Monday, February 16, 2015

It's time to end the social stigma about depression

Depression is a silent killer.

It kills hopes and dreams. It drains willpower and physical energy. It destroys relationships. It separates us from loved ones. It wastes man hours, costs us productivity, and leaves people dysfunctional. At its very worst, it makes its victims so hopeless with despair over their situation, feeling that there is no way out, that they take their own lives.

Depression doesn't discriminate. It affects the young, the old, and those in the prime of their lives. Men or women, straight or gay, no matter your religion or skin color - depression doesn't care. The rich can't buy a preventive barrier, and the poor are even more likely to suffer from it.

Depression can be as simple as "feeling a little under the weather", if it's persistent for more than just a couple days. It can make everyday chores like laundry and dishes be major obstacles. It can make you feel like you're lost, treading water, unable to get your head up enough for fresh air and sunshine. It can be triggered by weather or diet or illness or any number of things.

I've seen family and friends and co-workers be victims. And I, too, have fought my own battle. Nearly 10% of the population will face depression at some point in their life - and some 80% of those affected will never get diagnosed and/or receive treatment. If you think you don't know anybody who's battled depression, you may not recognize the signs: 

Many people who suffer from depression do not seek help because of the stigmas that surround this illness, coupled with denial. "I don't want people to think I'm nuts." "I'm not depressed, I'm just tired/overworked/it's been a rough week/I'm not eating right."

My grandfather had Alzheimer's for several years before his death. My great-aunt had dementia in her final months. These are also mental illnesses, degenerative brain functioning often accompanied by depression - and yet they are not regarded with the same stigmas and denial that depression is. Perhaps it is because Alzheimer's and dementia are most commonly seen in the elderly, and are accepted as one of the many ways that the body breaks down late in life. Although there is no cure for Alzheimer's, we hasten to put advanced victims into care facilities where they can have the kind of round-the-clock care necessary for them. People are patient and even kind with those under the grips of Alzheimer's or similar mental diseases; but do not treat those with depression the same way.

Your relative has Alzheimer's? "Gosh, that's terrible, what a shame, they'll be in my prayers."

You think you have depression? "Snap out of it!"

If only it were that easy.

Depression is frequently not as visible. Sometimes it is quite mild - minor mood swings, insomnia, lack of energy - and people mistake their depression for something else. Many people are functional "enough" with depression that they manage to cover up any signs of their illness. Depression can accompany or even mask other diseases.

A few years before my father died, he suddenly fell ill with acute depression not long after returning from a trip abroad. It was like somebody had flipped a switch on his personality. He went from a colorful, gregarious, bold personality to a man that could barely function around his own home. His sleeping habits were poor, he lost his appetite, he lost weight. He had to be forced to take a shower, get dressed, and have his bed made daily. He couldn't even stand to watch any TV - partially because he was unable to follow a 30-minute program for the whole show, but also because he'd simply lost interest. He'd lay on his made bed in the dark bedroom and stare at the ceiling all day. His behavior was like a combination of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's - he was forgetful, his hands would shake, his handwriting became terrible, his short-term memory wasn't functioning correctly. Accompanying the depression - and making it more difficult for the doctors to correctly diagnose him - was that he began to suffer from paranoia as well. He didn't have hallucinations, but there was clearly something very, very wrong with him.

It was frightening. 

No, not just frightening: terrifying. It was a complete 180 of his personality, and there wasn't anything we could personally do to help "fix" it.

I saw him like this for the first time just a few weeks after it began, and the changes were huge, and startling. He'd gained circles so dark under his eyes that it looked like they'd been smudged with charcoal. He wore an expression of fear as he slowly shuffled around his own home - the paranoia that accompanied his depression crowded out rational thought. His voice wasn't the same, and when he did speak, it was in fear of what what happening to him, beyond his control.

You don't know how to react when someone you know is that far gone, when they're not responding very much to medications, when all you can feel about the situation is a feeling of helplessness. And you try your damndest to contain your natural reactions of irritation as their abnormal behavior grinds away at your ingrained expectations of what their behavior should be.

An early consultation with a doctor at a major clinic suggested that he might have Lewy Body Dementia, the same dementia-related disease that Blackhawks great Stan Mikita is suspected to suffer from, as announced a few weeks ago. As it turns out, that doctor was wrong - nearly 25% of LBD cases are mis-diagnosed. In the meantime, he went to the local hospital, and was repeatedly treated by the VA system. They tried out just about every drug on the market on him. Eventually, many months after the depression first manifested, they would find a set of treatments that worked for him, but by the time he was finally starting to approach a new kind of normal, he'd been suffering a bunch of other health problems, including lung cancer, which were slowly destroying his overall physical health.

When it comes to depression, we all too often make light of the person suffering ("snap out of it") or we ignore the symptoms - and the problem, unless it becomes undeniable. But when it comes to depression, it shouldn't be ignored. Depression is not only about the victim, but how it affects others - and how it is affected by others.

If depression is mild, it may be as simple as a sick day at work spent home in bed, or some briefly ignored housework. Most people with depression can still be quite functional - get up, go to work, even perform their jobs well and with a smile on their face. But then they go home and have a hard time facing chores around the house. They turn down social invitations not because they don't want to go, but because it feels like a tremendous effort to do something like getting dressed up and heading across town. They may ignore their own fitness, giving up on physical routines or eating poorly -- and this is a bit ironic, as exercise generates endorphins, which helps a person feel more positive.

