Need for one pro league the new focus for women’s hockey
Liz Knox didn’t get a chance to rest.
A day after making 24 saves to backstop her team to a road win and then flying home from Boston, the goaltender for the Markham Thunder worked her day job as a carpenter from 6 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon, took a 10-minute nap, went for a four-mile run and squeezed in a workout before dinner.
“If we were making a living wage, it’s not a big deal because I can sleep in today and go to the gym when I’m ready and have the facilities there to train,” Knox said. “If it’s your full-time job, then that’s your full-time job and you can pay for your rent and everything else on top of that.”
For now, playing women’s hockey professionally in North America isn’t lucrative enough to be a full-time job, save for the U.S. and Canadian Olympians who earn money from their national federations. In the aftermath of the U.S. winning gold at the Winter Games, several players have used their platform on a whirlwind victory tour to make the case for one professional league where there are currently two competitors: the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and National Women’s Hockey League.
“I don’t play in the CWHL or the NWHL so I have no personal preference,” U.S. shootout hero Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson said. “For women’s hockey to continue its traction is to have one league, whether that’s a merger or an entirely new league that supports both the U.S. and Canada in one league, I think is going to be really important in the next season to somehow make that happen.”
Current and former players have taken to social media to promote the concept of #OneLeague that could pay long-term dividends for the sport. It’s a complicated issue muddled in the uncertainty between the CWHL, NWHL and NHL with, so far, no obvious path forward.
The compelling journey of the U.S. team from its fight for a better contract from USA Hockey to its thrilling victory against Canada at the Olympics brought positive attention to women’s hockey that is now in danger of being cut short.
“After the Olympics, all the conversation was: ‘Why can’t I watch this on a day-to-day basis? Why can’t I watch this every weekend?’ Well, you can’t because the talent is split right now between two leagues,” said Knox, one of the co-chairs of the CWHL Players Association. “Merging is probably never going to work. There’s just too many differences between the two leagues and that’s been evident from the very beginning.”
What also divides the two are salary and bonus structures.
The NWHL has paid its players a salary from its inception: Between $10,000 and $26,000 in its first season to between $5,000 and $7,000 now. The CWHL previously focused on paying staff and player travel costs before committing to paying players starting this past year — anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000, with a team salary cap of $100,000.
“Our framework has allowed for us to maintain sustainability and measured growth, and that trend will continue,” said Brenda Andress, commissioner of the nonprofit CWHL, which has partnered with NHL teams in Toronto, Montreal and Calgary. Partnerships can include financial assistance, marketing and promotions, ice time and office space.
The NHWL is on better financial footing than it was last season, when the league was forced to cut player salaries in half to avoid the risk of folding. It now has an affiliation with the New Jersey Devils for financial and other support, and Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula purchased the Buffalo Beauts to make them the first team not owned and managed by the league.
“Team USA’s thrilling victory over Canada for the gold medal captivated the nation and showed a glimpse of the potential for women’s hockey in our country,” a Pegula Sports & Entertainment spokesman said. “We believe that women’s hockey has an extremely bright future and are heavily committed to doing our part to continue its advancement.”
Neither league would address any notion of specific merger talks.
“One of the founding principles of the NWHL is to advance women’s hockey,” NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan said. “If anyone has a formal plan or ever wants to discuss how we can take the business of professional women’s hockey to the next level, the NWHL will always engage with them and do what’s best for the game, the players, our supporters and fans.”
Knox and others would love for the NHL to step in and run a league like the NBA has with the WNBA.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s stance on women’s pro hockey hasn’t changed since the NWHL was established. It’s a position he recently reiterated on Calgary’s 960-Radio by saying the two leagues must first sort out their situations.
“Having two leagues makes it more difficult for us to get involved,” Bettman said. “If there were no leagues, we’d probably start one under the NHL umbrella, and I’ve told both leagues that. But I have no interest in competing with the existing leagues. I think that would be counterproductive.”
Andress said the CWHL has always believed in the need for one league called it “where the future of the women’s professional game has always been heading.”
No one’s quite sure what that would look like.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” said U.S. captain Meghan Duggan, who has played in the CWHL and NWHL. “It would be awesome if we could work together and if they could work together and figure out a way to get everyone playing under the same umbrella.”
U.S. forward Hilary Knight, who is back in the CWHL playing for Les Canadiennes in Montreal after two seasons with the NWHL’s Boston Pride, said whatever it looks like, it’s vital for the growth of the game to have a single league that pays a living wage.
“If I have a child and I’m going to sign them up, if they were to take this seriously, what’s the career path? If they fall in love with the game, what career path are they going to have?” said Knight, who signed with Montreal last week. “Is there going to be a place for them to play after college if they’re not going to be in the national team program or whatnot?”
Right now, those are unanswered questions. Even though Knox is Canadian, she can’t help but be happy that the Olympic championship won by the Americans has put the one-league conundrum in the spotlight.
“That’s the biggest voice that we have right now in North America,” Knox said. “The stuff that they’re doing right now and helping to promote the idea that we could all play in one league is really, really important for the growth of women’s hockey here in North America.”
It’s an effort borne out of frustration for players who want nothing more than to play with and against each other in the same league instead of being forced to choose. They know fans also have to split their attention, which isn’t necessarily a sustainable way to build the popularity of women’s hockey.
“A lot of people only discover women’s hockey every four years at the Olympics,” Knight said. “We’re here every single year, every single day training and there’s places that you can come see us, but we just don’t have those marketing dollars, those resources behind us to really bridge the gap between a product and the consumer. Hopefully combining efforts would help take care of that and we can get some big names on board to help fix that problem.”