Being married to a pro hockey player is both a hoser Kate Middleton fantasy and a tough life Betty Draper might find familiar. Your career takes a back seat—if it survives at all—to the demands of your husband’s; you raise your kids and run your household virtually solo much of the year, and your entire life can be upended by a trade, injury or demotion to the minors. But there are also the shiny aspects of that pseudo-celebrity existence: engagement rings the size of peanut M&Ms, sprawling houses and high-end wardrobes, husbands who look good with their shirts off. Hockey Wives, which premiered on the W Network on Wednesday night, revels in both sides, clucking sympathetically while ogling shamelessly—but one side is more intriguing than the other.
The show opens with the 2014–15 season and follows 10 NHL wives and girlfriends, setting up that weird reality TV universe that pretends these people hang out when the cameras aren’t rolling. The most amusing visual tic is the establishing shot for each character that includes engagement-ring footage about as subtle as a Maxim photographer on the beach. But there are so many of these Real Housewives–type shows around that the “Look how these rich people live!” aspect of Hockey Wives is the least interesting.
The social dynamic of the show, on the other hand, is like a nature documentary set in a high-school cafeteria. Early on, Tiffany Parros, wife of unsigned tough guy George, commiserates with the wives of two other seemingly obsolete enforcers. “We have the same gripes, and sometimes it’s hard to complain to people that aren’t in the business because it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, woe is you,’” she explains. It’s clear the lives of pro hockey families are vastly different, depending on where the breadwinners fall in the on-ice hierarchy.
Nicole Brown reigns as queen of the Haves: her husband, L.A. Kings winger and captain Dustin, is in the first year of a $47-million eight-year contract. Nicole comes across as the Tracy Flick of the group, with her self-identified Type A tendencies and constant refrain that her husband has won two Stanley Cups “so far.” She explains, as Dustin lopes out the door and returns three seconds later because he forgot his hockey equipment, that she has five kids instead of four. “It’s my job to make sure they have what they need. I’m the CEO and the boss,” she says. “There’s pressure and expectation on me not to disrupt him because he’s being paid lots of money to perform.” It’s a sassy, character-defining line, but it also rings true and lonely.
At the Have Not end of the scale, there’s Emilie Blum, the sweetly charming and unassuming wife of Jonathon, a 26-year-old defenseman trying to stick with the Minnesota Wild. Toward the end of the episode, she ends up sobbing in a bleak hotel room because her husband had been sent back to the AHL. And the only reason she’s letting herself cry at all is because Jonathon isn’t with her—otherwise she’d suck it up for his sake. “It’s hard to not be emotional about it, to separate myself from the game and the business of hockey,” she tells Brijet Whitney, wife of newly retired winger Ray. “They’re trying to make their dreams come true,” Brijet commiserates. “We love them and we want them to do well.”
In between the glossy reality TV fluff, there are real glimpses of these women’s lives that make for the most interesting viewing. But an HBO documentary Hockey Wives is not, and there are plenty of eyebrow-raising pronouncements and low-grade emotional issues on display, too. Let’s break the characters down in terms hockey fans would understand.
The Sean Avery: Noureen DeWulf
The wife of Vancouver goalie Ryan Miller understands reality TV: the biggest personality—that is, the one most likely to incite a rage stroke in the viewer—gets the screen time. DeWulf is an actress whose current role opposite Charlie Sheen on Anger Management is described, amazingly, in press releases as “a sexy therapy patient.” It looks like she’s created a Hockey Wives persona modelled after a villain on The Bachelor.
Four months into her pregnancy, DeWulf confides to Parros that she’s tipped over 100 pounds. “Yeah, 103. I want to kill myself,” she chortles. She says her main worry about following her husband to Vancouver is the rain because “my hair is a big part of my beauty.” And after she poses for Playboy, she looks disappointed when her mock-reluctant announcement fails to give the other wives the vapours.
But beneath the obnoxiousness, DeWulf shows flashes of winking awareness. She tells Miller she’ll be bored without work in Vancouver, breathily wailing, “I don’t know who I am if I’m not an actress!” Miller stares at his wife so vacantly, you can pretty much hear his eyelashes high-fiving when he blinks.
The Brendan Shanahan: Tiffany Parros
Tiffany is the cast member I’d most want to split a bottle of wine with. She’s smart, insightful and authentic—and she does not take crap from anyone. At one point, a gaggle of wives sits around Nicole’s kitchen table venting, and Tiffany explains in voiceover that she’s giving them her “f*ck-off face” because they’re pouting about inconveniences while her husband is reduced to skating with teenagers. She sees clearly the weird, insular sociology of hockey wives, too. “The girls who think everyone wants to be their friend because of their husband, that’s because they’re obsessed with their husband and have nothing else going on,” she says, and not unkindly.
She tears up as she recalls the concussion early in the 2013–14 season that left George sidelined and became an anti-fighting flashpoint, forcing him to defend his livelihood. Presumably future episodes will deal with the Parros’ struggle to figure out what’s next, but because the show lags behind real time, we know what’s coming: George officially retired in December.
The Sergei Fedorov: Maripier Morin
Maripier Moriin, , girlfriend of Montreal Canadiens forward Brandon Prust, is described in press releases as “Montreal ‘It girl’” as though that’s her job. Turns out she co-hosts a TV show called Ménage à trois. In Hockey Wives, Maripier explains that hockey players don’t have a good reputation in Montreal, so she had no interest in dating one until she met Prust. Then she says, with a vampiric grin, “If Brandon cheated on me, I would cut his balls off, cook them and make him eat them.”
Later, she and Prust are making dinner, and when he asks how her show went, she says, “I talked about anal sex.” To which Prust replies, “No way. On your show today you talked about… [long, adolescent pause] …butt sex?” Things go from prudish to tense later in the meal when she asks how he’s feeling about his season opener the following day and he shuts her down. She complains he tells her to mind her own business anytime she talks about his job. It’s possible the show is just torqueing the drama to set up a “Will they or won’t they?” engagement storyline, but it reads as nasty.
Morin looks like Red Carpet Barbie, but there’s grit under the finesse and real emotion when she talks about breaking up with Prust last year. “Guys like that, they’re so sure of what they are and what they have. They don’t really doubt things, and they take it for granted,” she says, tearing up. “Love is not supposed to be complicated, but you have to work to make it work.”