At these levels - when the victim is still functional at their job, and puts on a happy face in public - most people don't realize how much the person is suffering. Not every person feels hopeless or so far gone that suicidal thoughts enter their head; many simply feel exhausted, run down, say that they have a "lack of energy". At stronger levels, it becomes far worse; and once depression is undeniably noticeable, it strongly affects the people around the victim - family and caregivers who need to spend much of their time and effort keeping that person from hurting themselves and in safe conditions.

Depression affects individuals, but it's a community disease. For all the research that has been done, we still don't know enough about how the brain works or what causes depression - only that it can't be predicted or prevented, only treated once it begins to manifest signs.

That is why movements like #BellTalks are important. The stigma around depression has to be removed. Depression affects nearly 10% of the population at any given time, and being afraid or ashamed to seek help at the early signs can lead to far worse conditions.

People who have to help or live with those with depression need to have resources and places they, too, can turn to for support.

The hardest part about depression is that we're so conditioned to the stigmas that surround mental health that people are afraid to ask for help, or they wrap themselves in denial. It's very easy for us to tweet out a message of support, or say, "Pick up the phone and talk to a hotline". If it becomes a huge effort to do some mindless easy task like wash an evening's dishes, how easy do you think it is for that person to pick up the phone to a stranger, or even to a friend, and say, "I need help"?

Sometimes, it's a friend or family member or coworker that has to have the strength to pick up the phone, and say, "How can I help my friend/coworker/family member?" Or even to just sit down and tell that person, "I've noticed you seem to be struggling a bit lately. What can I do to help?"

As we've seen rather all too frequently, some of the people who are in the spotlight - celebrities and sports figures who it would appear to have it all, to have their lives together - have shown us that depression doesn't discriminate, and that depression can be more powerful than fame and money. Robin Williams, a universally-beloved comedian who had a rich and varied career, took his own life at 63 last summer. Kurt Cobain, at the height of Nirvana's rise to fame, ended his own life. Famous athletes - ranging from old-timers like Cy Morgan (MLB) to more recent ones like Rick Rypien and Wade Belak (both NHL) have done it.

That's the greatest misconception about depression: that people who suffer from it are weak. If anything, people who suffer from depression and manage to overcome it are incredibly strong. It takes a lot to succeed against your own brain when it's telling you that things are wrong with you, and your body is working against you.

That's why it is so important for leagues like the NHL and NFL - which lead pro sports in head injuries - to take mental health very seriously. It's why we have to end the stigma around mental health, depression, and anxiety - why we have to stop making feel as if they will be rejected or ridiculed when what they really need is help. People who are bullied or harassed will often fall victim to depression, which is why it is good that a lot of effort is being expended to stop bullying, sexism, and homophobia.

Mental health is a community issue. It's time we started treating it like one.

* * *

US: for more information on depression, anxiety, and other mental diseases: National Institute of Mental Health

US & Canada: National Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) 273-8255 (800-273-TALK), available 24/7, online chat also available
US (LGBT-specific): The Trevor Project
Australia: Lifeline & Kids Help Line (for those 5-25)
Ireland & UK: Samaritans
UK: PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide 
New Zealand: Lifeline New Zealand

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Good, the Meh, and Thoughts on Ways to Improve the All-Star Game (top 5 lists)

This past weekend, the NHL held its 60th  All-Star Game in Columbus. The Blue Jackets faithful opened their arms and welcomed fans from around the league, showing off their city. Happily for Columbus, both media and fans came away from the weekend praising their time in the city. (Hint: if you visit, enjoy time beyond of the Arena District; there's lots of cool things to explore in Columbus!)

Columbus and CBJ created an outdoor festival park called the All-Star Winter Park which included a giant snow slide and a skating rink, among other attractions.

All-Star Games are kind of weird. Fans and media will mock them for being pointless other than A) showing off the sponsors and B) being a cash-grab from jersey/merchandise sales, and yet people tune in to watch and will live-Tweet what's going on. People who attend the All-Star Game in person know that it's a friendly party/celebration weekend for hockey people where you might run into a mega-star hockey player nursing a beer at a local bar.

You have a number of players who'll talk about being honored to be there. Then there's others who imply it's part and parcel of choosing to be a professional athlete. And finally, those players who beg out behind the scenes, or come down with an injury prior to the All-Star Weekend.  Whatever their view of it being an honor or obligation, the players pretty much agree to play at moderate speeds, with no hits and practically no defense (because they don't want to get hurt for the real games) - which - let's face it - makes for some dull hockey.

But wait! you say. This game had a record number of goals; goals aren't dull, how can this be dull hockey? When there's no defense, and more importantly, no pace, no speed - the game gets boring, so it's not necessarily the highlight event of the weekend. In fact, the skills competition generally generates more buzz, because it really shows off the skill that these players have to compete at the NHL level.

The Sportvision test held during the weekend showed the potential for the game and the future of statistics. At-home viewers were able to see things like players' ice speed and puck maneuverings. The broadcast analysts acknowledged that the All-Star Game probably wasn't the best example for collecting data, as players were not going full, normal speeds. As the NHL explores Sportsvision use further, it will probably not make all statistics gleaned from it available to the public, but it certainly offers plenty of potential to improve broadcasts and to collect more precise statistics.

So let's look back at the weekend, and discuss what was good, what was meh, and where the All-Star Game can improve.


