While professional women’s hockey has never marketed the sex appeal of any of its athletes, it is an area that may be forced to acknowledge quickly. 2012 CWHL Draft prospect, Russian national team member, and part time model Zoya Polunina may quickly become the Maria Sharapova of women’s ice hockey.
While it is unfair to single out any one player, Polunina has a modeling background (something that Cassie Campbell, one of the first popular women’s hockey players of the modern era, also had), and male fans are quick to identify the most attractive athletes. Based on the influence of the internet and the sites that are dedicating to featuring the sexiest athletes (male and female) in sports, it is merely a question of time before Polunina is recognized as one of the most attractive ice hockey players in the world. For many male fans, they would state that she definitely follows in the footsteps of fellow Russian athletes Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova.
Even in the 1920s, sex appeal played a role in women’s ice hockey. An annual ice hockey tournament in Western Canada in which teams competed to win the Alpine Cup had one of its players win a local beauty contest prior to the tournament.
There have been many amateur women’s hockey groups that have used calendars and sex appeal to gain attention for fund raising efforts. A group of ladies in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (home to some of the greatest winter athletes in North America) have done a calendar which featured nudity. The Ice-o-topes in Vancouver have done a calendar in which the players were in bra and panties while on the ice to help raise funds for charity.
In the budding history of professional women’s ice hockey in North America, there has never been any publicized disruption in the locker rooms of its franchises based on ego and/or popularity. While men’s sports belong to thirty team leagues where one player can easily be shipped elsewhere, women’s ice hockey tends to be a close knit community of very few teams. The moment one team is poisoned over a player’s ego; working relationships among players may be fractured beyond repair.
Eventually, the time will come when an attractive player will manipulate fans and media to increase her popularity; while promoting herself to such a degree that will be beyond anyone’s control. The issue is how an organization would handle it.
A harsh reality in women’s sports is that sex sells with male fans. Athletes such as Danica Patrick, Lindsay Vonn, Lolo Jones, Paula Creamer, Sue Bird, and Hope Solo captured the hearts and minds of male fans with more than their talents. While the astute male sports fan would be quick to acknowledge the hard work and dedication that these athletes have undergone to be the best in their sport, the sex appeal of a female athlete has been a key factor in determining if the more average fan will retain interest.
There is no question that the realm of male sports has had their own athletes create an impact on popular culture (while possibly being labeled as sex symbols). Athletes such as Derek Jeter, Tim Tebow and David Beckham have become icons for their athletic skill, fashion sense, good looks, and overall likeability with fans and media alike. The first star in the CWHL that has truly gained similar status is Tessa Bonhomme.
Although looks may definitely help in attracting fans, talent and character are what will keep the real fans. Tessa Bonhomme has handled her growing popularity and girl next door image with grace and dignity. While more male hockey fans will identify Tessa Bonhomme with Battle of the Blades than her time with Ohio State, the class that she exudes results in popularity which appeals to fans of both sexes, and all age groups. An example for elite athletes to follow.