Reflecting on her debut season covering the NHL for ESPN, Leah Hextall described her experience as “difficult,” weathering an avalanche of sexist insults from fans, some going as far as to threaten her life.
“It wasn’t fun,” Hextall expressed in a recent interview with Sean Fitz-Gerald, senior writer for The Athletic. “There was a lot of, more than anything, mental gymnastics to go through. There was a lot of criticism—not just within the social media audience, but also within the brethren of hockey—that I was not used to facing. And a lot of it seemed to stem from my gender.”
Hextall, who comes from a proud hockey lineage (her cousin is former Flyers goalie and current Penguins executive Ron Hextall), drew particular criticism for a question she posed during a sideline interview with Wayne Simmonds, asking him to address a comment made by Lightning forward Pat Maroon, who had previously called Simmons “soft.” The interview was poorly received with hecklers attacking her on social media, a level of vitriol Hextall suspects wouldn’t have been nearly as vicious had the question been asked by a man.
“I’m just going to say it. If I was a man, I don’t think that’s what he would have done,” said Hextall, referring specifically to a tweet from former NHL referee Tim Peel, who dismissed her question as one of the “most ridiculous I’ve ever heard.” “I know Wayne Simmonds isn’t soft. Wayne Simmonds knows he isn’t soft. I’m building on the drama of what’s been going on in the game, and I can’t help it that you didn’t watch the game and only saw the clip. That’s on you, not me.”
Navigating the NHL’s culture of toxic masculinity has been a challenge for Hextall, who thinks it’s time for that outdated dynamic to change, advocating for stronger female representation, not just in hockey, but in all sports.
“There’s a culture that believes when a woman is hired in a high-profile, visible, important role in the game, that she has been hired because of her gender, or to check a box. This then upsets members of our audience, because they don’t feel it’s fair. They dislike it, and that breeds contempt for women in these roles,” Hextall explained, noting the hypocrisy and circular logic that have prevented women in hockey from moving up the corporate ladder. “The fact is, if we continue to hire the most qualified candidate, we will not see women in all roles across our game. Because how can a woman be the most qualified candidate when she hasn’t had the opportunities to gain the necessary experience to do so?”
It's heartbreaking to see some of the abuse launched at Hextall, absorbing hatred and anger from sexist hockey fans who feel threatened by the presence of women in a predominantly male sport, immediately devaluing their analysis on the basis of their gender. During this year’s postseason, Hextall received a troubling email threatening to “blow [her] brains out so no one has to hear you call a hockey game again.” Rather than inform the police, Hextall shared the email with her sister before quickly deleting it.
“It was shocking, more than anything, that someone would have that much anger towards me because I was calling a hockey game,” said Hextall, alluding to hockey’s long history of casual misogyny. “I’m not saving lives here. I’m just calling a hockey game, and you were willing to threaten my physical and sexual safety?”
It’s appalling to see Hextall and other women treated like outsiders in a sport they love, bullied and resented for pursuing their passion. Hopefully the hockey community will learn to embrace Hextall, though that won’t necessarily heal the scars from her harrowing first season, made to feel unwelcome in a sport that should be for everyone.