5. The Fan Fair - While the Fan Fair mostly highlighted the sponsors, it also offered fans lots of ways to connect to the game and the league through playing various interactive displays (fasting shot, etc), which were fun. Naturally, being able to visit with the Stanley Cup was a highlight, but the line was often long. The league's various mascots were here for much of the day providing entertainment. While the majority of the Fan Fair was an opportunity of "take my money!" there were plenty of ways to watch a couple hours disappear.

4. The players obviously having fun with the weekend - Alex Ovechkin shamelessly begging to get a car out of the weekend, whether it was being picked last in the Draft or earning it as MVP. As it turns out, Ovechkin had a reason for it - he saw it as an opportunity to donate the care to the Ice Dogs, a special needs youth player hockey program in Virginia.

3. The mascots - This was my own first ASG, so I don't know how involved the mascots usually are. But the mascots were heavily involved throughout the weekend, making multiple appearances and hanging out at Fan Fair, playing a hockey game prior to the Skills competition, being active in the stands during events. It was fan-tastic.

2. Family time, and not just for fans - Whether it was hearing about Nick Folgino's daughter's heart surgery; Ryan Johansen borrowing the son of Mike Vogt, one of the team's trainers, to help him score a goal during the Breakaway Challenge; or seeing Darryl Sutter's son Chris doing some coaching on the bench, it was a reminder that it was some fun family time not just for the fans but also for the players.

1. The Draft - This year, the Fantasy Draft took place on Friday night before an audience of fans. While the players might have called it "hydration" or just "Red Bull", it was clear that there was something a little more... exotic in their cups. As a result, the players were loose, relaxed, and joking around throughout the Draft, which rolled along at a steady clip, and was often quite hilarious. It was great to see that the personalities of a wide range of players from across the league might not match perceptions of them. (Captain Not-So-Serious, anyone?)


5. Communications - Some of the schedule details were released late. Not everybody coming to the ASG is local, so knowing what's available, when, where, and how to participate are important when people want to plan their travel. For example, details surrounding the Fantasy Draft were released very late, so a lot of fans may not have realized they could attend it as part of the Fan Fair. For those interested in such events, the red carpet when/where info, signing events, etc - all details that could've been available online or via an app long prior to the weekend.

4. The Fan Fair didn't open until 3pm on Friday - As people travel from out of town for the weekend, there were definitely fans wandering around looking for things to do that afternoon. It would be good for it to open at noon on Friday. 

3. No re-entry for the Fan Fair once you left.  The Fair could get crowded and overwhelming at certain times of the day. If the lines got long, there wasn't an option to leave and come back later without paying for another ticket. Wanted to watch the Draft live on Friday, but had already been to Fan Fair earlier that day? Buy another ticket. Do a hand stamp/wrist band or something - anything - that allows fans unlimited in-and-out rights to the Fan Fair on the same day of their ticket; or have an all-weekend Fan Fair pass. 

2. Few chances to connect with the star players - There was one autograph stage at the Fan Fair, and the good thing was the players who were scheduled for it seemed willing and happy to sign as long as people lined up. However, the four sessions per day consisted mainly of the rookies and local team players. Columbus full-season ticket holders got to enjoy a private event on Thursday night to kick off the weekend (no half- or quarter-season ticket holders), and those who could afford $1K/ticket were able to enjoy a very cool "speakeasy" charity event on Thursday night as well. Perhaps slot in some "surprise" players for signings, or people being able to buy raffle tickets for a chance for meet-n-greets or signings, with proceeds going to charity, would give fans the chance to connect with the biggest stars of the NHL galaxy.
1. The jerseys - Oh, sure, they looked cool - something that you might find a snowboarder or motocross fan sporting. 

But the color choices turned out to be a problem. The numbers on the black jerseys were difficult to read at a distance, and the white jerseys blended into the color of the ice on TV. The design appealed to the young and hip, but in the environment of the rink lost its luster. Photographers also complained of issues photographing the jerseys under rink lights.  

In the modern NHL, white jerseys traditionally signify the visiting team. But why stick to that mentality in the All-Star Game? Fans can tell the difference between two different-colored jerseys, and it really makes them pop visually.

Let's take a look overseas at the KHL, who also held their All-Star Game this weekend. The KHL opted for two colors: red and blue. But they didn't have white visiting jerseys in their All-Star Game. Following European hockey style for special events, the teams wore all blue or all red, which really pops both in pictures and on video.

More importantly, the "All-Star Game" logo was the most prominent one on the jersey. Like the NHL, the KHL's logo is featured on the front center of the collar, and the logo repeats within the large All-Star logo as well. So why make has the NHL frequently made the league logo, not the event logo, the most noticeable logo on the actual jersey for All-Star Games?

The NHL is the only one of the major leagues who seems more concerned with making the league logo the most noticeable design element of the jersey. Do the fans not know what league they're watching and need to be reminded? If you explored the merchandise shops, it was the All-Star logo, not the NHL one, gracing most products; so why isn't the jersey the same way?


1. Spice up the Skills Competition -- Bring back some of the things that have been dropped/modified - for example, previous Speed Skating competitions included backwards skating and goalie skating, both very entertaining, and more interesting than four rounds of the same race. 

Add some more ways that goalies can help compete - if we're not taking things all that seriously this weekend, why not include some goalie-on-goalie shooting in the Breakout Challenge? Most goalies probably list "scoring a goal" on their personal career secret bucket list, why not give them the blatant opportunity to do so?

