When Mike Comrie, the hockey-playing boyfriend of Hilary Duff, proposed to the Disney-created pop princess on the balcony of a Maui hotel in February, the paparazzi “happened” to be there, capturing this private romantic moment in a blitzkrieg of digital images that quickly skated around the celebrity gossip world. Photos everywhere from People to PopEater.com showed Duff sitting in Comrie’s lap and lying tenderly with him in bed, her husband-to-be, with his purposely disheveled black hair and day-old beard, looking more suited for the surf than the ice-cold rinks he inhabits as a center for the Edmonton Oilers. HollywoodLife.com posted a closeup of the gaudy diamond ring, with an appraiser estimating its value at upward of $750,000.
Click the Image to View Our Gallery of Hockey Hunks
The insatiable appetite for celebrity gossip coverage, combined with the long history of sexual attraction among supermodels and actresses to hockey players, has exposed the sport to a whole new audience of young women. Thanks to starlets like Duff, Carrie Underwood, Elisha Cuthbert, and Willa Ford—all of whom are engaged to or dating NHL players—hockey’s hunks are showing up more on the pages of Us Weekly than Sports Illustrated. All, of course, except for Sean Avery—the New York Ranger seems to favor the fashion pages of the august Vogue.
Apparently, these women like what they are seeing. Ratings for NHL games among women have exploded this year, with the total female audience tuning in for the playoffs up 8 percent over last year and the most since 1997. Ratings in the women 18-49 and women 25-54 demographics are up 4 percent and 5 percent over 2009, respectively, and are the highest in those demographics since 2002.
While the total audience for hockey games is dwarfed by those of baseball, football, and basketball—the NHL averages 928,000 viewers per contest; by comparison, the NFL gets 19.3 million—the percentage of female viewers is on par with that of other leagues. According to Nielsen Media Research data, 32 percent of the audience for NHL games is female, greater than that of the NBA and only 2 percentage points behind MLB and the NFL, respectively.
“Those girls got gigantic rings,” Bonnie Fuller says of the diamonds given to Underwood and Duff. “Those huge hunks of ice are bound to catch a girl’s eye.”
Brian Jennings, the NHL’s executive vice president of marketing, attributes the growth in female viewership to the iconic teams in this year’s playoffs—still left standing are the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers, who will face off in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals on Wednesday night on Versus—and the sport’s “entertaining and unpredictable” nature. But even Jennings concedes that it doesn’t hurt to have younger stars like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Mike Cammalleri, and Zach Parise, who are good-looking and articulate.
Not that the image of the hockey player as sweaty, toothless thug was ever entirely accurate. Judging by the number of famous women that stick jockeys have been able to land over the years, an argument could be made that the casting of Paul Newman in Slap Shot and Rob Lowe in Youngblood was less a function of Hollywood glamming up the sport than an attempt at an accurate portrait of its athletes. The list of sirens seduced by hockey players is as long as it is varied, and includes Rachel Hunter, Gena Lee Nolin, Kristi Yamaguchi, Paris Hilton, Anna Kournikova, Catherine Keener, and Candace Cameron, among others. And of course there’s Janet Jones, the reigning queen of ice romance, who married “The Great One,” Wayne Gretzky, more than 20 years ago. Now, however, suburban mothers and career women are getting hip to what these famous starlets have known for a while: Hockey players are sexy.
“I watch the games with my husband and I have no idea who anyone is,” says Sue Loeb, a mother of two from Clifton, New Jersey, whose husband, Dan, is a rabid New York Rangers fan. “But then I see pictures of these guys in magazines and online without their equipment on, and you see how good-looking they really are.”
Sure, the NHL’s ratings increase among women viewers can be dismissed as merely a spillover effect from the Winter Olympics in February, when the final, thrilling overtime gold-medal match between the United States and Canada was watched by almost 28 million people, the largest audience for a hockey game in the U.S. since the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” game against the Soviet Union in Lake Placid.
But Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of several books on the mating habits of humans such as Why Him, Why Her, says there’s a subconscious sociological element at play. Fisher sees parallels between relationship trends among women after the 9/11 attacks and during the economic depression of the last two years.
“After 9/11, women were crazy for firemen and policemen,” says Fisher. “It was a time of real physical jeopardy, and women gravitated toward men who they felt could physically protect them.”
Not unlike during that period, women have all but abandoned the metrosexual male over the last two years and once again have gone searching for the alpha male, she says.
“As the economic downturn took hold, women again began looking for safety and real signs of masculinity in mates,” Fisher says. “There’s nothing more masculine than a hockey player. They are tough, active, aggressive.”
Fisher adds that the major societal trends across the globe of more women entering the work force and playing sports themselves likely also factor into hockey’s ratings gains among women. Where 30 years ago it may have been considered weird for a women to watch an aggressive, physical sport like hockey, football, or boxing unless she was doing it for a man, today no one gives a second glance to a lone woman or a group of women sipping a beer and taking in a game at a bar.
Bonnie Fuller, legendary editor of Us Weekly, Star and now the celebrity gossip website HollywoodLife.com, has a simpler and more materialistic view of why hockey is catching on with women: diamonds.
“Those girls got gigantic rings,” Fuller says of the diamonds given to Underwood and Duff. “Those huge hunks of ice are bound to catch a girl’s eye.”
And, evidently, get them to watch hockey.
Correction: This article initially misidentified Slap Shot as Slapstick.
Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, Black Men, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.