Alex Ungar, female WHL off-ice official, challenges gender discrepancy in role
Three to 62: of the four Western Hockey League (WHL) teams in Saskatchewan that disclosed information, that’s the ratio of female to male off-ice officials. And it’s one of the best ratios the league’s ever had in the province, as far as gender equality goes.
Alex Ungar, 22, is one of those three women. She’s the second female to work as a WHL off-ice official with the Saskatoon Blades in over 30 years.
“I think it’s a guy’s job, clearly. It’s hockey and not many girls think to apply. I think they should. Why not? This is a perfect job for girls who are looking to get into sports,” Ungar, who studied sports marketing at Lakeland College in Lloydminster, said.
Ungar played varsity volleyball for the Rustlers, and wanted a job in sports. However, she never considered working as an official for the WHL: “I never even thought of it. Just no girls do it.”
While attending a Blades game at SaskTel Centre last season, Glen Ungar, her father, who also volunteers as a WHL off-ice official, asked her if she could fill in for someone who had skipped work that day. They were supposed to be working as a goal judge. Nervous, she said yes. She now works about four games a month, and also does video review and statistics.
In the WHL, each individual team is responsible for filling the off-ice positions themselves, meaning the hiring discretion is up to the WHL off-ice official supervisor. For the Blades, this falls on the shoulders of Bernie Burtney, who’s been working with the Blades for over 30 years.
“I was always looking for a female on the crew, and that’s just to give a little difference,” Burtney said, who also hired Kristina Rissling, another female off-ice official, in 2005.
Rissling, like Ungar, never officially applied to work for the WHL. She was in Grade 12 when her sister, in elementary school at the time, brought home a school newsletter seeking students interested in doing statistics at the Blades game. An avid hockey fan, she begged her mom to let her go.
“It didn’t really seem all that surprising that I was the only girl. I kind of got funny looks from the players every once in a while.”
Rissling worked as an off-ice official with the Blades, as well as the Regina Pats, from 2005-15.
Burtney, when asked why more females don’t work for the WHL, blames it on the chauvinistic appearance of the role: “It’s probably due to the fact that most of adult hockey has always involved the male side of it.”
Ungar feels the WHL could do a better job of posting the opportunities: “I don’t think it’s being marketed as far as it should be to girls. I don’t think men are given more chances, but I think there’s more men applying for these jobs.”
Rissling agrees: “I don’t know if women know they can apply. I didn’t know I could.
“The one guy started, then he pulled his friend in. Then he pulled another, and now they’re friends. Then he’s like, how about this friend? So they just keep pulling their guy friends in,” Rissling noted.
“I usually ask the Blades office if they have anybody that’s applied and if I need anybody, I go to them and they’ll recommend somebody to me,” Burtney said.
“I’ve never even heard of an application for these jobs, and when I do, it’s the guys who are applying for it,” Ungar added.
While both Ungar and Rissling are minorities in the group, Ungar stresses they aren’t treated any differently: “The guys are amazing to everyone. They’re a bunch of big buddies who hang out.”
At the WHL head office in Calgary, seven of 17 staff are women, including the vice president of business, Yvonne Bergmann, who is arguably one of the most influential people in junior hockey. But Ungar wants to see more women get involved, on all fronts.
“I’m not looking to be a coach or anything, but I do think more women should do that,” she said.
“Name one female coach in the WHL … which just blows my mind. I’ve started to tell everyone I know. Lots of girls who I know are like, ‘That’s so cool, I’m going to do that.'”
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