Nobody in this year's Breakaway contest had a move so crazy as the KHL All-Star Game, which featured the grocery cart goal, nor any goals quite so slick as Nikita Gusev's joyful spin-o-rama lacrosse-style goal during the Skills Competition night.

Oh, if only Gaudreau had been allowed to set his stick on fire!

2. Find some ways to improve fan involvement other than just hashtag voting -  For example: have a "design the All-Star jersey" contest (it certainly wouldn't be any worse than some of the jerseys the league has designed); winner gets a home and away team jersey, and a VIP trip to the All-Star Weekend, including a meet-and-greet with their favorite ASG player.

3. Widen the offerings at the Fan Fair - Most of the sponsored things to do at the Fan Fair were fun, and related to the game. One way that they could make the event even more interested would be to have Q&A/speaking panels. The Blackhawks do this at their annual Convention, and they're well-attended, fun, and interesting. Gary Bettman could host a Q&A session. There could be a panel with NHL Network personalities and PHWA members discussing how to get into sports reporting. Hockey writers and personalities who've written a book in the past year could give a discussion about their book. The potential is limitless.

4. Give the players some incentive to inject some enthusiasm into the actual game part of the program - Sure, it's cool that "Mr. Irrelevant" and the game MVP get cars, who they'll probably pass along for charity purposes. But since the game doesn't count for any points and has no influence on anything in the season, the players play relatively conservatively, so they won't hurt themselves, which makes for some pretty boring hockey in a game filled with the best players in the world. They need something that gives them incentive to play above a pace best described as "turtle caution".

How about making a charity incentive for the winning team - perhaps $5K/player, $10K/captain/alternative captain to the players' charity of choice for the winning team. Or a $25K or $50K donation to a charity of the team captain's choosing or one voted upon by the winning team. Similar incentives could be used for players who set records in the Skills event.

5. If there's going to be dozens of goals (and there will always be plenty of goals in the All-Star Game), shake up the goal songs - Listening to the same goal song (or cannon going off) for a dozen or more goals doesn't do much to spice up what's already a dull game. Let the players pick individual goal songs, or play the songs that their corresponding team uses. It will help bring the crowd into it more.

* * *

Overall, attending the NHL All-Star Game in person was a lot of fun. It's too bad that due to the Olympics and other events that it's not held every year.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Women fans want less sexism, more equality

Just because fans line up to throw money at your business doesn't mean that there aren't things that can be improved about what you do.

Ice girls (women) are clearly not meant to market towards female fans. They were first introduced by the New York Islanders 13 years ago, and were there for one big, obvious reason: as a method to help draw fans to the arena. (Sex sells! Shocker, I know.) Other teams with poor attendance took notice; and now the majority of teams (21) in the league employ women as ice girls, cheerleaders, or dancers. 

Not all the teams have ice girls; and some teams don't put women in skimpy outfits as part of the ice-clearing crew, but instead put them in skimpy outfits on "dance teams" or cheerleading squads who rally fans during the game without ever putting skate to ice. For example, until this season, the Florida Panthers had women who do a sort of Rockettes-type ice dance during intermissions; they have dropped them this season, probably due to the same financial reasons that saw them cut many positions within the team. The New York Rangers also used to have ice girls, and they disbanded them in 2007 after settling out of a sexual harassment lawsuit. 

While some teams have their girls in something like yoga pants and tight-fitting/midriff-baring jerseys, most of the female ice/cheer/dance uniforms have gotten shorter and skimpier over the years. The newest team to introduce an ice crew, the San Jose Sharks, have released pictures of their proposed uniforms; their women will be - at least at the ice crew's launch - closer to fully dressed (with bared midriffs, of course), while the men - yes, the team is co-ed - will wear something closer to a track suit. 

The Sharks' fans immediately protested the announcement, making it clear that they didn't feel it was necessary to add this kind of entertainment to their game day experience. With San Jose's attendance hovering at or near 100% since 2006-07, it's also obvious that the Sharks don't have any issues filling their building, which is lively and energetic for games. The team said they were looking to create a "co-ed, high-energy ice team that supports the San Jose Sharks," and said that their approach to their new ice crew would be "tasteful." Time will tell.

Hockey continues to grow its reach, and that fan base is becoming increasingly female - currently around the 40% mark, give or take 3% based on the team. That number gets bigger for other sports: 43% of NFL fans, 46.5% of MLB fans, and 47.2% of MLS fans. If hockey feels it needs cheerleaders in the stands, or pretty girls in tiny outfits as part of the ice-cleaning crews, it is clearly catering to the male demographic which currently makes up about 60% of their fans. 

Let's talk about the basic mathematics of demographics. In 2005, there were approximately 20 million NHL fans (based on attendance), and roughly 65% were male (13 million). By 2014, league attendance had risen to 22.25 million, and now it's "only" 60% male (13.35 million). While 350,000 new male fans were attracted to the game, that represents only a 2.7% growth rate among men. However, that also means the female fan base has grown from 7 million (2005) to 8.9 million. That would indicate the female part of the fan base grew at a significantly faster clip (27.1%) than the men - at 10 times the growth rate! In addition to that, growth among women actively participating in hockey (that is, playing in rec leagues) is outpacing men's growth by a 2-1 margin.

Why is that important? Because women control almost 80% of consumer spending in North America, and approximately 70% of consumer spending worldwide. Combine that with the fact that hockey fans tend to be the best-educated, have the highest income, and are most tech-savvy among all sports fans, and you have a lot of intelligent women spending their hard-earned money on things that mean a lot to them. Women's spending is particularly booming for big-ticket categories like computers and cars, financial services and banking - and yes, things like season tickets for sports they enjoy.

