The players in the Professional Women’s Hockey Player’s Association (PWHPA) were put in a position they didn’t want to be in.
And they were facing pressure they didn’t want to face. The media attention is high, and with that comes expectations. If a league like the Alliance of American Football fails, it’s on the administrators. If a women’s sports league fails, it’s on the product.
For women, and especially women in sports, there is no margin of error. Any failure, whether it is poor attendance, or cutting salaries, or folding altogether is seen as proof it will never work. Social media allows for unprecedented free marketing. It also allows for unprecedented scrutiny.
The standing-room only crowds in Toronto were there not to cheer for a league, nor for specific teams. They were there for the elite players showcasing their talent and fighting for something simple: a sustainable and viable professional league.
“Going into today I underestimated how special it would be,” said Brianne Jenner. “When you felt the crowd, the cheers that we heard were for something bigger than just a hockey game.”
“I think this is one of the first times that I was so excited to go out there,” said Canadian Olympian Laura Stacey. “The atmosphere was awesome, everybody was here to enjoy it and to grow the game. And to have all the same goals in mind, and for everybody to be here and supporting us, that was pretty special for us to play in front of. We thought it was going to be a little bit of a tough year, I think to start off this way was really incredible. And it’s really exciting for the next kind of showcases to come.”
Last week, it was also announced that the PWHPA showcase in Chicago - still over two weeks away - was completely sold out. Not that they needed the validation, but it surely doesn’t hurt.
“I wanted to see a ton of people out there to validate to these guys that they’re supported in what they’re trying to achieve and that it’s been worth it,” said PWHPA Operations Consultant Jayna Hefford. “This was a difficult time for the players, and I think they were very courageous in what they stepped up to do and people being here today and the kind of numbers we saw, for them, I’m really happy.”
“I don’t think too many of us thought we’d have this kind of event together in the short time we did,” Jenner said.
The whirlwind of women’s hockey this summer was so strong that it’s easy to forget how little time there was to get everything together. It was March 31 that the CWHL announced they would be folding. The players announced their boycott of North American professional leagues on May 2 with the PWHPA officially starting on May 20.
Four months later, Nicole Kosta — who started her professional career in the NWHL before moving over to the CWHL — was sitting at a podium with Jenner, Rebecca Johnston, and Kacey Bellamy. The latter three were all going to play hockey in some form regardless as national team players. But there was a brief moment, during the call where she found out the league was folding, where Kosta went through a wave of emotions.
“All of us were really disappointed,” said Kosta, who scored the first goal in PWHPA history. “We had a conference call and there were a lot of tears, a lot of frustration, sadness, I was part of that, too. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know if I was going to play another game. Then when I heard that we were going to have this movement coming forward. I was obviously thrilled.”
Johnston, Jenner, and Bellamy were already in Finland for the World Championship. Very quickly, the focus turned to what would be happening this season. The first steps towards the PWHPA, and the Dream Gap Tour were underway. The uncertainty didn’t last long, but the work was just getting started.
“As soon as the CWHL folded, obviously, we didn’t want that to happen in the first place,” said Laura Stacey. “But as soon as it did, that was our moment.”
Women’s sports are getting a lot of attention in recent years. From the US women’s hockey team boycott before Worlds a few years ago, to the current battle that the US women’s soccer team is having, and the WNBA fighting for more. Add in the PWHPA and then the Swedish women’s national team boycotting as well, and you can see the urgency that is growing.
“I think we’re in an extremely pivotal time for the game,” Hefford said. “I think we’re on the verge of history in the game. I think that we’ve never had more momentum. I’ve never been more optimistic for what the future looks like. Of course, it’s uncertain. But I think that what these women have done is changed the conversation around the sport and around supporting female sport.”
It’s not only women’s sports that is having this coming of age moment. It’s also part of a wider fight for gender equality in a society where women are finding their voice.
“We look at sport as a microcosm of our society,” said Liz Knox, one of the nine board members of the PWHPA. “So the conversations we’re seeing coming out about women’s sport in general it’s because our intentions are changing. We’re starting to see that there are benefits to giving young girls opportunity, not just in sport, but in business and in science and education. And we’re seeing the power that comes with that. And so I think this is our little way, this is our little world, this is our part in in society. And this is our part of the bigger conversation to say we can make this little change for hockey, maybe it has ripple effects.”
Among the fans were girls and boys holding signs that were thanking the players for fighting for them. After all, the goal of the PWHPA is to have a league that will last longer than the 12 years the CWHL did and to be viable and sustainable. But there is a bigger message there as well.
“Not only will it impact maybe their opportunity to play in a league in the future, but maybe it’ll change the way the world is in the future in a sense, and the way that people are brought up and the way that kids see what equality really is,” said Stacey.
“It’s not even just women’s hockey,” said Canadian goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer. “It’s these kids get to see us fighting for something bigger than us. I hope those little girls and little boys will be able to speak out when they when they really feel something’s wrong, or something should change, and not be afraid to voice what they actually truly believe in and take a stance when needed. I think that you can bring that skill into any facet of life and standing up for what’s right, it doesn’t just end at the hockey rink.”
With brands like Budweiser, Adidas, support from Billie Jean King Enterprises, and streaming on CBC plus highlights on all major sports highlights shows in Canada, the PWHPA has name brands jumping on board and has attention the leagues before it don’t or didn’t have.
“Over the last couple weeks, a lot of brands are jumping on and they’re not jumping on because this is a league they’re jumping on because they believe in the purpose and they believe in the movement,” said Hefford. “I think this Players Association has changed the conversation around female hockey, and I think the best is yet to come.
“In my opinion over these last few weeks, and the brands that we’ve announced that one line with us, I feel like we have more support now than we’ve ever had,” Hefford continued. “Keeping in mind that this has all been pulled together since May 2, when these guys made their statement. [It’s a] pretty quick turnaround to get these type of brands to be a part of this and want to believe in the cause and push the game forward for these guys.”
In the end, women’s hockey has been down this road before. When the original NWHL folded, the CWHL had to be pieced together to fill in the gap. But there was no real business plan — the CWHL started, and folded, as a non-profit organization. Hefford was a part of the start of the CWHL, both as a player at the start and interim commissioner at the end. She has a unique perspective of this new fight by the PWHPA.
“I don’t know if you’re ever prepared for like that type of change. But I think it’s part of the evolution of the sport,” Hefford said. “In my career, I played in three different leagues. I played in the Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League, I played in the National Women’s Hockey League, I played in the CWHL and, and all of them were great parts of the success in that time period. Of course, it’s sad that things come to an end. But I think as a result of that, it has triggered change. And I think it’s opened the door for these guys to step up and make this statement about what they think the next generation needs. And it’s powerful, so impactful. All those other leagues were great successes. And now we’re moving on to whatever the next step is.”
“I don’t think we have any worries, we know that we have the right people with us and fighting for us,” said Maschmeyer. “We have the community behind us. So women’s hockey is going to be around, it’s not going anywhere.”
While a lot of the chatter is about the sustainability of a future league, there are two parts to it. There’s also the viability. And while these players won’t enjoy the benefits of a sustainable league — that will only be proven in time — they do feel like the Dream Gap Tour is a short term solution and that they will reap the benefits of a viable league.
“It won’t take 30 years, and that’s the best part of this,” said Maschmeyer. “It feels like it feels like it’s already been forever. But really, it’s only been a few months, and we’ve seen a ton of progress already.”