The Maria Sharapova of women’s hockey

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.

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Mary Spencer does not disappoint as a Cover Girl

As part of a media campaign for Cover Girl cosmetics, Mary Spencer became an instant role model for Canadian women.  A multiple world champion, she almost failed to qualify in the women’s boxing event at the 2012 London Summer Games. Had she not been able to qualify for the Games, it would not have tarnished her image with Cover Girl. Her willingness to participate meant that the Cover Girl campaign was an unequalled success.

The 5’11’’, 27 year old from Wiarton, Ontario is the first athlete to gain an endorsement in Canada with Cover Girl. With five Pan-Am titles (including a role as the flag bearer at the 2011 Pan Am closing ceremonies) and eight Canadian championships, Spencer is aiming to be the first athlete (and Canadian) to claim gold in women’s boxing (a debut sport at the London Games). In addition, she is also a volunteer and member of the Cape Croker Indian Reserve in Ontario.

In spring 2012, Spencer suffered a loss at the American Boxing Confederation’s continental championship. Against 17 year old American Claressa Shields of Flint, Michigan, Spencer (the world champion in 2005, 2008 and 2010) suffered a shocking loss. Another surprising loss followed in her first bout at the women’s world championships in Qinhuangdao, China to Anna Laurell of Sweden. Ironically, Claressa Shields would lose her match in China to British pugilist Savannah Marshall. With the loss, many fans were concerned that her Summer Games dream would not reach fruition. Certainly it seemed as if Canada would not be sending a female boxer to the inaugural Summer Games tournament in London.

While she did qualify for the 2012 London Summer Games by receiving the Boxing Canada Wild Card berth, she took on an even bigger role in the past few months, the one of a role model. She has proven that despite the adversity she underwent with her losses, one must always have faith. Her opportunity to represent Canada at the Games is an opportunity of hope: hope to redeem herself for those losses while providing hope for Canadian sports fans that she can claim a medal.

For young Canadian female athletes that suffer with body image, Spencer has shown that women can assume the role of athletes and still be beautiful. Muscle definition or a larger body size does not define or hold back what a woman is capable of. Spencer’s determination proved that beauty (and the confidence that emanates from it) is just as prevalent on the inside. 

Hope Solo covers the Games

Heading into the London Summer Games, Hope Solo has found her celebrity status enhanced by appearing on the covers of Vogue (with Serena Williams, a rare honor for a female athlete), and on Fitness magazine.  Solo appears in a gold swimsuit on the Vogue cover, while adorning a stars and stripe bikini for Fitness.

While beautiful on both covers, her celebrity status must not be a distraction for the US soccer team. Since the retirement of Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Brandi Chastain from the US Women’s Soccer program, Solo has become the face of USA Soccer. As a goaltender, Solo is in a pressure packed situation, which only increases when a goal is allowed.

During the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, Solo became the media darling of the event for Team USA. She parlayed her popularity by appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated, revealing her physique in ESPN’s Body Issue, and displaying her sex appeal as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars. Maxim Magazine recently named her the sexiest athlete of the 2012 London Games.

Of note, Alex Morgan also gained popularity after the 2011 World Cup. She was in the 2012 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in only body paint. In addition, she was listed as one of Maxim Magazine’s hottest athletes for London 2012. On the soccer pitch, it is of great importance that the newfound celebrity status of Morgan, Solo, and others does not interfere with performance.

London 2012 marks the return of Solo to the world stage since the 2011 World Cup. Any failure on the part of USA Soccer will not only spell disaster for the program, but tarnish Solo’s image as a celebrity. In early July 2012, a warning from the US Anti Doping Agency that Solo tested positive for the banned substance Canrenone in a urine test must not prove to be a harbinger of misfortune. Although Solo may be the most popular player on the team (and she provided full co-operation to the USADA), it is important that said popularity does not lead to resentment in the locker room should struggles emanate early on.

During the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup, Solo criticized then head coach Greg Ryan for benching her in favor of Brianna Scurry for a semi-final game versus Brazil. After being dismissed from the team and not participating in the post-2007 World Cup tour, Solo could have easily quit the team. Instead, her gold medal performance at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games led to redemption, while her endearing perseverance in 2011 made her an American hero, and an unexpected role as a celebrity.

Should the USA endure any initial struggle, it will be up to Solo to act as a true leader and ensure that the disappointment of 2007 does not repeat itself. As a role model, sex symbol, and world class athlete, the London Games will define Solo’s career as one of greatness, or one of unmet expectations.