Think that's not important enough? According to's facts on women, "Women spent 80% of all sport apparel dollars, and controlled 60% of all money spent on men's clothing." So men are far, far away from controlling the majority of money spent on sports.

Women like to be educated about their spending choices. They are more likely to support brands that are environmentally-friendly, and those that are owned or operated by women. And let's make something clear here as well: these aren't women spending their men's money. Women now hold the majority (51%) of private wealth in the U.S., and that number continues to rise. 

Here's the kicker: most women (over 60%!) feel misunderstood by marketers. The figure varies depending on what kind of product is being sold, running as high as 91%, but the more technical or financially-related the product is, the greater the disconnect seems to be.

Women account for less than 15% of S&P 500's board of directors. Of those few companies who do have female representation on their boards, they have 53% higher returns on equity, 42% higher sales, and 66% higher ROI - something the NHL might want to consider as they look to continue growing their brand.

Female sports fans don't want team marketers to get stuck on the idea that everything must either be pink or sparkle to be appealing. While a portion of female fans like those designs, the majority of female fans simply want to wear well-fitting gear in their team's colors, with a good selection of choices across all sizes. Women get fed up having to size up into ill-fitting men's selections in order to have room for their curves. 

When it comes to sports, women don't want to be talked down to. Women know their sports. They're passionate about it, can discuss it in-depth, and can analyze it, too. While they might embrace it from a little different angle than men, at heart, we're all fans - and women want to feel they're on the same ground. 

Women - young and old alike - have increasing spending power, and as discussed, when they're passionate about something, they're willing to invest in it. So with all that spending power in women's hands, doesn't it make sense to NOT alienate that important part of your fan base?

Now, let's not entirely dismiss ice girls or dancers or cheerleaders based on looks (or outfits) alone. There isn't a team that employs them who wouldn't defend their use beyond eye candy, citing such points as helping build crowd enthusiasm, attracting and engaging with fans, running fan-participating events at games, and being the face of their franchise at various community events, including fundraisers for team charities. They have a role; they're considered an important part of building team brands and engaging with fans.

There's a famous quote that says "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels." Ice girls are like that for hockey: they do the same job as the men do, but they're expected to do it in short skirts, while smiling and waving for the crowds. 

But as Mother Jones recently reported, there's a lot of inequality in balancing out the fun and exciting public faces of these ice/cheer crews versus what happens behind the scenes. The women who are on these various spirit teams shouldn't have to freeze their assets off, while the men are fully clothed and don't have to deal with the panting-with-lust fan enthusiasm that the women do. But if teams did sexualize their male ice crew/cheerleaders the way they did their female ones, women would be accused of just being interested in the male eye candy, and the men.... well, would the male fans care? Or would they get that sense of vague discomfort than women get when sexism is staring them in the face?

The common rule that says cheer crews should never mingle with players infers two things: 1) suggests that the women are potentially there just to meet the players; and 2) that the women's personal lives away from the rink are controlled by their teams, because if a player shows up to where they are, it is the woman's responsibility to leave. The rule absolves athletes of any responsibility, because it makes any social interaction - no matter how accidental - the women's fault, and ultimately, responsibility. Many workplaces discourage dating between co-workers, but not to this extent.

Few if any of the women who fill these spirit roles for hockey teams do it as a full-time job; they work between 10-30 hours a week in a wide variety of jobs, depending on the home game schedule and what team events they may be scheduled for. Those women may be nurses or administrative assistants or legal aides in their regular job; these women are not brainless bimbos. And the women who go out for these jobs do it because they love hockey and they love their local team, and they want to be part of that team environment. Take a look at the skates many of these women wear: most of them wear hockey skates, not ice skates; lots of ice girls play/have played recreational hockey, and they know their hockey.

Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News noted that in Sochi at the Olympics, the co-ed ice crews were impressive because they all wore the same "sleek" sweat suits and performed their ice-cleaning duties at an impressive speed. He suggested that the NHL consider following in Sochi's footsteps, and finding a way to make it more appealing to sponsors than the currently-used sexist approach.

Sexism remains a major issue in all pro sports, but hockey fans have been increasingly protesting it in their arenas. Women are nearly non-existent in the most high-profile non-ice roles (play-by-play, color commentators, studio analysts). While women are increasingly visible as rink side reporters, there are only a few women who've held a solid, long-term role among major broadcast teams. Cassie Campbell is part of Hockey Night in Canada, and Kathryn Tappen has been with NHLN, and now NBCSN. 

During the Olympics, a number of experienced hockey women took on commentary/analysis roles, but it was almost exclusively for only the female hockey games. Despite showing competence on the international stage, women are not breaking into these same roles for the NHL. Despite fans complaining about some of the stale voices currently in broadcasting - former players who seem perpetually stuck in a rut encouraging fighting and unwilling to embrace advanced analytics (aka "fancy stats") - change is slow to come to the NHL, especially when it comes to broadcasting.

Women have to constantly fight for every inch of respect they're given in sports. The NHL - and hockey in general - remains a predominantly male echelon. A glance at the Stanley Cup can tell you how infrequently women are in the top-end roles that hockey teams deem engravement-worthy in their 52 allotted names when they win; just 12 women in the history of the NHL have their names etched in Stanley's silver.  

