BIRD’S-EYE VIEW: A Pen and Progress
Blog #34 – March 31, 2021
By: John Peterson
How do we measure progress?
The easy answer is an on-the-surface glance at the past compared to the present. A reliable gauge of progress is the ability to be confident in a bright future.
The Hockey is for Everyone initiative has encouraged leagues, teams and fans to celebrate and promote equality and inclusivity in the sport. We’ve all heard the stories of the trailblazers, the risk-takers and the pioneers. The history books will always remember the first person to break through the glass ceiling.
But hockey has long carried the not-so-affectionate moniker of being known as “the old boys’ club”. This isn’t specific to any team or city, and isn’t meant to disparage anybody individually, but remains a phrase I hear from time to time.
How many times have you heard somebody say “she doesn’t know anything about hockey”, when referring to a female reporter, front office staffer or fan? It’s uncomfortable to even type that sentence, because I’ve heard it too many times to count.
But know this: Some of the best managers I’ve worked for are women. Some of the brightest hockey minds I’ve talked to about the game are women. Some of the most talented and hard-working beat writers and television reporters I know are women.
March is Gender Equality Month and many NHL teams have done a great job honoring the women who work for their organizations in different ways. The Colorado Avalanche hosted a “Girls Growing the Game” series last week and the Detroit Red Wings have been recognizing women who’ve made an impact in the community as part of their “Game Changers” series, just to name a few.
Most of us who decide to make hockey a part of our lives, regardless of gender, don’t do it for the fame or the fortune. We do it because we love the game.
One such example is Pam Shebest, an immeasurable Kalamazoo hockey storyteller.
ONE OF A FEW
Before her byline became a mainstay in the sports section, Shebest was an avid tennis player who fell in love with hockey at her very first K-Wings game in the late 1970s. How many have walked through the doors at Wings Event Center throughout the building’s 47-year history and had a similar experience?
“I was hooked,” said Shebest. “Very soon after that we had season tickets.”
Before long, the new K-Wings season ticket holder combined her new-found love for hockey with her passion for writing.
Since the team’s inaugural season in 1974, Bob Wagner covered the K-Wings for the Kalamazoo Gazette. When he retired after 11 seasons as the paper’s hockey and tennis reporter, Shebest was hired as his replacement. She became the first female sports editor in the Gazette’s history.
Groundbreaking as it was locally, very few women covered sports nationwide in the mid-1980s.
“There was an organization two years after I started at the Gazette called the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM) and I think there were fewer than 300 women covering sports in the United States,” said Shebest.
She quickly carved out a successful career covering Kalamazoo’s professional hockey team. Before long, Shebest became one of the most respected and recognized storytellers of the K-Wings’ renowned history.
HISTORY AND HARDWARE
Those inquiring about major K-Wings events and news stories throughout the last 35 years would be wise to ask Shebest first before digging through the archives. From the IHL days to the UHL and ECHL, including a short lived “Michigan K-Wings” era, she’s seen it all.
Well…she’s almost seen it all.
Shebest admits she started in her role after the team’s back-to-back Turner Cup seasons, thus missing out on the glory years that brought two banners to the Wings Event Center rafters. So it comes as a shock to no one how excited she was to cover the K-Wings’ run to the Colonial Cup Finals in 2006.
“One of our editors at the Gazette decided it would be good to get a rivalry going, because not many people knew about Danbury. He decided that the sports editor should write a column trashing the Trashers and got in touch with the Danbury paper so one of their writers could trash Kalamazoo,” said Shebest.
While she didn’t write the article, one of the other Gazette sports writers did. The only problem was the Danbury writer was on leave and the person assigned to write the story trashing the K-Wings instead penned a glowing piece about Kalamazoo.
Shebest traveled to Danbury with the Colonial Cup in tow—the UHL league office asked her to deliver it—and needed a security detail in the arena as she covered the team.
When the K-Wings defeated the Trashers four games to one to claim the organization’s third title, owners Ted and Martha Parfet presented Shebest with her own Championship Ring.
That wouldn’t be the only hardware she’d win in her time covering the local hockey team.
In 2011, the ECHL awarded Shebest the Outstanding Media Professional of the Year trophy. She became the first woman to win the award and is one of just two women to receive the honor in its 19 years of existence.
