It was the spring of 1997, and I was at only my third Blackhawks game ever, a Friday nighter against the Mighty Ducks. I was with a male friend from college who was a Blackhawks diehard, and a female friend from New Jersey who was all about the Devils. As the second period horn sounded, and crews began setting up for the "Shoot The Puck" contest, which I must have been in the concourses for during my first two games, my Hawks friend set the scene for me:
"So, let me tell you exactly how this is gonna go. They're gonna bring out a little kid out first. Then they're gonna bring out some fat guy, probably in a Hawks jersey, and everybody's gonna boo the hell outta him. And then, they're gonna bring on some hot chick, and the place is gonna go nuts."
My friend's predictions, as you surely know, went 3-for-3. The hoots and catcalls rained down as the token hot chick missed her attempts, her wind-ups accompanied by the organ stylings of Frank Pellico, playing "The Stripper". If I listened closely, I could almost hear my Jersey friend's eyes rolling.
That was 17 years ago. Think about everything that's changed in American society, perception, and attitudes in that time. Think of everything that's changed in regard to sports and gender in that time. Think about everything that has changed about the Chicago Blackhawks organization in that time.
Now look at what hasn't.
This comes up during Blackhawks convention weekend because one fan named Casey had the nerve to ask a real question of Hawks management during their panel this morning: Why are you still doing this, anyway?
Why is Miss Physics-Defying Boots And Size Negative-1 Jeans with Pole-Dancing Musical Accompaniment still an essential fixture of the United Center Experience? And why does the team still insist on having women sweep the ice between whistles in crop tops and buttcheek-length skirts when an estimated 40% of the NHL's fanbase is now female, and a decent chunk of the male fandom finds no alluring hook in it?
By all accounts, management got a little ruffled by this. Everyone on the dais took a nervous swig of water, the sort that says "Hoo-boy, we've got no good answer to this one," before providing a solid non-answer, that the concern was appreciated and they would be careful about their practices going forward. In the context of the softball-lobbing the Blackhawks Convention's Q-and-A sessions are supposed to be, the fleeting moment of discomfort could, and should, be viewed as a major win. Maybe things will be different between the whistles for the 2014-15 season, though they probably won't, because getting rid of things like this always takes longer than it probably should. But the question is out now in a fairly public forum, and it appears to be gaining traction. Eventually, it's going to have to be addressed for real, in one way or another.
I'm genuinely surprised that John McDonough and the rest of his PR-savvy staff have kept these bits of tittilation around, because they, along with Frank Pellico and his 10-song repertoire, are among the few remaining relics of the Bad Old Days under Dollar Bill, when few people came to see bad hockey. (Completely apocryphal aside: I was told in the mid-2000s that Blackhawks employees were sometimes sent out to the city's adult entertainment venues to recruit women for Shoot The Puck. Free tickets to the game are yours, ladies, as long as you dress accordingly.) The concept of Ice Girls wasn't even a thing until 2001, when the Islanders were in an even more desperate period than they're currently associated with, so they gave some hotties some spandex and shovels, because it's not like they were going to attract eyeballs with their play. Many teams, including the Blackhawks, followed within a few years.
These are gimmicks bad teams, with bad attendance, and a surplus of bad ideas, trot out in hopes of getting any kind of attention they can. They are desperation moves, and the smarter members of sports fandom can sniff them out. Consider the current situation in San Jose, where many fans felt insult got added to injury when the team announced it was adding a scantily-clad ice crew for next year after a week in which they signed several "character guys" (read: bad hockey players). The sentiment was fairly universal: Are we that kind of hockey team now? Sharks fans don't want their team to be, and they're lobbying to keep the skin show off the ice. The Blackhawks haven't been that kind of team for seven years, so why do they still feel compelled to showcase these stunts?
As a guy, I can't accurately speak to these activities from a gender perspective. But as a hockey fan, I can speak in a language I know the Blackhawks front office understands: money. Yes, I know they're not the Hawks Ice Girls; they're the Bud Light Chicago Blackhawks Ice Crew, presented by Unlimited Tan, the Proud Tanning Center of the Chicago Blackhawks Ice Crew, but couldn't they still be that in windbreakers and track pants? In an era when female fandom and buying power continues to increase, why would you continue a practice that risks turning off women? And why would you also intentionally create uncomfortable situations for male fans who grew up on the sport and the team, and now want to share that love of the game with their young daughters?
If you think dropping the in-game sexy times will negatively impact the club's bottom line, look to historical precedent. How many people cancelled their season tickets at Soldier Field when Virginia McCaskey dumped the Honey Bears? And how quickly did that money get replaced by other people on the waiting list who wanted to go to football games to see football, as opposed to cheerleaders? 10, 20 minutes, maybe?
Dump the stripper music, Blackhawks. Dump the planted hottie, and dump the shoveling cheesecake. (Though if you were to start offering actual cheesecake that could be eaten with a miniature souvenir shovel, I would probably pay $8-$12 for that at the concession stand.)
What, exactly, would you lose by doing so?