It doesn't stop with the professional level when it comes to lack of respect, either. Women active in the sports community online get harassed and even threatened by men.  It's unacceptable. Steps like putting male and female ice crew in the same neutral outfits, and trying to remove obvious sexism, help convey the message to fans that both male and female fans are equally important, equally valuable. 

Hockey has long been cited as a family sport, and it's said that it takes a village to raise a hockey player. With girls and women increasingly following the sport, and putting on blades and picking up sticks to play it themselves, it's time to raise the bar on how women are represented not just around the NHL, but pro leagues in general.

For example, the local NHL team here in Chicago, the Blackhawks, have an intermission game with fans called "Shoot the Puck". Three fans are chosen and get the opportunity to shoot for free travel with United Airlines, whose name graces the arena. On the Blackhawks' site, the FAQ page states that "Participants of Shoot the Puck are chosen at random before all Blackhawks home games." However, these fans are never entirely random. It's always a kid (almost always a boy); a guy in his 20s/low 30s who's usually decent-looking but clearly meant to be "the bad guy" out of the trio; and a hot young woman with long hair and high heels who's always dressed more to impress than sporting fan gear. It's so predictable that it's become a bad running joke among the fans.  

Aside from the blatant predictability of the supposedly "random" fans, what's worse about STP is that the Blackhawks' longtime team organist Frank Pellico trots out "The Stripper" theme during the woman's time to shoot the puck. (At best, the piece of music has a tenuous connection to hockey due to its use in the famous hockey striptease scene in Slap Shot - and it should be noted that it's a guy taking off his clothes in that scene, not a woman.) The choice of music, coupled with the particular female chosen in the STP event, makes a strong statement that women are only going to be allowed on the ice if they're beautiful - and once they're there, they're meant to be eye candy. (Wait, I'm confused - aren't the ice girls there to be the arena eye candy? So why does the woman chosen for STP have to be dolled up?) It's insulting to women, and yet this is nothing new; even some of the Chicago beat writers have actively protested the use of "The Stripper" during STP.

The Blackhawks would get positive publicity - and make a lot of fans happy - by banning Pellico from using "The Stripper" any more; but despite numerous, ongoing fan complaints, the teams has not removed the music from the STP repertoire.

Additionally, they could also genuinely randomly choose the STP participants -- whether it's by phone text entry or, as we discussed on Twitter a couple weeks ago, letting people buy tickets for a chance to STP, and having the ticket proceeds add to their charity efforts. Who knows - we could see three kids, or three women, or three grandparents out there on the ice, having fun. 

Hockey fans continue to voice their desire for changes across the league. Hockey fans have touted advanced analytics for years; now we know that teams not only use them, but have made hires this summer to improve themselves in utilizing them. Female fans demanded better selection among their choices from; change has been coming over the past few years, although there's still definitely room for improvement. 

Fans of both sexes have been protesting the more blatant sexism in the league, and perhaps we'll see more improvements in that area the same way that You Can Play has fought homophobia.

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Related reading:

The institutional sexism of NHL Ice Girls (PuckDaddy)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Verizon fan program recap

Several months ago, I was approached with the opportunity to participate in the Verizon Fans Voices program. The conditions were pretty simple: receive a Droid Maxx smart phone, plus another device (which turned out to be a Samsung Tab 2 (7.0) tablet), and six months of service, in exchange for my honest opinions about the products.

Along the way, I've had to opportunity to give away some cool products, and also had the chance to try out some other products along the way: notably, the Fitbit® Force™, and the BlackBerry Mini Stereo speaker. 

I've had the Droid Maxx phone the longest; I wrote about it previously on this blog. After six months of constant usage, I still feel mostly pretty happy about the phone. If I had to pick out one complaint about the phone, it's the built-in camera. When compared to other current smart phones (most notably, iPhones), the Maxx's camera isn't quite as sharp as some competitors, although it has improved over previous versions of the Maxx (including the Razr Maxx, my previous phone). 

The camera does best in well-lit conditions, whether it is artificial or natural lighting; with good lighting, both scenic and close-up pictures can be quite good.

Droid Maxx photo: Coors Light Stadium Series, in snowstorm, at Soldier Field, Chicago

Droid Maxx photo: floral close-up in full light

However, I have noticed that when taking "selfies" - that is, using the camera on the face of the phone, versus the usual lens on the back - that the quality of shots degrades faster the lower the light gets. In full light, it does just fine, as shown by the picture below, taken at the Winter Classic in snowy conditions:

Droid Maxx selfie... apparently, I really enjoy sitting around in the snow, watching hockey games

Although I would like higher-quality/better resolution photography out of the phone (stats list it at 10 megapixels, but in lower light, picture quality gets grainy), one of my favorite features about the Maxx is directly related to the phone: you can turn it on by just flicking your wrist a couple times. This makes it easy to take pictures when you need a quick reaction time. I've gotten so used to this feature that when I use my old Razr Maxx, I find myself automatically shaking the phone to turn on the camera! Additionally, you can touch anywhere on the screen to take a picture, making it easier to pick what you want the camera to focus upon.

I also bought the NETGEAR Push2TV - a device smaller than a pack of cards - from my local Verizon store. This little device is easy to set up, and allows you to project anything from your phone to your TV. Want to show off a photo slide show, watch a streaming video, or even just read your mail on a bigger screen? Push2TV lets you do that. 

