upper class.
A picnic on the ice at St. Moritz, circa 1900.
A picnic on the ice at St. Moritz, circa 1900. Swiss National Museum
So, why this penchant among ‘the great and the good’ for ice hockey? In terms of tourism, there were many reasons. First and foremost was the idea that the Alpine air – and thus winter sports – were good for the health. For example, the St. Moritz spa association stated in a brochure published in 1901 that it was the ideal place to combine wellbeing with pleasure. And winter sports were more expensive in those days, so they were ideal for standing out from the crowd: not everyone was able to unwind in the Grand Hotel, engaging in sports and other pleasurable pastimes, following an arduous journey through the Alps. Needless to say, the affluent guests were elegantly dressed, and ice hockey was one of the things people did to see and be seen.
Elegant ice hockey game in the Grand Hotel at Les Avants, canton of Vaud in the 1920s.
Elegant ice hockey game in the Grand Hotel at Les Avants, canton of Vaud in the 1920s. ETH Library
There were also practical reasons for the spread of ice hockey, as hotels competed for guests through the quality of their infrastructure, with ice rinks for curling, ice skating and ice hockey, and even sledge runs, bobsleigh runs and later on ski lifts.
Poster for the Grand Hotel & Belvedere in Davos, 1905.
Poster for the Grand Hotel & Belvedere in Davos, 1905. Wikimedia
This brought the locals in the health resorts, especially the manly youths, into contact with ice hockey. They started out playing in the streets with rudimentary equipment, as Swiss international Hans Dürst reminisced during an interview: “There was a big semi-circular cellar window on the street near our house and it made the perfect goal area. We played on the street, it wasn’t a problem as there was hardly any traffic in those days.” They used frozen horse droppings as a puck, and the sticks were cobbled together wooden slats. However, as sources on this form of street ice hockey (known in the local dialect as: chneblen) are scarce, it’s hard to say how widespread the game initially was among the locals. In the exclusive boarding schools, on the other hand, the game was mainly seen as an educational measure for young men, as outlined in the 1923/24 annual report of the Lyceum Alpinum Zuoz: “This intense form of exercise and teamwork is a valuable learning experience in many different ways: the teamwork cultivates a feeling of solidarity and camaraderie; the matches themselves require courage, skill and endurance, and the strictly regulated combat against the opponent is invaluable for learning the manly virtues of self-control and loyalty.” In other words, the competition allowed the boys to observe the rules, work as part of a team and behave like a certain kind of man – the mature gentleman, who always has his feelings and actions under control. This educational approach was based on the United Kingdom’s elite public schools, which still offer an extensive sporting curriculum for those same reasons today.
Ice hockey match at a boarding school above Vevey, 1907.
Ice hockey match at a boarding school above Vevey, 1907. FOSPO image archive
Women’s ice hockey in its early days was a leisure pursuit reserved for high society Anglo-American tourists staying in the Grand Hotels. However, upper-class ladies playing ice hockey was in no way a sign of equality: early 20th century Europe was ambivalent about the participation of women in sport generally and in winter sports especially. Sport was seen as being good for women’s health, the Alpine air in particular was considered therapeutic for the imaginary “sickly and emotional female condition”. At the same time, there were critical voices arguing that winter sports were not becoming or refined enough for women and also jeopardised their fertility. These biological arguments were propagated by male doctors (and a few female doctors) at the time, leading to a division of sports into ‘typical’ female and male sports along the gender lines of the day. Differences in terms of physical ability and constitution were often used as an argument for excluding women. But there were also unisex sports. Nonetheless, gender-based differences were elaborated in the instruction manuals and rule books: female gymnasts were to stick to ‘soft’ gymnastics, while male gymnasts were supposed to perform difficult, strength-based exercises. Women did take part in downhill skiing but their descents were less steep and not as challenging as for the men. Ice hockey in Switzerland developed into a purely male sport after 1900. The outbreak of the First World War signalled the end of international ice hockey tourism, as it faded from memory or was replaced by other sports. In addition, a few years before the war it began evolving from a leisure pursuit, or something to turn boys into men, into a competitive sport with rules, teams, clubs and associations. It all started with the elite and exclusively male boarding schools in the Lake Geneva area, where the teams of pupils and teachers evolved over time into ice hockey clubs and set a precedent for others. The Vaud hoteliers also bought into the ‘new’ version of ice hockey. They saw the clubs as an ideal marketing instrument for their health resorts. For example, they hosted invitation tournaments with teams from France and the United Kingdom, which were covered by the Swiss and foreign press. The boarding school heads and hoteliers in French-speaking Switzerland thus supported the founding of the first Swiss ice hockey association in 1906. However, this official form of ice hockey made no provision for female players.
Berlin skating club versus Brussels ice hockey club at the first European Championships in 1910 at Les Avants near Montreux.
Berlin skating club versus Brussels ice hockey club at the first European Championships in 1910 at Les Avants near Montreux. Wikimedia
Does that mean the exclusion of women from Swiss ice hockey was solely due to its becoming a competitive sport? It isn’t that simple: at the start of the 20th century, for example, there were female ice hockey teams at the colleges in Canada. They even played each other in a championship between 1921 and 1936. As early as 1916, there was an international tournament in Cleveland USA with teams from the USA and Canada. Outside North America, there was organised women’s ice hockey in France and the UK during the 1930s. Paris club ‘Droit au But’ even had its second headquarters in Vaud health resort Villars and regularly played matches there. In 1930, however, the International Ice Hockey Federation postponed a decision on holding women’s championships until further notice.
Queen's University hockey team, Kingston, Ontario (CA), 1917.
Queen's University hockey team, Kingston, Ontario (CA), 1917. Wikimedia
As mentioned above, women did participate ‒ and even compete ­‒ in various physical, ‘masculine’ sports, such as skiing. In the 1920s, modern role models like the sporty girl also arrived in Europe: women tried athletics, ski jumping, mountain climbing, gliding, motor sports and football. They also founded their own associations for those sports. At the same time, this was not indicative of any fundamental shift in attitudes as the societal debate on women in sport tended to be sceptical of, or even opposed to, females in sport until the 1960s. So, it was national perceptions about male and female roles which made ice hockey in Europe a male preserve. Women participating, or even competing, in sport were crossing a societal line if they demanded inclusion in what were considered masculine pursuits.
New image of women in the 1920s: a female boxer on the front cover of magazine “Die Woche”, 1929.
New image of women in the 1920s: a female boxer on the front cover of magazine “Die Woche”, 1929. akg Images / Universal Images Group
These perceptions, although watered down, persist today as leadership positions are mainly held by men and the sport implicitly backs heterosexual manliness as the standard. These structures and standards form the basis used to determine how, where and when women can do sport. The institutionalisation of ice hockey by men in the past and doctors ruling on which sports were (un)suitable for women thus took place by design. These gender-typical ‘sporting cultures’ are reinforced by role models disseminated in the media, which influence which types of sport women want to participate in. This was shown in Switzerland when the first ice rinks were constructed beyond the Alps in the early 1930s: the boys looked forward to street ice hockey “chneblen”, while the girls opted for ice skating aspiring to become ice princesses. All these factors contributed to women’s ice hockey falling into obscurity, at least in Europe, for three decades after the Second World War. It only made a comeback with the social upheaval that followed 1968: the first teams were formed in Scandinavia in the early 1970s, and Switzerland’s first women’s ice hockey association was founded in 1980 in La Vannerie (Fribourg). Four years and eight new clubs later, the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation (SIHF) recognised women’s ice hockey. In the 1980s, national and international championships were started, the (at that time still unofficial) Swiss women’s ice hockey championships began in 1986.
Programme on women in ice hockey from 3 December 2000. RTS
Nonetheless, this institutional boost only brought conditional gender equality: unlike the men, female ice hockey players have to wear full-face protection with a full-visor or cage facial protection. Women’s ice hockey accordingly has a gender-specific sporting culture to which women must defer to preserve their ‘fragile femininity’ as it is perceived by society and sport. Meanwhile, serious injury just adds to the appeal and is seen as part of the game for the macho, male ice hockey stars. But just how tough are today’s ice hockey gladiators? They now wear helmets, padded protection and gumshields. It wasn’t like that in the old days.

Swiss Sports History

This text was produced in collaboration with Swiss Sports History, the portal for the history of sports in Switzerland. The portal focuses on education in schools and information for the media, researchers and the general public. Find out more at sportshistory.ch

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