Robin Herman, Who Pried Open Doors in the N.H.L., Dies at 70
Robin Herman, who as a hockey reporter for The New York Times broke a gender barrier when she became one of the first two female journalists to enter a men’s professional sports locker room in North America, died on Tuesday at her home in Waltham, Mass. She was 70.
Her husband, Paul Horvitz, said the cause was ovarian cancer.
Ms. Herman began covering the New York Islanders for The Times in 1974, but National Hockey League teams had routinely denied her the same locker room access that they gave to male reporters seeking to interview players after games. Like other reporters, she wanted to quote players to add their insights and perspectives to her game stories, which she had to file under tight deadlines.
But in those years, professional teams in all sports believed, to varying degrees, that female sports reporters — what few there were at the time — did not belong in an inner sanctum like a locker room, where men would be in various states of undress. Players who agreed to talk to female reporters had to leave the locker rooms and meet them in hallways.
“I was a New York Times reporter, but because of my gender I wasn’t allowed to do my job,” Ms. Herman said in “Let Them Wear Towels,” a 2013 ESPN documentary about the obstacles and boorishness that female reporters faced while covering men’s sports.
When she tried to enter the Atlanta Flames locker room in the fall of 1974, the coach, Boom Boom Geoffrion, told her, “Go ahead if you want to see a bunch of nude men.” When she opened the door to ask to speak to a certain player, she later wrote in The Times, a teammate with a green towel wrapped around his waist shouted, “Hey, get the broad outta here!” The door closed.
The door did open in January 1975, at the N.H.L. All-Star Game in Montreal. During a pregame news conference, the teams’ coaches were asked whether they would let the two female reporters there — Ms. Herman and Marcelle St. Cyr, a local radio reporter — into their locker rooms. They said yes.
But when Ms. Herman and Ms. St. Cyr were allowed in and began to conduct interviews, they were thrust into a spotlight they did not seek. All eyes turned toward them, Ms. Herman wrote. There was laughter. Players clutched their towels.
Someone yelled, “There’s a girl in the locker room!”
“Marcelle and I, not the All-Star Game, had become the news of the hour,” she wrote in The Times not long after the game. “Cameras hovered over our shoulders. Microphones poked at our mouths. The tasks of establishing a serious, professional rapport with a player in a dressing room is difficult enough, but it was made virtually impossible by the circus scene.”
While she was interviewing Denis Potvin, an Islanders defenseman, one of his All-Star teammates, Tracy Pratt, of the Vancouver Canucks, yanked Potvin’s towel away.
About a month later, Jane Gross, a reporter at the time for the Long Island newspaper Newsday (she later worked for The Times), gained admittance into American Basketball Association locker rooms while covering the New York (now Brooklyn) Nets.
When Ms. Herman moved to the New York Rangers beat in 1976, joined there by Lawrie Mifflin of The Daily News, the team’s locker room at Madison Square Garden had been opened to female reporters that year, with the encouragement of John Ferguson, the coach and general manager. And the Rangers players themselves would vouch for Ms. Herman and Ms. Mifflin in talking to opposing players, including during road games.
“We got to know the team we covered, and they went to bat for us in other places,” Ms. Mifflin, who later joined The Times, said in a phone interview. (The Islanders had opened their locker room to female reporters by the time Mary Flannery took over the beat for The Daily News in 1978.)
Ms. Mifflin said that she and Ms. Herman had sometimes been mistreated by players — in 1980, one of them grabbed Ms. Mifflin and carried her out of a locker room — but she added that they were undeterred as they strategized about gaining access to more locker rooms on the road.
“What could we do to convince this team to let us into their locker room when the Rangers traveled there the next time?” she said.
Equal access to locker rooms did not become standard in the N.H.L. for about a decade, with the Toronto Maple Leafs as the league’s lone holdout as late as 1987. The team’s owner, Harold Ballard, even went so far as to ban all reporters from the locker room rather than be compelled to admit female sportswriters. He once said that women would be allowed in if they took off their clothes before asking questions.
Robin Cathy Herman was born on Nov. 24, 1951, in New York City and grew up in Port Washington, on Long Island. Her father, Sidney, owned a hat factory and later taught business law at the New York Institute of Technology. Her mother, Mildred (Gold) Herman, was a sculptor.
Ms. Herman entered Princeton University in 1969 as part of its first class of female undergraduates and joined the campus newspaper, The Daily Princetonian. There, each new reporter was to be given both a news and a sports beat, but the editors had assumed that Ms. Herman would not want to cover sports, and so gave her only a news assignment.
“It struck me as inequitable,” she told the Princeton Alumni Weekly in 2013. “It was a reflex, really,” she added, of speaking up to cover sports.
She volunteered to write about rugby, then covered men’s squash, men’s tennis and football.
After graduating in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in English, she was hired as a clerk in The Times’s sports department and was soon promoted to reporter. Before being assigned to the Islanders, she wrote about tennis, yachting and horse racing.
In the ESPN documentary, she recalled a particular piece of hate mail about female sportswriters entering men’s locker rooms and clubhouses.
“It’s hard to address a harlot disguised as a reporter,” it read in part, “but I just want to warn you that you cannot do such a thing with impunity. It’s wrong, no matter how many women libers might dumbly applaud it.”
Ms. Herman moved to The Times’s metropolitan desk in 1979 before leaving the paper in 1983. She later freelanced for The Washington Post and The International Herald Tribune, writing about health and science, and joined The Post’s Health section in 1991, remaining on its staff until 1995. She was the author of the book “Fusion: The Search for Endless Energy” (1990).
After returning to freelance writing, she joined the School of Public Health at Harvard in 1999 as assistant dean for communications. She retired in 2012.
In addition to her husband, a former editor at The Times, she is survived by her daughter, Eva Horvitz; her son, Zachary; two grandsons; and her sister, Summer Pramer.
In 2013, though long removed from her sportswriting days, Ms. Herman had a blog, Girl in the Locker Room, that gave her platform for commentary. When Don Cherry, then a bombastic personality on “Hockey Night in Canada” on CBC, said on the air that women did not belong in men’s locker rooms, Ms. Herman had a response.
She wrote an open letter to him on her blog, reminding him that as the coach of the Boston Bruins in the 1970s, Cherry had opened the locker room to women.
“Cherry’s memory is really bad,” she wrote. “But I certainly wouldn’t forget the first coach and team to give equal access to a female member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.”