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.

* * *

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.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Contest! Win a BIG JAMBOX by Jawbone

Disclosure: I am participating in the Verizon Fans Voices program
and have been provided with a wireless device (Droid Maxx)
and six months of service in exchange for my honest opinions about the product.

The top football game of the year is this weekend, and the NHL has been kind enough to bless us with a whole string of outdoor games this season. 

And to help you enjoy your game day experiences, we're giving away a BIG JAMBOX™ by Jawbone® (retail value $299), courtesy of Verizon!

Details of the BIG JAMBOX™:
  • Stream hi-fi audio from any Bluetooth® device
  • Download new features, apps, and software upgrades right to your speaker
  • Built-in microphone lets you enjoy hands-free phone calls and video chats
  • Lasts up to 15 hours on a single charge
  • Wireless range: 33 feet (10 meters)
  • Connect via Bluetooth®, 3.5mm stereo input, or micro-USB

There are two ways to enter:
1) Reply to the question below on this blog entry. (If you are posting as 'Anonymous', be sure to use an identifier for your entry, such as your Twitter handle! I need to be able to contact the winner!)
2) Reply to my post about this contest my HockeyBroad Facebook page (same question, just different place to enter).
Entries will be accepted until midnight on Sunday, February 2nd (CST). I will announce the winner via, Facebook, and Twitter (@HockeyBroad). Entries will be judged based on creativity, so have fun with this! (Please note: only US residents can win. Sorry to my Canadian & other non-US followers!)

To enter our contest, you just have to answer one question: 
Whether you're attending in person, tailgating, out at a sports bar, or just watching at home, tell us how you tie technology (phone, tablets, computer, etc) into your big game day activities.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Let's talk about ... mental health and hockey

As hockey fans, players, and supporters, we always feel like we're part of a big family.

But when it comes to mental illnesses, it can feel like you're battling things all alone.

If you're on Twitter or social media, you might have noticed the tag "#BellLetsTalk" and wondered what it is. It's a day to raise awareness via social media to start conversations about mental health. But Bell's effort is not just limited to today, it's every day - a "multi-year charitable program dedicated to mental health", focusing on four pillars: anti-stigma; care & awareness; workplace health; and research.

Four mental-health tragedies rocked the hockey community in 2011. Tom Cavanagh had been diagnosed with schizophrenia; he jumped to his death off a parking garage in January. In May, Derek Boogaard was found dead from an accidental drug and alcohol overdose; his autopsy revealed he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, both of whom had been struggling with depression issues for a few years, both committed suicide in late August of that year. Sixteen hockey players, both male and female, across various levels of the sport, from collegiate to NHL, have killed themselves since the late 1960s.

Mental health issues are very common, and they are not limited to just depression. It's very important to remember that as dialogues continue to increase about mental health. In fact, depression can be one sign of a much larger larger mental health issue.

Asperger's syndrome. Autism. Eating disorders. Anxiety disorders. Season affective disorder. Obsessive-compulsive behavior. Eating disorders. Substance abuse. Bipolar disorder. ADHS/ADD. Post-traumatic stress disorders. Social anxiety. Phobias. Tourette's. Stuttering. Separation anxiety. Erectile dysfunction. Insomnia. Sleepwalking. Hoarding. Panic attacks. Parkinson's disease.

What do these all have in common? They're all considered mental disorders. So why are some of them - like erectile dysfunction - so "easy" to discuss (hello, Viagra and other "male enhancement" medication TV commercials!), while many of the others are seen as shameful, not to be discussed?

For as much as we know about the brain, there is so much we don't know, so much we have yet to be discovered. We also don't know how all the chemicals and additives that are so prevalent in our society will influence us long-term, yet we continue to use and consume them.
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I'm not going to put a time frame on when it occurred, but I'll share the following from my retail experiences. One day, we were joking with a customer at check-out about the upcoming holidays. The woman's face suddenly crumpled, and it was clear she was trying extremely hard not to burst into tears in front of us.

In talking with the woman, I found out it was approaching the one-year anniversary of her daughter's death by suicide. Nobody should have to bury their kids first, and like any death, the first anniversary was the toughest, and she was suffering more because nobody was acknowledging it.

She just wanted to be able to talk to somebody, anybody, about her beautiful, smart daughter that she had lost; and nobody wanted to talk about it, because the idea of depression and suicide seems too shameful. She was further burdened because her other child was also suffering from depression, and she was living with the daily fear that her son might take the same route his sister had.

"Why won't anybody talk with me about her?" she asked, gazing at her daughter's picture on her phone. Her daughter had hid the full extent of her depression, too, until the day she took her own life. And here she was, crying on a stranger's shoulder, the only person willing to listen to her story.

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Depression seems to be one of the toughest mental disorders to talk about, despite how pervasive it is in society. Statistically, it is believed that one out of ten Americans is dealing with depression at any time - and 80% of those suffering from clinical depression receive neither diagnosis nor treatment for it.

If you've never dealt with depression personally, it can be hard to understand. The most common reaction to it is, "Snap out of it!"

