'NWHL: History Begins' Hockey Doc Director Talks Gender Equity In Sports & Hollywood

The top honor for the National Hockey League, the Stanley Cup, actually predates the contemporary hockey organization. Named for Lord Stanley of Preston, a 19th-century Governor General of Canada, it originated as a prize awarded to amateur leagues prior to the formation of the professional organization. But Lord Stanley also had a daughter — as much as he himself was an avid hockey fan, his daughter, too, was a skilled player and one of the first female champions of the sport. So it makes sense that the nascent National Women's Hockey League, inaugurated in April, selected Isobel Stanley as the namesake for its own championship award: the Isobel Cup. An upcoming documentary NWHL: History Begins by director-producer Rachel Koteen will chart the playoffs leading to the first awards ceremony, as well as the setbacks confronting and landmarks achieved by the NWHL in its first year.

NWHL: History Begins was successfully crowd-funded on Kickstarter just before Koteen spoke with Bustle last week, and well before its December 8 deadline. Her excitement was palpable even over the phone; as an avid sports fan and experienced documentary filmmaker (she co-produced the televised documentary Half the Sky, based on Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's book of the same name), she's well-positioned to make a film about the first professional American women's hockey league to pay its players. She describes the film's narrative as twofold: Firstly, it tracks the day-to-day experiences of the women vying for the Isobel Cup; and secondly, it surveys the status of women's sports more broadly. It's not just for hockey fans, though it's that, too. Still in the early stages of production, NWHL: History Begins is also about hard-earned recognition for athletes at the top of their sport, how women — especially female athletes — are portrayed in media, and gender equity on a large scale.

Women's sports have long been second-tier to the men's leagues that dominate televised coverage. Of ESPN SportsCenter's stories, an estimated 2 to 3 percent cover women's sports, Koteen says — and of the remaining 97 percent, the majority is devoted to four primary leagues: the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League. This gender disparity may be most pronounced in hockey. "Hockey is seen as a rough sport and a violent sport," though perhaps unfairly, Koteen explains. "It does have that aspect and that history," she adds, but "at its best level, it's a game of skill." Due to the sport's reputation for violence — blood spattered on the ice and across the boards, fights breaking out in the rink — women have been alienated from its ranks, despite their prominent forbear Isobel Stanley.

"If people keep telling you that something’s not for you, at some point maybe you’re just going to say okay, I guess it’s not for me," Koteen says, referring to female sports fandom. The gender gap is particularly pronounced in hockey, she notes, both among fans and players. "That message is pretty dominant to this day." But the enormous outpouring of support for the film thus far speaks to a strong fan base supporting the nascent NWHL — having exceeded her funding goal, Koteen has established a reach goal that will permit an even more ambitious shooting schedule. She's almost met her new goal of $55,000, too.

Women's hockey was first adopted by the Olympic committee in 1992. Its first medal was awarded in Nagano, Japan in 1998. In contrast, men's hockey was welcomed into the winter games in 1920 (and Canada, long the bastion of ice hockey, dominated those first years of the sport, winning six of the seven first gold medals). The National College Athletics Association first held a women's ice hockey championship in 2001, compared to 1948 for the men's championship. College athletes benefit from Title IX, the federal provision that prohibits gender-based discrimination on campus for federally funded programs and is often attributed to college sports in particular. Yet Title IX also extends to STEM programs, in which women have traditionally been marginalized, and aims to protect victims and survivors of sexual assault on campus.


But as many strides as have been made in collegiate circles, Koteen notes "there is no Title IX for life." (This was one of the first lines she penned when writing the treatment for her documentary, she adds.) That is, as many challenges as confront female athletes at college, "once you leave academia, it's not a level playing field at all."

And while this inequity might be particularly pronounced in hockey, the vibrant and ongoing conversation about the gender gap from the sports arena to the classroom to Hollywood makes this film relevant no matter whether you're a die-hard sports fan or a hockey newcomer. NWHL: History Begins includes women on both sides of the camera, which continues to be a rarity among filmmaking teams.

All too often, conversations about female athletes are centered on what she's wearing, who she's married to, and when she'll start a family, Koteen says, though she adds that the media has begun to "acknowledge strong female athletes and recognize them for their athletic prowess," citing Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey by way of example. Female athletes, like women in most careers, confront a pretty wide gender pay gap — their leagues aren't as well-funded or well-established, and the NWHL makes a particularly compelling example of this divide. Koteen was drawn to the league's story because of an underlying fascination with what it takes to be at the pinnacle of a profession, especially when the payoff is not as evident as it might be for men. (This is not to say that male athletes are in it for the money alone, but their ample compensation is likely a partial motivator.)

"As long as women's work is being devalued in some spheres, it’s being devalued in every sphere," Koteen says. The Kickstarter for NWHL: History Begins closes December 8.

Image: Rachel Koteen/540 Films