“So, my first exposure to hockey was actually just kind of getting off the ice after my figure skating practice in the morning. And then we had a, I think it was an AHL team at the time, the ice caps. They don’t exist anymore. But they would have their practices after our early morning figure skating sessions. So, I would see these guys jump on the ice and they’d be doing their sprints and their push-ups and their coach would be yelling at them. And I just remember thinking that was like, way more my speed. I was like, this looks like fun.”
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JESSE: Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I’m your host, Jesse Funk. My guest today was a member of the 2018 Korean Olympic Hockey Team. She has her Ph.D. in human evolutionary biology. And currently, she’s working at Kayak as a data scientist. Welcome to the show, Randi Griffin.
RANDI: Thanks for having me.
JESSE: Thanks for spending time with me today, Randi. Before we got going, I was asking you if you’ve been on a podcast before, and apparently the podcast you were on had much better digs than me and my studio. So, I appreciate you downgrading a little bit to spend some time with me.
RANDI: Yeah, no problem. It was a little local thing so they just bring people in from the Boston area.
JESSE: So, is that where you are? And that’s one of the things I was trying to figure out. Are you in Boston now?
RANDI: Yeah, I’m in Boston. I came here for the work because Kayak is based here. So, yeah.
JESSE: So, I want to jump way back to getting started in hockey. How did you get started in hockey? Obviously, hockey is kind of growing in popularity in the US. I don’t know if you grew up in the US or if you grew up in Korea, but how did that journey kind of start for you?
RANDI: Yeah. So, I did grow up in the US. My mother grew up in Korea, but I actually hadn’t been there until I went there to play hockey as an adult. So, I grew up in North Carolina, where hockey is not a huge sport. It’s grown a lot lately. But when I was a kid, the Hurricanes actually had just sort of moved. They were previously the whalers in Connecticut. And then they moved to Raleigh, well, Greensboro, North Carolina first and then to Raleigh.
So, that was happening while I was a kid, and so there was a lot of buzz in the area around oh, we have like professional hockey team now. And I actually was a figure skater first. So, that was something that my mother was really into. She had always just dreamed of her daughters being figure skaters. For some reason she wanted figure skaters and pianists. So, that’s what we did.
So, my first exposure to hockey was actually just kind of getting off the ice after my figure skating practice in the morning. And then we had a, I think it was an AHL team at the time, the ice caps. They don’t exist anymore. But they would have their practices after our early morning figure skating sessions. So, I would see these guys jump on the ice and they’d be doing their sprints and their push-ups and their coach would be yelling at them.
And I just remember thinking that was like, way more my speed. I was like, this looks like fun. I’d really like to be out there. But there was just this really automatic like I would say, could I try that? And people would say “No, girls don’t play hockey, there’s no place we can play.” And so it just wasn’t even really a question.
And then the big game-changer for me was 1998, a woman’s hockey was in the Olympics for the first time. So, that was Nagano, Japan and Team USA won the Gold in that one. And I was 10 years old at the time. So, I remember watching that on TV with my parents. And my mom had always said, “Oh, like you should go to the Olympics as a figure skater.” And I said, “You know what, I want to go to the Olympics, but not as a figure skater. I think I want to do that.” And for the first time, my mom couldn’t really say, oh, like girls don’t do this, because obviously they do on TV, they were doing it.
And it still took some time. She was still like, no, this is weird. It looks dangerous. And I think my dad was the one who was really like, he didn’t like watching figure skating that much. He certainly didn’t like getting up at like five in the morning to take me to figure skating practice. So, I think he kind of pushed my mom and was like, why don’t we just let her try it.
He realized he had a lot more fun watching me play hockey than figure skating. So, that was how the transition happened around age 11, I guess. My sister also, she’s two years younger, but she also made the transition with me, so we became a hockey family.
JESSE: So, at that point, was there a, I guess at that age it’s girls hockey. But was there a girls hockey team? Or was it coed? Or what was available to you?
RANDI: Yeah. So, the very young ages, it’s pretty mixed. And so it wasn’t really a big deal at age 11 for me to be out there learning to play hockey with the boys. There actually was a local girls hockey team. But there were so few players that they combined everyone from age basically, as old as you could be to play hockey. So, there were like 10-year-olds on this team, all the way up to age 19. So, was one team for all the ages. And so you could imagine that was sort of a weird dynamic and it was really just kind of fun.
You go out and mess around. But when there’s a 10 year old and a 19 year old on the ice is not going to be like super competitive. So, I actually ended up growing up playing in the boys hockey system in North Carolina. I guess technically it was coed, but there weren’t a lot of girls playing there. Were just a handful of us. But that’s what was available at the time.
JESSE: And I only have kind of, I guess I’ll say a minor exposure to professional hockey through my college roommate who loves it. But obviously, at the professional level, the game can be pretty aggressive. When you’re talking to amateur sport, is it still that way? Is it more strict in terms of like, checking, and all those kinds of things that happen at the kind of higher professional level?