I've found the phone's speed to be excellent; the 4G is faster and more reliable than my home DSL - for example, I have had relatively little lag streaming videos or watching games via NHL GameCenter. One of my favorite features about the phone is its outstanding battery life. While I haven't been able to get the advertised "up to 2 full days" of heavy usage, I can generally go a full day of solid use before needing to plug it in for a charge. The Maxx also can be charged wirelessly, but I have not had an opportunity to try out a wireless charger.

Overall, I've really enjoyed having the Droid Maxx, and find it to be a fun phone.

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Midway through the program, we received Fitbit Force, billed as a "Wireless activity and sleep band". (Note: Fitbit has recently discontinued/issued a recall for the Force, due to people having allergic reactions to the wristband.) The Force retailed for about $129, and is designed to motivate you to exercise by tracking your exercise and progress. You can use either the Fitbit website or their phone app to plug additional information into your Force, including water intake. 

Overall, I liked the Force and found that yes, it motivated me - and continues to motivate me. I think it's cool that I can look at the app and see I've logged half a million steps since I received the Force! I also found that the ability to set up to 8 silent (vibrating) alarms on the Force is very helpful, whether it's to keep yourself on pace during a workout, or whatever other purpose you might need to have for alarms. If you're a light sleeper, you might find the vibrations to be enough to act as an alarm clock. I didn't use the sleep monitor feature much, but it did give me a sense of my sleep patterns, at least.

On the other hand, for the suggested retail price, I think the Force could do a lot more - specifically, I think it should have a heart rate monitor. It's possible to buy pedometers and wrist-based heart rate monitors for as little as $30; so for $129, I would expect the Force - and frankly, any of its competitors at a similar price point or higher - to contain both. The wristband also has a clasp that snaps together, which is not the easiest thing to put on your wrist, and easy to snag off your wrist. If Fitbit adds a heart monitor and redesigns the wristband, I'd rate it as pretty awesome. 

We had a bit of competition between the various bloggers participating in the program, and I won a BlackBerry Mini Stereo speaker. This wireless speaker is about the size of a deck of cards, and can be used to boost the volume of a call on speakerphone or when you're playing music or streaming video. The sound is pretty decent, and it's very portable and easy to set up. As I don't have a stereo, I've found it's useful to play music off my phone.

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I received the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0) a few weeks ago. I'm not used to having a tablet, so I've been trying to use the tablet for when I would usually use my phone (streaming video, playing games, etc). I bought a stylus (pictured above, red) for use with the tablet; it's been very helpful when trying to negotiate screens with small text. It charges relatively quickly, and the battery life is around 11 hours with use (up to 190+ on standby mode). I also bought a Belkin leather protective cover, which is also designed to allow you to prop up the tablet for easy viewing. 

In terms of size, the Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0) has been the perfect size for me - it measures 7.63" tall x 4.82" wide, and less than half an inch thick, making it small enough to easily stick in my purse or my camera bag when on the go. It's about the size of my older model Kindle, but I can do a lot more with the Kindle app on my tablet than I can do with my actual Kindle. (No wonder the tablet easily usurped my Kindle in my tech library.)

The picture quality is very good, whether it is browsing web pages or streaming video. It takes decent enough pictures, but I haven't used it in enough lighting conditions to know how overall good or bad it is when it comes to its camera. Below are a couple of screen shots from the NBC Sports Live Extra app during Olympic coverage; as you can see, the video quality is pretty sharp and you can pick out plenty of details.

As mentioned, I've streamed a lot of video on the Tab 2: NHL GameCenter, HBOGO, DirecTV, Olympic coverage, and more. I finally set up my home DSL service for its wireless modem; I hadn't had a need for it prior to getting a tablet - and most of the time, Verizon's 4G service ran faster/more smoothly than keeping the tablet connected to my in-home WiFi! (Of course, streaming video is very data-intensive, so it's smart to run WiFi when streaming video or other heavy data-usage apps, when you can.)

There's some neat features to the Galaxy Tab 2. You can use the Peel Smart Remote feature to control your TV, DVR, and surround sound; it can even make personalized TV recommendations based on your usage. The Media Hub allows you to stream movies and TV shows (mostly for a fee). Google Chromecast ($34.99) allows you to stream content from your tablet to your HDTV. I did not purchase one of these, so cannot speak for how smoothly it might work; but it works similar to the Push2TV device I mentioned in relation to my Droid Maxx.

I'm looking forward to figuring out more of what the tablet can do, as this is my first tablet. Although it comes pre-loaded with several useful apps, I'm still discovering apps to increase its usability and to find news uses for it beyond using it as a phone, Skyping, playing games, streaming video, and reading books via the Kindle app. Overall, I like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0).

* * *

I'd like to thank Verizon for making me a part of its Fan Voices program. I've been a Verizon customer for many years prior to participating, but with newer devices, I was able to see how smooth Verizon's 4G coverage can be. I traveled a number of times over the years I've had Verizon, and the company's extensive nationwide network has probably been the top reason for sticking with them as a carrier. It has been fun to be a part of the #VZWvoices program, and I'm glad to have gotten the chance to check out the newest devices.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

This isn't your daddy's Olympics

"When you pull on that jersey, you represent yourself and your teammates.
And the name on the front is a hell of a lot more important
than the one on the back!"

- Herb Brooks, Miracle (2004)

It is nearly 34 years to the date of the famous "Miracle on Ice" U.S.A. versus Russia game.

