The National Women’s Hockey League will celebrate its fifth season this weekend with an All-Star game and skills challenge at Warrior Ice Arena. But the future of professional women’s hockey is still in flux.
The NWHL, which has five teams along the East Coast and in Minnesota, is the only professional women’s hockey league in North America. It previously existed alongside the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which folded last March after 12 seasons, leaving 125 elite women’s players without a place to play. Rather than join the NWHL, hundreds of players from both leagues joined together to sit out the hockey season in protest.
Here’s what’s going on – and why.
Why is there a protest?
The sudden disappearance of the CWHL led hundreds of players from both leagues to release a joint statement in May, banding together under the hashtag “#ForTheGame” and refusing to play professional hockey until their standards were met.
“It’s time for a long-term, viable, professional league that will showcase the greatest product of women’s professional hockey in the world,” read the announcement.
— Brianna Decker (@Bdecker14) May 2, 2019
It’s easy to say that players participating in the sit-out — who shy away from the term “boycott” — have the one league they desperately want, in the NHWL. But members of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, those sitting out, want a league that offers its players adequate resources.
“There currently is not a league that consistently showcases the best product of women’s hockey in the world, pays its players a living wage, and has the infrastructure to set the game up to succeed,” read a PWHPA statement. “Such a league would represent an important step in closing the dream gap between young boys and girls.”
What’s going on in the NWHL?
The NWHL did its part to make itself more appealing to those participating in the #ForTheGame movement. Before the CWHL folded, the NWHL had announced plans to add two expansion teams with the help of investors, but called it off in the wake of the news, adding it may revisit the plans in 2020-21. During the offseason, the league announced a three-year deal to make Twitch the official live-streaming platform of the NWHL. All regular-season and playoff games and special events will be broadcast free of charge. The league receives a broadcast rights fee, and splits the revenue from the deal down the middle with its players. Players are also compensated through sponsorship deals with Dunkin’ and Chipwich.
But life as a professional hockey player in North America is not necessarily sustainable. Salary figures were not released by the league this season, but the league tweeted that some “league veterans and other top-skilled players” signed contracts for $15,000 this year, paying them for two evening practices per week, 24 regular season games, and “possibly a few playoff games.” Salary caps for teams, which carry 20-22 players, range from $100,000-$150,000.
The Boston Pride’s Jillian Dempsey, a five-year NWHL player who became the first player to reach 100 points and was named an All-Star this year, teaches fifth grade full-time in her hometown of Winthrop. Emma Ruggerio, who plays for Buffalo, works as a server at IHOP.
“Having a league in which you can play competitively is something we’re all so grateful for,” Dempsey told The Athletic. “Of course, you want to see many things improve. It’s hard to be patient sometimes. You see what our male counterparts have, and it’s like, ‘Oh, if only we were getting that $800,000 as a rookie.’ You see what the male players make, even at the lower end of the money in male pro sports. It’s crazy. Like basketball. What do they even do with that? Of course, we see that and we want that.”
What is the PWHPA doing?
Members of the PWHPA aren’t just sitting around waiting for change to happen — they’ve been organizing the Dream Gap Tour, hockey showcase events across the country. Their work, which is backed by Billie Jean King’s company, has been recognized. When the NHL incorporated the elite women’s 3-on-3 events into the league’s All-Star festivities this year, all but one of the 20 participants was a member of the PWHPA. The Adidas-backed Dream Gap Tour hosts its next event in Philadelphia February 29-March 1.
“This is a year of purpose for every member of the Players Association,” said Olympic gold medalist Kendall Coyne Schofield, who became the first woman to compete in the NHL All-Star Skills Competition in 2019. “Young hockey players should be able to share a dream of one day making a living as a professional hockey player. That reality doesn’t exist today for girls.”
Some players who originally participated in the boycott have switched sides, playing in the NWHL this season. Michelle Picard, who began the year on the sidelines, is the deputy commisioner of the NWHL. Mallory Souliotis re-signed with the Pride in June after initially joining the PWHPA. Jordan Juron, who plays for the undefeated Pride, joined the team at the beginning of January after playing in a Dream Gap Tour event. Alexa Aramburu did the same, joining the Connecticut Whale at the end of the month.
“At first, I thought that this movement sounded like it could help and if we sit out and then if the NHL forms a league then maybe we’d be paid. It honestly sounded like the whole world, just everything women’s hockey wanted and deserved,” Souliotis told The Athletic. “But I still had concerns and reservations with that decision…and a lot of those concerns went unanswered.”
Where is the NHL in all of this?
The NHL has no plans to step in and create a league, but will continue to support the women’s game both financially and through publicity. Two teams – the Pride and Minnesota Whitecaps – are partnered with their respective NHL teams.
“We aren’t actively working on a ‘plan’ for a professional women’s hockey league,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Athletic. “We don’t have a team of people modelling out projections. The league hasn’t (and isn’t) giving consideration to appropriate markets versus markets that might not be ready.”
With the NHL unwilling to take over, the NWHL unable to provide full living wages and health insurance, and the PWHPA unwavering in their stance for one adequate league, women’s hockey remains to be united. The heart of their mission, though, is the same.
“At the end of the day, I’m playing for those little girls in the stands who are buying jerseys and are maybe the only girl on their boys’ teams,” Jordan Juron told The Athletic. “We are trying to give those girls something to look to and have hopes and dreams to reach.