“I was flabbergasted. It’s hard for me to be speechless, but when I got that phone call I was amazed,” said Shebest. “It’s something special to realize that you’ve been honored for something that you love to do. I don’t do this for awards. I don’t do this for recognition. I do this because I love hockey and I love writing and reporting.”
More recently, Shebest received the K-Wings’ Al Genovy Ambassador Award, presented annually to the person who epitomizes the character and selflessness that made the award’s namesake such a great ambassador for the sport of hockey in Kalamazoo.
“That was also a surprise,” said Shebest. “The fact that [Al’s] widow [Kathy] was the one who actually presented the award to me was very special. That’s something that I still have hanging in the house.”
The word “ambassador” is perfect for what Shebest has done, knowingly or not, throughout her tremendous career. Ever so humble, which is no surprise to those who know her, she helped pave the way for many more women to strive for a career working in sports.
LEAPS AND BOUNDS
It’s safe to say we’ve come a long way from the days of fewer than 300 female sports journalists nationally. Shebest estimates there are well over 1,000 today.
“I think we’ve come leaps and bounds,” said Shebest. “I think now women are more accepted. People realize that women are knowledgeable in sports and that’s a good thing.”
While there has been improvement, there is still a long way to go.
As Paola Boivin points out in a piece earlier this month for Global Sport Matters, women still make up a small percentage of sports journalists, especially in leadership roles. According to the 2018 Associated Press Sports Editors Racial and Gender Report Card, just 11.5% of sports reporters are women.
Boivin spent 22 years as a columnist for the Arizona Republic and has spent the last four as a professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. ASU offers a Sports Journalism program, something that wasn’t offered when I graduated from the school in 2010. A positive sign for the future of the business is 25% of the Sports Journalism majors are female.
Two of my peers from the graduating class of 2010, for example, have gone on to big things. Gina Mizell covers the NBA’s Phoenix Suns for The Athletic and previously worked in Denver as the Nuggets’ beat writer. Sarah McLellan is the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Minnesota Wild beat writer and previously covered the Arizona Coyotes for the Arizona Republic. She knows more about hockey than I could ever dream of. Hopefully more girls and women will strive to follow in their footsteps.
In addition to sports journalism, women have made significant progress breaking down barriers working in hockey front offices.
Take the K-Wings for example. Keli Ekola, the team’s Executive Assistant is responsible for everything from player payroll and immigration, to team travel, which includes booking busses, flights, hotels and team meals. She also works closely with the sales team and box office.
Six different women collaborate on the K-Wings marketing efforts that led to the team winning the ECHL’s Marketing Department of the Year award in 2020. This group is led by Sarah Olszowy, Greenleaf Hospitality Group’s Vice President of Marketing, and Toni Will, the K-Wings Governor and Director of Business Operations.
Will has been nominated as a finalist for the ECHL’s Executive of the Year three times and is one of two women on the league’s Board of Governors. She also serves on the league’s Team Services Committee and last year served on the COVID-19 Committee.
As the leader of the K-Wings staff that won two 2020 league awards, including Ticket Department of the Year for year-over-year growth, Will was also named one of GHG’s Managers of the Year.
“I love what I do, and to see that it comes through, I’m really proud of that,” said Will. “I pour everything that I am into my job and I want to make sure that we’re represented well, not only in the ECHL, but in Kalamazoo. I’m really proud of that and I hope more than anything I continue to be a good role model to my kids and that one day they want to achieve those things too.”
Will recently spoke at Discover Kalamazoo’s celebration for National Girls and Women in Sports Day and was a panelist this month for the ECHL’s Women in Leadership forum. Shebest also loves giving advice to anyone who aspires to work in sports.
“What I’ve said to people who have asked me [for advice] is learn the sport to begin with,” said Shebest. “If you don’t know something, ask. People are great at answering questions. Be professional. A lot of times people get star struck around players or front office people. But be professional, learn the sport and do the best you can.”
I’m proud work alongside Shebest in the press box and proud to team up with Will, Ekola, Olszowy and her team in the front office. Let them serve as great examples and role models for girls and women that hockey is, indeed, for everyone.
Bird’s-Eye View is a Kalamazoo Wings blog, written by the team’s Director of Public Relations/Broadcaster John Peterson. The thoughts, opinions and behind-the-scenes stories are that of the writer alone and not a reflection of the organization as a whole. Fans are welcome to submit questions and ideas for future blog posts to firstname.lastname@example.org. Enjoy!