We all know the story. On February 22, 1980, an American team full of unknown collegiate players, average age 21, beat the heavily-favored Soviet powerhouse team. It wasn't that game that won Team U.S.A. gold in that Olympics - that would happen after the Americans went on to beat Finland. But it was by far one of the most memorable games played in hockey history.

Television technology wasn't the same as today. Many people thought they saw the game live, when in fact it was on tape delay from that afternoon.  

Things were different then. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were still in the Cold War. President Jimmy Carter had proclaimed a grain embargo against the U.S.S.R. in January. Six American diplomats escaped from Tehran, posing as a Canadian film crew (chronicled in the 2012 film Argo), just a few weeks earlier. 

For the United States, the "Miracle on Ice" game was absolutely huge for the American psyche. Here was the underdog of the men's 1980 hockey tournament, beating the world's most dominant hockey team. The Soviets had entered the 1980 Olympics as four-time defending gold-medal champions, and they would go on to reclaim gold in 1984 and 1988. 

At a time when relations between the two nations were strained at best, the game was cathartic, a milestone, and its effects would ripple through the American hockey world right through until current day.

The oldest player on the 2014 U.S.A. team - Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres - wasn't even born when 1980 Olympics were in full swing; he was born in August 1980. The youngest player on the team, Justin Faulk (CAR), was born a month after the 1992 Winter Olympics (Albertville). 

Despite that none of the current Team U.S.A. players were alive when the U.S.A. won gold in 1980, these players all are influenced the 1980 Olympics. Thirteen of the twenty players of that 1980 U.S.A. team eventually went on to play in the NHL. 

There's the most obvious ties: alternative captain Ryan Suter (MN) is a second-time U.S. Olympian. His father, Bob Suter, was on the 1980 U.S.A. team. While drafted by the Los Angeles Kings and signed at one point by the Minnesota North Stars, Bob Suter never played hockey at the NHL level, although his brother Gary did. 

Paul Stastny, also a second-time U.S. Olympian, is also the son of a 1980 Olympian - although in his case, his father, Peter, played for Czechoslovakia. Peter Stastny would later defect to Canada, and Paul was born in Quebec. His father eventually played for the St. Louis and later became a scout for the Blues; Paul and his brother Yan now both hold dual Canadian-American citizenship.

Team U.S.A.'s captain is Zach Parisé. While his father had no relation to the 1980 game, J.P. Parisé played for a national team as well - although in his case, it was Team Canada, and he was part of the 1972 Summit Series team. Six of the Soviets that J.P. Parisé faced in that Soviet Series went on to be part of the 1980 Soviet team.

As for the rest of Team U.S.A., they are a generation of American hockey players who grew up in the long shadow of that 1980 team. They are players who grew up dreaming of their own moment of Olympic hockey glory (plus, of course, Stanley Cup championships). They are the players who grew up in an American youth hockey system that greatly flourished after 1980, one that took many lessons from Herb Brooks' coaching style in the Lake Placid Olympics.

As Americans, we look at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics with great fondness and national pride. There's hardly a hockey fan out there that cannot quote from Miracle, the 2004 Disney film that has endeared itself with sports fans of all ages, whether it is the demanding "Again!" from the bag skate scene or Herb Brooks' "Great moments... are born from great opportunity" motivational speech.

As Team U.S.A. takes on Team Russia on Saturday afternoon Sochi time (7:30 a.m. EST), the specter of that 1980 game in Lake Placid hangs in the air, but this is not their fathers' hockey game. 

Only two of the current Russian Olympic players were alive for that 1980 game - Pavel Datsyuk and Andrei Markov. But they, too, grew up in the shadow of that game. For the Russians, however, they feel that Canada is more of a rival, since the Canadians are the only team that holds as many gold medals as they do. And from the Russian viewpoint, the 1972 Summit Series was more of a national turning point for them than Lake Placid. 

Russia is no longer the mighty Soviet Union. One of the Russian players, Viktor Tikhonov, 25, was named for his grandfather, who was the coach of that 1980 Soviet team. 

But the younger Tikhonov grew up in a far different Russia than his grandfather did. For starters, when he was born in 1988, the U.S.S.R. still existed; it broke up in 1991. The city where Tikhonov was born, Riga, is now part of Latvia. Tikhonov grew up in Los Gatos, California, and Lexington, Kentucky, because his father was a goalie coach in the San Jose Sharks system. As a teenager, he returned to Russia to play in the Russian Hockey League (not to be mistaken with the KHL)

Today, Russian players are a regular part of the North American hockey scene, with 26 players spread across 15 NHL teams from Edmonton to Tampa Bay, Los Angeles to Montréal. Some of them are among the most popular in the league, like Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Pavel Datsyuk. They are teammates to many of the players they will face across the ice this morning. 

The United States and Russia have mostly-friendly relations these days. Their best hockey players play side by side in the best league in the world, sharing both triumphs and defeats. 

Team U.S.A. is no longer full of fresh-faced collegiate players. Instead, it is loaded with NHL superstars, exciting players like Patrick Kane, who define the face of U.S.A. hockey today. The Americans won silver in 2010 at Vancouver and have their sights set on gold this time.

As for Russia - studded with NHL and KHL players - they are under the pressure that home ice defines, but they are also considered one of the favorites for potential gold. 

For both sides, it is a very different world than their fathers and grandfathers played in, and the 2014 athletes want to write their own chapters in the Olympic history books. 

No matter what happens, it should be a special and very exciting game, one worth getting up early to watch.