Three-time Olympic hockey silver medalist Julie Chu thinks it’s “awesome” that Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados has signed with a men’s hockey team.
“If the opportunities are there, and the women are able to be in an environment and atmosphere where they’re accepted … and there’s not the danger of the physical part of it, then absolutely” women should pursue opportunities in men’s leagues, Chu, a forward for the United States women’s hockey team, said at the inaugural “Best of U.S. Awards” honoring Olympic and Paralympic athletes Wednesday in Washington, D.C., where she was a presenter. “And I think in the goalie’s sense, that’s an easier transition because there’s not as much physical body contact with them.”
But even as Szabados gets her chance, Chu said the physical nature of the game will prevent many women from entering men’s leagues. And for that reason, she wants to focus on building a sustainable women’s league in North America.
“If people aspire to play in the men’s league, that’s awesome … but I’m hoping that we can also give opportunities for the other aspects because I think the physicality might be the challenge,” Chu said. “If you have someone like [teammate] Kendall Coyne that’s five-foot-one playing against [the Boston Bruins' six-foot-nine] Zdeno Chara, that’s pretty tough.”
The U.S. women’s hockey team has medaled in four straight Olympics with Chu, claiming three silvers and one bronze. Team USA came up just shy of gold again in the 2014 Sochi Games, dropping an overtime thriller to Szabados and Team Canada. Yet the players have no major hockey league to join in the U.S. for their regular seasons. Chu competes in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, where she plays forward and defense for the Montreal Stars.
“We have the CWHL right now that is really starting to get support,” Chu said. “The Calgary Flames have joined to support the league, [as have] the Toronto Maple Leafs. We really want to continue to support that, when again, there’s a great product out there.”
Still, the CWHL has only five teams, and many players work other jobs. The Western Women’s Hockey League, features two teams — one in Manitoba and one in Minnesota — that play matches against NCAA squads.
There are other professional women’s hockey leagues around the world, but the opportunities are limited, as Finnish goalie Noora Raty explained in her retirement announcement at Sochi.
“As much as I would love to just play the game I love and that has given me so much, I have to choose a work career (unless I can make a living from playing),” Raty wrote in a statement posted on her Twitter page. “Why? Because who would then pay my rent, car loan and insurance, and other bills? I’m 24-years-old, out of college, single, and the money doesn’t grow in [sic] trees so yes you are right, the answer is no one. I’m done living from hand to mouth and now it’s time to start building wealth and think[ing] about my future. And I’m not the only player having this problem… the majority of female players have the same problem.”