TORONTO — Gerry Dee has a silver medal around his neck and he’s settled into a reddish orange couch at the bottom of a set of stairs at Westwood Arena in Toronto’s north end.
Minutes earlier, the 50-year-old comedian and actor from nearby Scarborough was behind the bench as a guest coach with Team Johnston, and they earned a victory in a shootout on the first stop of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association’s (PWHPA) Dream Gap Tour. About 80 of the best female hockey players on earth took part in a four-game series last weekend, promoting their play and their cause: To build toward a league that makes hockey a job, not just a hobby.
Dee, who went 1-1 over the weekend with Team Johnston, sat down with Sportsnet to talk about his involvement in hockey, Family Feud, and why the debut stop of the Dream Gap Tour made him both sad and hopeful.
SN: Congrats on the win.
DEE: Thank you. We talked on the bench about: Alright, let’s try to win. And it worked out.
I mean, what is this weekend about, right? I’m an outsider, we won a medal. Actually, I don’t know if we won a medal or if everyone got this.
SN: It looks like a participation medal.
DEE: Yeah, but that still counts.
SN: Definitely. You’ve been supporting women’s hockey for a while now. How did you get involved?
DEE: I met [PWHPA head and Hall of Famer] Jayna Hefford years ago and we became friends. She asked me to be involved in the [CWHL] women’s all-star game, which I did. And it opened my eyes to the situation that professional women’s hockey’s in. And it felt off for me – you know, it still feels off, even being here today and seeing the best girls in the world at Westwood Arena trying to advance their game for no money. There’s a lot that bothers me about it.
It didn’t sit well with me what I saw, and I heard what they were making and then I followed along with the CWHL folding. So I thought if I can use my voice, a completely different voice, to bring some more conversation to it, then I wanted to do that. That’s how it came about. I’m just trying to be a small part of the equation, to keep talking about it. What can we do, and not just look at the revenue they don’t bring in right now and think, well, how do we bring in the revenue and how do we market them?
SN: Right. Do you have the golden answers?
DEE: I think it’s marketing them. I said to Jayna, even there at the end, I want to see their faces more. They’re standing on the blueline, they wear these cages. I know for my career I had to market myself — you know, people don’t market you, it’s stand-up comedy, and I just found a way to market myself. Someone like Budweiser who’s doing a great job stepping up and taking a chance at this event. Maybe there’s not the dollars in the beginning for a big company but I think everyone’s just got to collectively chip in. Because this isn’t about one sport, it’s about female professional sports, which tennis is the only one I can think of one of the bigger sports that’s succeeded.
Tennis is the only one where the pay is the same, the marketing is the same, the fan base is the same. I’ll watch Serena over somebody else, I’ll watch Bianca over anybody. And that’s what we need to get this to. And understand it’s a different game and understand that, you know, the answer isn’t, well, the men are better. Well OK they’re bigger and stronger and faster, of course. But there’s still a marketing opportunity here for the greatest women in the sport in the world. They shouldn’t have to play at Westwood Arena on a Sunday morning to grow their game. But I admire all these women that are here this weekend to try to advance this, for perhaps the generation behind them.
SN: On the marketing front, have you thought about featuring the Spooner family [featuring Olympic gold medallist, Natalie] on Family Feud? [Dee is the host of Family Feud Canada on CBC]
DEE: [Laughs]. Yeah, lots of things. I don’t have a say in that. But I want to pitch a bunch of ideas to Family Feud and one of them would be Team USA against Team Canada, men and women, just to market them more. We do know the Spooners and the [Rebecca] Johnstons, we do know them. But it’s also got to be the levels below the national team too.
I’m a business man and I think at the end of the day, if you’re the best in the world at something you should be paid accordingly, and these girls making $7000 a year to play hockey [as some did last year in the CWHL], it’s ludicrous. I don’t have the answer, I don’t know the answer. I just want to have the conversation and keep it going, make more people more aware of the situation, which I wasn’t aware of. And weekends like this are a small step. After we did the [CWHL] all-star game last year my daughter came to me. She’s a high level golfer, she’s 12 and she said: ‘Why do the men make so much?’ She saw a newspaper article. I don’t know, what do you say to her?
SN: I don’t know. That’s a long answer. And there’s a long way to go.
DEE: There is. But there’s a reason we all watch Canada-US gold medal games. So for people to say, ‘Well, no one’s interested in watching it,’ well, they are. They’re watching that game. How do we get them to watch all the games? I think two [North American-based pro] leagues was not the best answer, that’s done, as we know [the CWHL folded, the NWHL is still rolling and opens on Oct. 5]. But that was not helping, because that thins out the skill.
At the end of the day, the best players in the world, you want them in the best league and the best games with the most competition. For me, the more I see it, I feel bad. I feel bad for a lot of these women because they work their butt off, they give a lot of time to it. You like to think that other than the Olympics there’s an opportunity for little girls.
I talked to one of the girls this weekend, asked her, ‘What are you plans?’ She’s like, ‘Well, I have a chance to be a nurse. I’ve got to take it.’ So they’re not really even getting to chase the dream.
SN: A lot of people believe the NHL is the answer. What do you think?
DEE: I think the NHL has to get involved for this to work. I was talking to some of the players, just spit-balling, but what if the women’s game was on at 5 p.m. and then the Leafs or the Habs or the Jets play after, it bleeds into it. That would make sense, the building is going to be packed and you’ll start to follow it and gain interest.
SN: What did you see that you liked out of this first Dream Gap Tour stop?
DEE: So much. I think the crowds were great, I think the enthusiasm was great. The girls give back so much, they’re all doing autographs. The hope, I think, is the best thing. For them, I hope they see that there are lots of people that are trying to make this better, like myself, like Jayna, like Billie Jean, and they’re doing it much more than I am.
So I hope they’re feeling there’s a bit of hope that maybe something will change quickly. Because you don’t want this to take another 10 years. I think that’s their intention, we’ve got to fix this for the future. I’m hoping they have a bit — a tweak — of hope, that maybe some things could come down the pipeline soon.
SN: Thanks for your time.
DEE: Thank you, it’s my pleasure.
SN: Honestly, I thought you were going to be funny and joke around for the whole interview.
DEE: This is more using my voice in a non-comedic way. This isn’t a laughing matter to me, as much as I like to joke. This is trying to help these young girls who’ve given a lot. They get up at 5:30 in the morning to train, too. They eat properly, they do all the things that a male athlete would do. I’m not saying pay them the same, but I’m saying, let’s keep talking about how we can improve things.