Starting this week, 14-year-old Lexi Peters will be stick handling past men twice her size as she plays in the starting lineup for the Buffalo Sabres. Or the Vancouver Canucks. Or any NHL team the 90-pound left-winger chooses.
Because when video game publisher Electronic Arts releases the latest edition of its popular NHL series on Tuesday, Lexi will be the first female in its virtual hockey roster.
Hockey is attracting more female players, but when young skaters like Lexi turned to the leading NHL video game, the custom player characters they could build in the game came with many different looks – so long as they were male.
“I asked my dad, ‘Why aren’t there girls in the NHL video game?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, write a letter.’ So, I did,” Lexi told the Globe and Mail from her home in Buffalo, N.Y.
She sent a typewritten letter to the executives of one the largest video game makers in the world, asking them to add women players.
She wrote: “It is unfair to women and girl hockey players around the world, many of them who play and enjoy your game. I have created a character of myself, except I have to be represented by a male and that’s not fun.”
For those who have never tried the game, players can choose everything from their team and players to who controls the puck. They can also create characters of their own, picking hair and eye colours and other details. Those characters were all men.
“My younger brother got to create a character that looked just like him. I had never been able to experience that,” says Lexi.
The 4 foot 11 teen has played hockey for four years. She and a teammate spent hours creating a whole custom hockey team, modeling the players after their own all-girls team, the Purple Eagles. The best they could do was give the characters long “hockey” hair.
“We looked like men,” she says.
The first response she got back from Electronic Arts was disappointing. But she figured at least she’d tried.
“I heard back a few weeks later and they told me it couldn’t happen because it has to go through the NHL.”
What she didn’t know was that the president of EA Sports had forwarded her letter to David Littman, the lead producer of the company’s NHL game. His reaction was different.
“Lexi’s letter was a wake-up call,” Mr. Littman told the Globe and Mail. “Here’s a growing audience playing our NHL game and we hadn’t done anything to capture them.”
Mr. Littman then did some stick handling of his own: finding the budget to build her into the game, as well as getting permission from the NHL and EA’s legal department.
Then EA Sports gave Lexi the news. Not only were they adding a female character option, but they wanted Lexi to play the part of the “default” female player that gamers would then be able to customize.
“I was so excited,” says Lexi. “My dad called my grandpa immediately, who called my Uncle Chris, like a chain reaction.”
Users can tailor the female character by changing hair, eye colour and the name on the jersey if they want, just as with male players.
It is a sensible business move in a competitive video-game market that’s worth an estimated $20-billion worldwide. But it also marks the progress of female hockey players.
“It’s a big change and it’s exciting to see, because so many girls play hockey now,” said Manon Rhéaume, the only woman to ever play in the real-world NHL.
Ms. Rhéaume was signed to the Tampa Bay Lightning as a goalie in 1992 and played in two exhibition games. She now runs a foundation that offers scholarships to young women in sports and promotes girls’ hockey.
“I think we’re at a place where women in hockey are more accepted. People are putting more money into girls’ hockey and the growth we’re seeing in the sport is mainly from girls, not boys.”
Hockey Canada, the national organization that oversees administration and development of the sport, has numbers that back that up. In 1990, there were about 5,000 women and girls playing the sport. Today, there are more than 100,000.
“The two gold medals in the past Olympics has been a huge factor,” says Francis Dupont, communications officer with Hockey Canada. “There’s been a lot more attention on women’s hockey media-wise in the past five to 10 years and more coaches and programs to grow the sport.”
Of course, NHL purists can still play the video game as men. But Lexi is hoping they give the women a chance. And that the boys at her school who don’t take girls’ hockey seriously change their minds.
The big question now: how will she choose who to play as? Herself, or her favourite NHL star, Alex Ovechkin?
“I’ll put us on the same team.”