Three years ago last week, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League announced it was folding, a decision that has left Montreal without regular professional women’s hockey, exacerbated by the ongoing worldwide pandemic.
This weekend’s four games doubled the amount of Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) games in the province since the end of the 2018-19 season. When the CWHL folded, mainstream media who barely covered the league suddenly showed up to either ask what happened or say it was proof there was no market for women’s hockey. Even years later, it’s not something that is lost on the players.
“I’m not going to be shy about it, it [was] extremely offensive when the CWHL folded, and all these big media conglomerates [were] like, ‘Oh, what happened?’,” said Montreal defender Melanie Desrochers. “I’m like, ‘You happened! Where were you? Where were you for four years? I have nothing to say to you. You are contributing to the problem.’”
In the four years that the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) co-existed with the CWHL, and the three years since the creation of the PWHPA, most of the mainstream media attention has been on why the two leagues can’t get along, why they must merge or come to an agreement, or even why the NHL is the only way forward.
“This whole PWHPA-PHF, you know, the rift... Why can we only have one thing?” Desrochers continued. “There are a million hockey leagues on the men’s side. People should have the right to choose where they want to play. Why do we have to fight for the right to play on six teams?”
Women’s hockey media in Montreal has a regular presence, but very rarely had mainstream media cover games, even when the CWHL existed and even when Marie-Philip Poulin and Hilary Knight — undoubtedly two of the most prominent women’s hockey stars in the world — spent an entire season on the same team.
This weekend at the PWHPA’s showcase, Saturday had a larger than usual media presence. TV cameras and print media were there to cover the press conference for Olympians Ann-Renée Desbiens, Marie-Philip Poulin, Mélodie Daoust, and Laura Stacey.
One of the questions was why fans should care about the games going on this weekend if they weren’t playing.
“There are only 50 players on the Canadian and American national teams. Out here are all the other players who are going to be a part of the professional women’s league when it is created,” said Stacey.
“A league needs much more than just 50 players, and if you want those 50 players to be the best they can possibly be, they need to be pushed on a consistent basis. These are the players who are pushing for those spots. They are the ones pushing to make that next Olympic team four years from now,” she said. “To be honest, I think that talent is just as good as us, if not better, but they haven’t been given that opportunity to play on the national team yet, and who knows what the future looks like for them and for us as well. It’s a huge part of who we are and how women's hockey works is to have that group of players supporting [us]. Unfortunately, a lot of those players have to have jobs and we don’t. So I think, to be honest, those are the people we are pushing for to create a league because they deserve it just as much as we do.”
The question was asked not negatively but rather to get people to understand why the non-national team players are essential. It seems, though, the media who were there didn't listen. After Montreal’s 5-2 semifinal win, three reporters (myself included) represented no non-online media and were the same faces I would see covering CWHL games.
Similarly, when Desrochers, coach Peter Smith, and forward Ann-Sophie Bettez were talking on Sunday — after a Montreal championship win — there were no TV cameras, there was no traditional print media in either language. This, even though Radio-Canada and CBC had French and English streams for the entire tournament.
Let me be fair for a moment. The PWHPA’s irregular — and sometimes relatively last-minute — schedule does make it hard for mainstream media to make the effort to provide regular coverage. That is true. But mainstream media were at the PWHPA showcase this past weekend. They just weren’t there to talk about the hockey or even to the players playing. Instead, they widen the gap — purposefully or not — between the stars of the national team and the players who would make up the majority of any professional league no matter what the acronym is.
The PWHPA’s structure without a set playoff or season schedule also makes it hard to let people care about the stakes of the actual games, but it’s not like the PHF — with a much more natural schedule and format — gets regular mainstream attention, either.
Normalizing professional women’s hockey is necessary. To Stacey’s point above, imagine if the only players that were given attention in the NHL were the players on senior national teams. Now think of all the very good — maybe even great — NHL players who are or were not part of those teams. Think of that standard and who would be left out from it. That’s what women’s hockey is going through. Some great hockey players played in Montreal this weekend. Players who were literally on the taxi squad in Beijing for Team Canada at the Olympics.
The media showed up to the event but left as soon as the major names stopped talking. They may have watched some of the hockey on the ice, but they didn’t report on it. Instead, stories about the future of pro women’s hockey, Olympic triumphs, or how the players are great role models for the young kids in the stands dominated.
“For me, it’s just... [media] people need to show up, and they need to recognize that they’re part of the problem. I mean, hockey and sport is a market and people passively consume men’s sports all the time. And then that’s why you become a fan,” Desrochers said. “I don’t watch basketball, but if it’s on my TV, I’m suddenly into the Lakers game, you know what I mean?”
“It’s a matter of putting more women’s hockey on TV,” said Bettez, who has been working with TVA Sports and was part of their coverage of the PWHPA’s Rivalry Rematch and the U Sports women’s hockey final. “It’s good to talk about them in the media, in the newspaper, on the radio, but nothing is better than TV. We have a lot of visibility on YouTube but why can’t we just not put it on TV? That is the best way because when you see it on TV, it starts to get real.”
“There was a man who came up to me and was like ‘wow women’s hockey is fast, it’s physical, it’s good and I still think to myself, like, ‘OK, we’re in 2022... Welcome,’” Bettez said.
“Anytime a big media [outlet] wants to talk to me, I really choose my point,” Desrochers said. “If it’s to talk about our team, [Centre 21.02 CEO Danièle Sauvageau], the league, no problem. If they want to talk about why women’s hockey isn’t succeeding? I’ll say, ‘It’s you.’”
Whether it’s in one league or two, whether the NHL is behind it or not, women's hockey is moving forward. The players are expected to show up and put their best foot forward on the ice every time they play.
Sunday’s action saw a tremendous back-and-forth game that saw Calgary win the PWHPA season title in the final minute of the consolation final. It saw a hometown Montreal team win the first showcase held in the city.
People are working very hard to create or sustain professional women’s hockey whether in Montreal or elsewhere in North America. There is a lot of work being done behind the scenes so that the players on the ice can showcase their skills.
The coverage should focus on the ice as well.