Women’s hockey players stand up, sit out

On March 29, the board of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), an organization that previously consisted of six teams, voted to disband the league due to its financial inviability, irreversibly changing the state of women’s hockey in North America. 

The United States-based National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) thus became the only professional women’s hockey league on the continent; however, despite first being founded as an alternative to the CWHL, players have seemed unwilling to accept it as the sole remaining league. On March 31, dozens of players tweeted a statement using the hashtag #NoLeague to express their disappointment and apprehension of the future. This was just the beginning, as in the three months since, female players have taken bold actions to fight for control of their own future, even if it jeopardizes their present.

Two days after players first expressed dissatisfaction with the NWHL, reports of an increased financial contribution to the NWHL from the NHL of $100,000 surfaced. This development does not, however, reflect an increase in the NHL’s financial contribution to women’s hockey: Both the NWHL and CWHL received $50,000 each from the NHL last year, so the NHL simply transferred the CWHL’s funding to the remaining league. This contribution is also only 14 per cent of the $700,000 minimum salary for a single NHL player.

On May 2, over 200 female collegiate and professional hockey players in Europe and North America tweeted identical statements announcing that they would not play hockey in North America until a sustainable league with a living wage and health insurance was created. Among these players were superstars like Hilary Knight, Marie-Philip Poulin, and Kendall Coyne Schofield.

This movement, usually referred to with the hashtag #forthegame, is certainly bold and may put some players’ careers at risk. It might seem like a long shot, but it is not a step backward for women’s hockey. Those involved in #forthegame are pausing to consider the best way to improve the sport for both current and future players. Girls deserve to dream of a hockey career in which they can simply play hockey, without worrying about affording equipment or missing practice because of their day job. Every player involved should be commended for having the bravery to speak up and sit out one season in order to ensure the long-term growth of the sport.

On May 20, the CWHL Players’ Association’s Twitter account was renamed to the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA). Instead of merely creating a loose hashtag movement, the players showed how serious they are by taking legal steps to band together. The PWHPA lists the organization’s goals as creating one viable professional North American women’s league, providing support to players who are sitting out, and advancing the game. Currently, the account is spreading word about hockey camps to ensure that, even without the ability to see their favourite stars play, young girls will still be able to develop their skills and pursue their passion.

The creation of the PWHPA shows that the players involved do not think that the NWHL is sufficient, and that they have good reason to be skeptical. While the NWHL said in April that it would expand to Montreal and Toronto for the upcoming season, a May 30 press release tentatively pushed the expansion back to the 2020-2021 season, with no guarantee that it will happen at all. Additionally, two NWHL teams have recently lost their connections with the NHL, halving the number of official connections. By separating from NWHL teams, the NHL may send the message that it does not believe in the league’s model, or that it fears the NWHL may go the way of the CWHL.

Neither the PWHPA nor the NWHL is perfect, but one thing is certain: There are many female hockey players involved who are fiercely passionate about making their sport better for future generations. Whether the right path forward is with the NWHL, a possible NHL-backed women’s league, or something completely different, players are taking charge and they’re not backing down.

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