With a bow in her hair and fire in her heart, Helena McDowell is proud to be the only girl on her hockey team. Sliding across the ice with her stick held low, she blows past defenders left and right, unstoppable and unbeatable. McDowell, a force of nature, melts the ice beneath her with fiery passion and athletic prowess.
From the moment she first picked up a hockey stick, McDowell knew that the female version of ice hockey was simply not cut out for her.
“I actually started out playing for a girls team, but it was not exactly the experience I wanted,” McDowell said. “The dynamic, especially of that team in particular, was not my favorite. ”
There were always the guys who see a girl, and they’re like, ‘oh she can’t play,’ regardless if I can or not. There are guys who won’t pass to me [and] won’t talk to me.
McDowell disliked the play-inhibiting restrictions that are a part of girls ice hockey, especially the rules that prevent contact-related techniques. For example, in girls hockey, checking is not allowed.
“When you play girls, you can’t check, which I find a little unfair,” McDowell said.
McDowell played for the Girls Junior Sharks in San Jose from 2011 through 2014, where she found herself considerable success, winning the district championship and placing third in the national championship in 2012.
After her time with the Junior Sharks, McDowell decided that she had had enough with the girls league, and in 2014 she found a boys team she could compete on unhindered by play-hampering guidelines. Despite the welcoming attitude shown to her by her teammates, McDowell still faces challenges related to her gender. One of the most significant issues McDowell faces whilst playing with boys is her size.
“One thing that is difficult sometimes is that guys tend to be bigger than girls,” McDowell said. “Sometimes the hitting can be kind of difficult, but usually I can handle it just fine.”
Due to this physical disadvantage, the majority of girls choose to play alongside other girls, rather than on boys teams like McDowell does.
“I think most girls who play hockey do tend to play with other girls, because that’s where they feel comfortable,” McDowell said. “Also there’s no hitting, which I think some girls do like.”
Girls often choose to play with other girls because it is where they feel most comfortable. They feel as if they belong more when they play with other girls than they do when they play alongside their male counterparts.
Even with her small stature, McDowell believes that girls are capable of making up for this size disadvantage, and play successfully alongside the boys. According to McDowell, it is possible for girls to play in a boys league as long as they are putting in all the necessary work.
“I think that girls can [compete with male hockey players] if they just try,” McDowell said. “They have to put in a lot of effort, but I think they can do it.”
However, the locker room poses another dilemma to girls playing on male teams. Often, girls and boys are not allowed to be in the same locker room, which hinders their ability to befriend their teammates. Fortunately for McDowell, her coach has a strict policy that prohibits changing clothes in the locker rooms. Instead, players change in the bathrooms, leaving the locker room to be a place to put on one’s gear and chat.
“If you’re going to meet your team, you have to talk in the locker rooms, where all the socializing happens,” McDowell said. “So fortunately for me, my coach does not let us change in the locker room, we all change in the bathroom instead of the locker room and then we all come in and put our gear on in the locker rooms.”
Unfortunately, not all girls are given the same freedom when they play on boys teams.
“I had some friends who played on all guys teams and weren’t allowed to be in the locker rooms, and for them it was a way different experience,” McDowell said.
Despite her proficiency in hockey and the impressive credentials that she compiled whilst playing in the girls leagues, McDowell was placed in the lowest male league her first season after giving girls hockey up. Instead of giving up on her hockey dreams, McDowell kept her head held high and set out to prove her worth. Through a display of natural talent and unmatched skill, McDowell swept through the lowest level league and ended up earning a spot on the team’s varsity roster the next year.
However, this change in teams did not come as easily as McDowell initially hoped it would.
“There were always the guys who see a girl, and they’re like, ‘oh she can’t play,’ regardless if I can or not,” McDowell said. “There are guys who won’t pass to me [and] won’t talk to me.”
I think that girls can compete with male hockey players if they just try. They have to put in a lot of effort, but I think they can.
When faced with this type of sexism, McDowell’s believes in simply playing good hockey. Besides letting her skill speak for itself, McDowell also enjoys flaunting her gender. She does this in a variety of ways, whether it be wearing a ribbon in her hair, or showing up to the rink in a dress. After she scores a goal, she can skate back to her side of the ice with an air of superiority.
“Sometimes, I’ll show up to the rink and wear a dress, just to show everyone that I can still be girly and play hockey with the boys,” McDowell said. “I’m a girl, and I can still beat you.”