Alasdair Hooper takes us through the almost unprecedented situation in North America where many of the world’s best ice hockey players are refusing to play professionally in order to get the rights they deserve.
Imagine a scenario where 200 of the best footballers refused to take part in an FA WSL season until they got the resources they deserved.
Consider the likes of Steph Houghton, Kim Little and Fran Kirby all sitting out; think about what a bombshell moment that would be.
The point behind bringing you this hypothetical case study is because that is exactly what has happened in women’s ice hockey.
It was one of the most dramatic moves in an eventful 18 months for the sport – but it’s a move that could transform things for generations to come.
Turn back the clock to February 2018 and the United States national team won Winter Olympic gold for the first time in 20 years.
In doing so they finally overcame arch rivals Canada, with recognisable stars such as Hilary Knight arguably becoming more popular than ever have been before.
But just over a year on from that triumph, women’s ice hockey was left stunned when the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded in March 2019 after 12 seasons.
The reason behind its demise was supposedly an insufficient financial model and a funding gap.
That meant ice hockey stars like Knight, and Canadian forward Marie-Philip Poulin, were without a team for the upcoming season.
With the Canadian league gone the presumption was that stars would flock to the five-team National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) in America – the only remaining and viable professional league for women.
But that didn’t happen.
Instead, 200 players announced in May that they wouldn’t be playing in a women’s professional league this season “until we get the resources that professional women’s hockey demands and deserves.”
Among the 200 was Knight, Poulin and also Kendall Coyne Schofield who, earlier in 2019, had become the first woman to compete in an NHL All-Stars skills competition.
Usually rivals, many 🇺🇸🇨🇦 top female hockey players opted not to play in a league this season to fight for a bigger, better professional league for women. We had a look at their #DreamGapTour in Toronto. #ForTheGame
📷 Marko Ditkun / HHOF Images pic.twitter.com/kNmCP9wsS4
— IIHF (@IIHFHockey) September 24, 2019
The Dream Gap Tour
Following the bombshell announcement, we witnessed the formation of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA).
This season the union launched The Dream Gap Tour, essentially a tour made up of PWHPA members looking to bring together the sport’s key stakeholders to the table to establish a single league with a sustainable economic model.
The tour’s first stop was last weekend (September 20-22) in Toronto with union members playing in exhibition games against Boston College on the Saturday and against alumni of the San Jose Sharks on the Sunday.
“We as players are playing with the intention of leaving this game better than we entered it,” Coyne Schofield told Reuters.
“And we have control over our image, our skill, our talent and ultimately the product we put on the ice.”
There is no doubt that the PWHPA and The Dream Gap Tour should be taken seriously.
Not only does it have a host of stars behind it, it also currently has tennis and equality pioneer Billie Jean King’s company serving in a leadership and guidance role.
On Friday September 20, the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) also announced it would serve as a PWHPA sponsor.
“The main goal has always been the main goal: that’s to build a sustainable, viable option and we haven’t seen that quite yet,” said Knight to Reuters.
“There’s a reason why there’s collective minds that are out there trying to forge a new future for the game.”
THANK YOU @SanJoseSharks and @SharksAlumni for an incredible weekend in San Jose. You sought out the mission of the @PWHPA and provided us with this opportunity to make a lasting impact on the game together. Thank you. 🦈 #TealTogether #ForTheGame pic.twitter.com/ymN0vpid69
— Kendall Coyne Schofield (@KendallCoyne) September 23, 2019
“It was the kick in the butt we needed”
The tide is turning in women’s sport. The birth of the PWHPA is just a small example of that. Female athletes aren’t just content to play their sport anymore – they’re in it to fight for the pay and conditions that they feel they deserve.
They’ve been neglected these rights for far too long.
“It was obviously devastating when the CWHL folded,” Sarah Nurse – who played for the Toronto Furies last season – told ESPN.
“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.”
She added: “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.
“But it’s the professionalism that we’re looking for. Simple things like getting our laundry done, ice time before 9:30pm at night, being able to travel on the road with a full staff.
“Last season we often travelled 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.”
Alyssa Gagliardi, who played for the Boston Pride in the NWHL last year, also told ESPN: “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 liveable wage, have health insurance, full-time staff, all of those aspects.”
This logo gives me all the feels! ❤️ 5 year old me is jumping up and down knowing that there are so many amazing people fighting so that the #DreamGap is CLOSED for women’s hockey in the near future! pic.twitter.com/4sW4DdqsoB
— Alexis Miller (@alexis_millller) August 28, 2019
“We’re not going anywhere”
So, what of the NWHL? Its league season starts on October 5 but Dani Rylan – the NWHL commissioner – is defiant.
“We’re not going anywhere,” she told ESPN.
“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.”
You get the impression that – not only do the PWHPA see the NWHL as insufficient – they also see it as a major hurdle.
Long term the goal here for many of the boycotting players is to create a single women’s pro league that has the support of the National Hockey League (NHL), much like the way the NBA supports the WNBA.
During her interview with ESPN earlier in September, Rylan admitted to taking the move personally.
“Yes, I do. And I think there are some players where it hurts a little bit more that they made this decision,” she said.
“Not just hurts me personally, but also the other people in the league who invested in them, who have done a lot to help players grow their brands and grow as hockey players.
“Maybe that means players that made the national team who weren’t in that conversation before,” she said.
For the next generation 💪🏼 pic.twitter.com/uL6p8Cr7P6
— PWHPA (@PWHPA) September 23, 2019
Is it worth the risk?
All of this means there are several questions, which we don’t know the answers to.
For example, is there a rift between PWHPA players and those in the NWHL? Not publicly at this stage anyway.
“Everyone’s situation is different,” said Gagliardi to ESPN.
“I have friends who are playing in the NWHL – they’re still good friends. We respect everyone’s decision.
“Ultimately I saw this as an opportunity to be a voice for change for the future. We’ve all had to have an internal conversation with ourselves. And if my hockey career is done, and I never get to play a professional hockey game again, I’m OK with it – knowing the next generation might be able to do it for a living.”
That is ultimately what is at stake here. The risk versus the reward.
It’s undoubtedly a risk to go it alone without the NWHL. It’s a risk going down the line of wanting to create a league with the backing of the NHL. And it’s a major risk in potentially sacrificing your professional hockey careers for the next generation.
But what it has done is woken everyone up to the harshness of the situation. These conditions can’t go on and it takes a bombshell moment like this to force that change.
This is a risk worth taking.