RANDI: Yeah, it definitely is. So, on the woman’s side, there’s technically no checking. There’s still a lot of physical contact, but it really has to be like incidental as you’re going for the puck, you can crash into somebody, but it’s not like in men’s hockey, where there’s like a three-second rule where you can sort of smash into somebody even after they got rid of the puck. That’s not allowed.
On the boy’s side, they’re very strict about fighting, for example, so like, that doesn’t happen in youth hockey, everyone’s wearing face masks as well. So, like it’d be kind of stupid to get in a fight anyway. So, yeah, it’s a different game. I think it’s more focused on skill and the fighting kind of, I don’t know, I guess Junior hockey has fighting. Like even college hockey, there’s really no fighting. So, yeah, I think that’s just a transition as you move into the professional game.
JESSE: So, since I have this opportunity, maybe I should ask this question. In regards to fighting, this isn’t obviously something you’ve participated in, but just in your opinion, since it doesn’t really happen at the youth level, it transitions as you go to the pros, do you think it’s more for entertainment value than it is for like jockeying for position?
RANDI: That’s a really good question. I think there is entertainment value for sure. And I think that is a huge factor in maintaining the culture of fighting. But it’s definitely also I think a cultural component of the game, at least in North America. I think it’s much less so in Europe and certainly in Asia, they don’t have this kind of fighting culture. But US and Canada, I think you have a really hard time changing a lot of guys’ minds because they’ve sort of convinced themselves that this is an essential part of the game, that hockey is an exceptional sport.
And even though things like rugby and football don’t have fighting, they’ll say, well hockey is a game that moves so fast, we have to police ourselves. If somebody does something wrong, we have to be able to punish that guy. And if we didn’t have this system, it would be all just chaos. I don’t really buy that, but I know that some people feel that very deeply in their heart. And it’s not just about the entertainment value for them, I think it really is like the culture of the game. At least in some circles.
JESSE: Well yeah, like I said it’s really mean kind of coming from the outside perspective looking in. As much as this is the Smart Athlete Podcast, I almost live in a little bubble kind of doing my own thing. I don’t watch a ton of professional sports. I watch football now and I’ve watched soccer for a considerable amount of time. So, I get kind of glimpses into it. But you definitely get that appearance that if you want a very like aggressive sport, which a lot of Americans do, they love football, then like hockey is right up your alley.
You even get fighting if you like football and you like UFC, you’re gonna love hockey, you know? So, that’s where I wonder whether it was people putting on a show because like when you watch American football, guys do end zone dances and they do all these things. It has nothing to do with the game. It’s all entertainment value. So, as somebody inside the sport hoping you can have a better kind of insight into that.
RANDI: Yeah. Yeah, I don’t know. It is a complicated issue. It’s definitely something I’ve talked about with a lot of my hockey friends. And friends of mine are pretty much across the board in terms of thinking like this really needs to go, it’s ridiculous and it’s just about making money. And then guys that really feel like no, this is a sacred part of the game and you can’t touch it. So, yeah.
JESSE: I can understand that in the sense that, I don’t know that I would want to play a sport where I’m getting into fights all the time. But at the same time, I can see the appeal and in the sense that it almost seems like a lot of, especially US culture’s getting kind of homogenized, where we’re one big mass of beige.
There’s not all these not as many differences and pockets of uniqueness as I think existed pre-internet is that kind of spreads and matches us all together. So, maintaining some kind of uniqueness or a lure, even if it is through violence, in this case, I could see that kind of from a, I want to say [??? 11:12] standpoint, but just that kind of idea.
RANDI: Yeah. Yeah, no, I mean, I can definitely empathize with it. And there’s some pretty good documentary about fighting in hockey that I watched recently on Netflix, actually, and I’m blanking on the name of it. But they sort of, I think fall on the side of fighting has a role in the game and like, it’s not just about entertainment value, and they sort of use this example of Wayne Gretzky, who was like not a big guy, right. And if people you know, big guys on other teams wanted to just like knock his lights out, like they probably could at some point, but Wayne Gretzky was sort of protected by the enforcers that he had on his line with him.
And he felt very strongly about it. Like if he got traded, he’s like, this guy is about to come with me. Like this is my protector. And this is the guy who allows me to play the very finesse style of game that I play, right.
And people have made the argument that Sydney Crosby, for example, doesn’t have that. And part of the, he’s got a lot of concussions and had a little bit of a challenging career in terms of injuries. And he’s not even that little like compared to Gretzky, but he [??? 12:23] really had that enforcer presence on his line. So, I think there’s more of a sense that you can take them out and like, maybe you’re not going to get punished. So, I can see the argument for it.
But, yeah, I mean, I guess my opinion is, it’s not an essential part of the game. And I personally am very happy with the fact that the woman’s game doesn’t have it. I don’t think it needs it. But I can understand that there’s kind of two different versions of the game. Yeah.