Women’s hockey is taking another step on Friday when 20 players will take part on the biggest non-Olympic stage the sport has seen. They will have the spotlight shone on them in a 3-on-3 game that is sure to be heated and entertaining.
It is the latest step in women’s hockey players pushing the game forward. There is still a lot more to do.
It may seem like ancient history, but it really wasn’t that long ago.
There was a time when a group of women’s hockey players got together, and were led by a woman dead set on changing the conversation and the treatment of women’s hockey players. Dani Rylan looked at the CWHL in 2015 and decided to do better.
She got investors, and created a league that would pay players — a first in modern women’s hockey history in North America. It was clear at the time: The status quo is not good enough.
People were skeptical of this being the way forward. People were saying that there was already a league and that they should join or expand that one. People were scared that this was too drastic a move and worried about it being sustainable. In the end, the NWHL had to cut salaries midway through their second season. On the other hand, that league still exists and the CWHL does not.
Fast forward five years. A lot of those same players are making another stand against the status quo. Only this time, the NWHL is that status quo, and the members of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) are the ones choosing to look for more.
Again people are skeptical. They want people to join the NWHL or have the NWHL expand to cover the Canadian markets left out to dry by the collapse of the CWHL.
It’s deja vu, sure, only the roles are a bit reversed. Eighteen of the players in the NWHL’s inaugural season are now in the PWHPA, and about half of those had come from the CWHL originally.
Players will always fight for what they want, and what they want is an opportunity for future generations of women’s hockey players to be paid to play the game as a full-time career.
Renata Fast was standing in the Mattamy Athletic Centre after the final game of the Secret Women’s Hockey Showcase. Most of the questions were about the positives: the crowd, the atmosphere. Fast was then asked about whether not having a league associated with the PWHPA has allowed players to speak out about what the conditions really were.
“I think we all wanted in the past our professional leagues to look professional to outsiders. But the truth is, it wasn’t really behind the surface. We dealt with a lot of things that we were just like ‘OK, this is just normal. We have to make it look like this is OK.’ You couldn’t have any structure when you played or any type of routine heading into a game because you never knew what was going to happen. That’s a big part of why we made this statement. We were sick and tired of faking it, that we were a professional league because it truly wasn’t.”
Just as a member of the media, I have been banished to a basement changing room watching a grainy, black-and-white feed of an awards ceremony on a screen that couldn’t have been bigger than five inches. I have seen media need to sneak into unused luxury boxes in order to have a table to work on. I have seen post-game press conferences at marquee events interrupted by security guards literally kicking us out of the building.
You also hear and see things relating to the players, whether it’s travel arrangements that are inhumane or dangerous, team management forgetting to bring jerseys to the game, players not getting money promised to them, significant salary cuts without warning, irregular pay schedules, having to share bathrooms with the opposing team or fans. The PWHPA is not only about an NHL-funded league and it is not an attempt to make millions of dollars. There’s a lot of work to do before the women’s game can be considered professional.
A lot of attention in all of this is put on the national team players, but they are outnumbered by non-national team players in the PWHPA. They are the lifeblood, the players who had to work day jobs and show up to Friday evening playoff games right afterward. They are the players who had to get up early for their job after late-night practice times. The players who put professional in professional hockey player, without the compensation to match.
The spotlight shines brightest on the game’s biggest stars, which is simply normal. Sidney Crosby, LeBron James, and players like them draw more attention to them than role players do.
There was — and still is — a complex among those in women’s hockey and even hockey in general. They need to be grateful, they can’t speak up against what they are facing. People within women’s hockey in general deal with so much criticism from those who want to knock it down, that they are unable to take constructive criticism or legitimate concerns.
The fact is, the NWHL is not the answer. It doesn’t have one player who is being paid to be a full-time player. Even when salaries were at their highest before being slashed in half in their second season, they weren’t at a level allowing players to focus solely on hockey, unless they were already in the national team program.
The NWHL has preached growth, proclaiming that it is getting more eyes on the product. What they haven’t been able to say is how they are turning that into more money for the players. The CWHL had 170,000 people watch their final game on a Canadian national network, not counting people watching on TV in French and in the United States, yet it still had to fold. The NWHL has a deal with Twitch, which could lead to more revenue as well as their other partnerships, but none provides the kind of marketing clout that any league — and especially a women’s league — needs.
The NWHL has done some good things for women’s hockey. Having every game streamed and getting some sort of revenue from it is great. But the game needs to be televised. Even Hilary Knight, who is now one of the most vocal members of the PWHPA, said she doesn’t regret being involved in the start of the NWHL, and in some ways was the face of it.
But it’s time to fight for something bigger than that, much like the NWHL was seen as a step up from the CWHL at the time by the players who joined. It’s important to realize the players aren’t moving away from the NWHL, their movement is working toward something.
The NBA is showing what happens when you invest in women’s sports with their groundbreaking CBA for the WNBA. Investment in the product will provide a level of support women’s hockey has never seen. The NHL is mentioned because they have the resources and experience to run a hockey league. It is not the only solution, but it may be the best one.
You can’t put money into growing the game as a business when every dollar is going toward breaking even.
At this point, women’s hockey players are taking the stance to fight for more, because if they don’t, who will? In the last 15 years, three women’s hockey leagues have folded with no input from the players. The sport is still a sport of convenience. You need to live in a certain spot, or you need to have an accommodating job to keep playing.
The NHL All-Star game is a step forward in legitimizing the women’s game, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what can happen when an investment is made into the sport at a domestic club level.