If only it could be so easy to simply turn it off.

Somebody with mild depression may not even realize they have it, dismissing the onset of symptoms as just feeling a bit under the weather or excusing it as feeling tired.

Depression is not textbook. Not everybody with depression spends their days moping in dark rooms, although there are certainly plenty of people who do. People with depression can be quite functional, throwing themselves into work and then losing themselves in an activity that keeps them from thinking or feeling too much.

I dealt with it when I first moved to Chicago. I'd heard of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but I didn't recognize it for what it was. Chicago is bleary and grey for much of the winter, from around Halloween until nearly May; and the days are shorter than I was used to from anyplace else I'd lived.

I was heading to work when it was barely light, and the sun had set nearly an hour before I headed home. Winters made me feel like a vampire, and my solution was to plunge into MMORPG gaming. I'd get up, go to work, come home, log on, get lost in a make-believe world for several hours, go to bed, rinse/repeat. I hardly went out to be sociable unless I could figure out a way to do it on the way home from work; I was cranky, and easily irritated over the stupidest things. I was turning insomniac, and was grinding by on barely five hours' worth of sleep a night. What took me so long to realize I was suffering depression was that I never "felt" depressed; I just simply felt like I was too sapped of energy to do much that required what seemed like a lot of effort.

What broke me out of depression was the scale. One day, I got on the scale, sat down at cried at the number I saw there, realized how much weight I'd gained in a couple years, and figured out pretty quickly that it was related to mindless eating while lost in the blur of work/gaming/sleep.

It was that moment that changed my health - both physical and mental - for the better. I went through my cabinets and threw out anything vaguely "junky". I started eating better; broke - then ended - my soda habit; and I signed up for the gym. I eventually quit the hard-core gaming cold turkey, and felt better for it. It's taken several years of discipline, but 125 pounds lost later, I can't begin to tell you what a different person I feel like now versus ten years ago. Better health, better diet, exercising - these things all help, not just physically, but mentally.

Going to my doctor for help with the depression also led eventually to the discovery of a sleep apnea issue. I was sleeping and exhausted all the time, and at first, I thought it was just depression-related. It finally reached a tipping point when I lacked any focus to function properly, even after sleeping a weekend away. I decided it was time to be re-tested for sleep apnea - and found out that it was a major problem. I had corrective surgery for sleep apnea several years ago, and I cannot even begin to tell you what a difference that it made in my life, being able to sleep properly and begin to feel normal once again.

I was "lucky"; my depression was mild to some other people's depression I've witnessed in my life. I'm thankful I was able to recognize signs within myself and get treatment; and in doing so, made changes in my life that made me a healthier person overall.

A few years ago, somebody I knew through the local theater scene chose to take their own life. Those of us who knew him knew he was prone to mood swings and could be quite "dark" at times, but mostly, he was very, very good about hiding his mood. He was funny and charming, and if he noticed you were in a funk, he would try to find a way to bring a smile to your face. Despite his dark patches and brooding, however, his death still shocked those that knew him.

What was particularly horrible about his death was the very public way he chose to go. Whether he thought about it long in advance, or whether it was just a sudden decision as he stood on the train platform, I guess we won't know; but there's little doubt that the people who witnessed it have to have been traumatized by it.

People will talk about those who suffer from depression or other mental illnesses, but it affects so many more people than just the person who's directly suffering from it.

To start with, there's the most obvious: depression and other mental-health issues cost the U.S. economy nearly $100 billion in lost work days, medical expenditures, lost productivity, and various other costs. That's huge!

Here's the positive part: up to 80% of those treated for depression show an improvement in six weeks or less of beginning medication or other treatment. So, while we may not fully understand what causes or starts depression episodes, it is very responsive to treatment.

The challenge is getting somebody who is suffering from mental disorders to get treatment. Denial often goes hand-in-hand with depression or other mental issues, even when the problem is obvious as a giant neon-green elephant.

Some mental health issues, like autism, can manifest in very visible, hard-to-ignore ways. A friend of mine has a son with autism; she keeps a blog about the ongoing battle that is Life With Autism and their current goal of saving enough money to get a service dog for her son. It is not a pretty journey: is their daily struggle to deal with the unpredictability of autism, the tantrums, mood swings, dealing with the mental health system, and what happens when life throws you a curve ball of epic proportions.

TV's 60 Minutes recently had a pair of stories related to this same issue: Nowhere to go: Mentally ill youth in crisis and its follow-up story, The stigma of raising a mentally ill child.

Mental health issues don't go away if they're ignored. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength, of admitting that you need help.

People who are dealing with them need help, and they need to know somebody cares about them. If somebody is displaying behavior that concerns you, do something about it. You can save a life by speaking up. If you don't know how to deal with it, talk to a hotline or counseling center; they can help you figure out what you need to do.

If you need help yourself, remember there's always somebody out there to listen. Maybe you don't know somebody personally, but there's lots of hotlines, and counseling groups, and sometimes, even just random kind strangers who can lend you an ear, and maybe a shoulder to cry upon, or a much-needed hug.

Some resources: