Sorting out the current landscape of professional women’s hockey

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Updated: September 21, 2019

Sep 20, 2019

Hockey season is about to begin, but there has never been more uncertainty in the women’s game.

It’s a paradox. Girls hockey is among the fastest-growing sports in America. Programs are also sprouting up in places like Kuwait, while China is launching a program ahead of the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. In 2018, the IIHF shared that there are now nearly 200,000 women playing hockey across the world — up from 170,000 (a 17.6 percent increase) in 2010. Team USA’s thrilling gold-medal shootout win over rival Canada in the 2018 Olympics was part of significant momentum at the elite level. In January, Kendall Coyne Schofield became the first woman to participate in the NHL All-Star skills competition (and dazzled). She and four other top stars subsequently signed partnerships with Adidas and have been featured in a variety of brand and product campaigns.

But when it comes to professional women’s hockey, the sport is at a crossroads. Despite growth last season, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League made the stunning decision to fold in May citing an “economically unsustainable business model.” That left the rival National Women’s Hockey League as the only remaining professional league in North America. While the NWHL also reported record attendance and viewership last season (its fourth), Coyne Schofield and many other top stars decided not to play in that league — or any pro league — this fall.

They joined a newly created Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association to achieve their goal of a unified sustainable league. The snag? One league already exists — the NWHL, which is set to kick off its regular season on Oct. 5. If that leaves you with more questions, don’t worry. We’ve got answers. Here’s a rundown of what the women’s hockey landscape looks like at this moment.

What is the PWHPA?

It’s not a labor union, but rather an advocacy organization. There are 173 dues-paying members including some of the sport’s top stars like Team USA’s Coyne Schofield, Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, Canada’s Shannon Szabados and Marie-Philip Poulin and Finland’s Noora Raty. Each player is part of one of the eight chapter regions: Boston, Buffalo, Calgary, Markham (Ontario), Minnesota, Montreal, Toronto, the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

‘We’re not going anywhere’: NWHL’s Dani Rylan bullish on league’s future

  • Investors step up to buy NWHL’s Boston Pride

  • Women’s hockey union launches Dream Gap Tour

  • “It was obviously devastating when the CWHL folded,” said Sarah Nurse, who played for the Toronto Furies last season. “But it was the kick in the butt we needed to push for what we truly want and what we truly deserve. It was very easy for a lot of the girls to be happy in the spots that we were in and not push for more. We didn’t want to take a lateral step, we wanted a step forward.”

    Added Alyssa Gagliardi, who played for the Boston Pride of the NWHL last season: “We didn’t want to just jump into the only option, because it was the only option. We wanted to make sure we were thinking long term about the future of the sport. I was grateful to have the NWHL opportunity, but looking forward, I want to be part of a professional league where I can make a livable wage, have health insurance, full-time staff, all of those aspects.”

    PWHPA members say they don’t expect the millions that NHL players make, but they do want to be able to have hockey as their primary vocation. The NWHL last year had a team salary cap of $100,000 (they increased it to $150,000 this season). Gagliardi said that last season with the Boston Pride, all but three of her teammates also had full-time jobs.

    “It’s not just the pay equity and pay gap — that will come, and we know that’s something that is not going to come overnight,” Nurse said. “But it’s the professionalism that we’re looking for. Simple things like getting our laundry done, ice time before 9:30 at night, being able to travel on the road with a full staff. Last season we often traveled without our athletic therapist and medical team, we were often sharing medical staff with other teams. Our coaching staff didn’t have access to video resources, they didn’t have their own locker rooms. Our equipment manager couldn’t give us laces or hockey tape. We had to go buy them ourselves.”

    Said Gagliardi: “We joke, but it’s kind of sad — the resources we got in college are what you wish you had when you graduated. Those are the resources no league to date has been able to provide consistently. We’re not asking for millions by any means, just something to live off of. Plus those resources. Think where the game could be if, in the last four years [since I graduated college], I could train full time and play hockey. And if there was an entire league that could do that. How good could this game be?”

    Who leads the PWHPA?

    The PWHPA is currently led by Jayna Hefford, a Hockey Hall of Famer who most recently served as interim commissioner of the CWHL when it folded. “What these players are doing is courageous,” Hefford said. “It’s a selfless act. They’re sacrificing what they could do right now — play in a league, because that’s the easy thing to do, and make some money. And in turn, they’re choosing to change the conversation. They’re united in this quest to find something that’s sustainable for the sport and sustainable for the next generation.”

    The PWHPA is advised by a team of lawyers from Ballard Spahr, the same firm that represented the U.S. women’s hockey team in their wage dispute with USA Hockey ahead of the 2017 world championship. Billie Jean King and Illana Kloss are also advisors; Hefford says Kloss is especially involved on a day-to-day basis. They’ve secured several sponsorships, such as with Budweiser and Dunkin Donuts (which also partners with the NWHL). Hefford said the PWHPA will be releasing even more sponsorship news in the next couple weeks. Adidas, meanwhile, partnered with the PWHPA to create jerseys and provide the athletes with training gear.

    So if they’re not playing in a league, what will players in the PWHPA be doing this season?

    The PWHPA arranged for training opportunities and ice time in each of the eight chapter regions. They’re also scheduling intra-squad games and scrimmages against local college, club and even boys youth teams. But the big event is the Dream Gap Tour, which kicks off Saturday in Toronto. Consider it a barnstorming tour where the players will be showcasing the game in exhibitions, plus doing community engagement events and clinics, specifically trying to reach young girls.

    They also have dates scheduled in New Hampshire (Oct. 4-6) and Chicago (Oct. 18-20). Hefford says there will be at least six showcase events this year. The games will all be streamed on the PWHPA’s website.

    So that brings us to the NWHL. What’s going on with that?

    Business as usual. “We’re not going anywhere,” commissioner Dani Rylan told ESPN earlier this month. “It’s definitely disappointing, to say the least, when the people that you built a business for, or a platform for, feel that destroying that business is the best way forward.”

    Anya Battaglino is a former NWHL player who now is director of the NWHL players’ association. The NWHLPA was in the middle of negotiations with the NWHL for standard player agreements for the 2019-20 season when the CWHL folded. The women’s hockey community has always been fragmented — two leagues dispersed the top talent across two countries and had vastly different business plans with the CWHL being a nonprofit. Now was finally an opportunity for everyone to stand united. Battaglino and the NWHL were riding high after viewership for the 2018-19 season was at an all-time high; the all-star game in Nashville drew 6,200, the largest crowd for a pro women’s hockey game in the United States, and several teams routinely sold out their arenas for home games.

    She was hoping players from the displaced CWHL would see the foundation they built, and the business plan that was in place, and realize that they had something they could grow together. “It basically sparked this need internally to create one league we had been trying to work on for so long,” Battaglino said. “I understand the battle cry of ‘we want more,’ but we had an avenue here that was working. The idea of taking a gap year without a clear business plan just didn’t make sense to me.”

    However, many players decided against it. “I think there’s so much passion behind not joining the NWHL, there was an inability for a lot of people to hear what was actually happening,” Battaglino said.

    The NWHL carried on. During their negotiations, Battaglino said Rylan was more transparent and inclusive than she had ever been before. The players fixed some verbiage in the previous contracts they didn’t like. For the first time, it was the players writing the contracts and the NWHL executive office making edits to it — not the other way around. One thing Battaglino would like to clear up is claims that the NWHL doesn’t offer insurance. “The players are full employees and get workers comp,” Battaglino said. “Anything that has to do with hockey, they are covered medically for.”

    The NWHL initially explored expanding to Canada when the CWHL folded but decided to stick with their five American teams for now. There were some initial challenges once the PWHPA formed. The Pegula family — which also owns the NFL Buffalo Bills and NHL Sabres — severed its ties with the league and relinquished control of the Buffalo Beauts. The New Jersey Devils also dissolved their marketing partnership with the Metropolitan Riveters.

    Rylan — the NWHL’s founder — was determined to keep her league afloat and made several improvements to lure players in. They increased the regular-season schedule from 16 to 24 games and restructured the schedule for multiple games clustered on weekends rather than multiple weekends of travel.

    Rylan said player salaries are up 26 percent over last season. Some players are making as much as $13,000 this season — which is for six months of work.