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With future of women’s hockey uncertain, athletes launch Players Association amid boycott

"We’re fighting so that we don’t have to be role models for multitasking to the next generation."

NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 12: Brianna Decker #14 of the Boston Pride poses for a photo with NWH L commissioner Dani Rylan after Decker was named the series MVP after defeating the Buffalo Beauts during Game 2 of the league's inaugural championship series at the New Jersey Devils hockey House on March 12, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey.  The Pride defeated the Beauts 3-1 to win the Isobel Cup. (Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images for NWHL)
NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 12: Brianna Decker #14 of the Boston Pride poses for a photo with NWH L commissioner Dani Rylan after Decker was named the series MVP after defeating the Buffalo Beauts during Game 2 of the league's inaugural championship series at the New Jersey Devils hockey House on March 12, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. The Pride defeated the Beauts 3-1 to win the Isobel Cup. (Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images for NWHL)

The future of women’s hockey is in flux. Three weeks ago, more than 200 women’s hockey players launched the #ForTheGame movement, announcing that they would not play in any North American professional women’s hockey league this upcoming season, and would remain on the sidelines until the formation of a league willing to provide the resources and support worthy of employing some of the best athletes in the world.

In the weeks since, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) has forged forward, even though its high-profile NHL partners are dropping out in the wake of the boycott. Some players have decided to sign with NWHL teams, and speak out against the #ForTheGame campaign, citing a lack of clarity and communication. And last week, the boycotting players took a big step forward when they announced the formation of the Pro Women’s Hockey Player’s Association (PWHPA).

The PWHPA is not a labor union. Rather, it’s a nonprofit association that includes national team members from the United States, Canada, and Europe, as well as both non-national team members who have professional playing experience and recent Division I college graduates who aspire to continue their hockey careers in a professional setting.

“It has been a work-in-progress,” former NWHL goalie Kimberly Sass told ThinkProgress. “The players in general have been trying to seek out a way to create our ideal vision of a viable, sustainable pro league, for, I would say over a year now.”

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Talk catalyzed into action after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) abruptly shut down last month, leaving more than 100 pro female hockey players without a place to play. And while some players — including Sass — were extended the opportunity to sign or re-sign with NWHL teams, Sass found that it was far from a viable choice. Having spent three of the last four seasons with the New York Riveters, she reached her tipping point last season during the playoffs due to a travel fiasco that she felt was mishandled.

In mid-March, her Riveters were traveling to Minneapolis to play against the Minnesota Whitecaps in the semifinals of the NWHL playoffs. The plan was to travel on Saturday and play the scheduled game on Sunday. But on Saturday afternoon, their flight from New York’s LaGuardia airport to St. Paul was canceled due to winter weather in the midwest. The league rescheduled the players to a flight from nearby John F. Kennedy (JFK) Airport bound for St. Paul, departing early Sunday morning.

The team had to arrange their own travel to a hotel near JFK, then use whatever remained — if anything — from their $20 per diem to pay for dinner at the hotel. A brief sleep was rudely interrupted by alarms set for 1:30 in the morning — the better to accommodate daylight saving time, which went into effect on this inconvenient weekend. They managed to make it to JFK on time, check their bags, and board the plane.

And there they sat, on the runway, for hours, as a crew de-iced the plane. Their connecting flight in Charlotte, North Carolina, departed while they were in the air. So, mere minutes after landing in Charlotte, the team was on a flight back to JFK. A lot of their baggage didn’t make the switch, and ended up in Minnesota.

The league rescheduled the semifinal to the following Friday evening, meaning that Riveters players had to arrange to miss work at their day jobs that Thursday and Friday in order to participate. Sass happened to be starting a new position as a job captain at HLW, an integrated architecture and design firm, that Wednesday, and did not feel comfortable asking for time off from work on her second day at the job.

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Travel mishaps happen, and a degree of flexibility is necessary for all professionals. But for Sass, this was the final straw. She was forced to have another job because salaries in the league were so low. She’d seen her salary decrease steadily throughout her three years in the league, from $10,000 her first year to $5,000 her second year (the NWHL’s third season), and $3,000 this past season. The league didn’t provide health insurance, what she was able to obtain from her full-time job was her only option. And now, the league was literally forcing her to choose between her day job and the playoffs.

She chose her architecture job. Her hockey career had already caused her enough struggle.

“After taxes, for 2018, I figured out that I spent more money in equipment, travel, and taxes than I made,” Sass said.

Sass is excited about the PWHPA, which she says will work on organizing training resources and scrimmages for its members during their time away from professional hockey, so that the players can all stay in shape and attached to the game. The goal is for all of the #ForTheGame participants to be able to benefit from a better future for the sport.

But, while multiple members of the U.S. Women’s National Team — including Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, and Kendall Coyne-Schofield — are leading voices in this campaign, not everyone in the sport feels represented by the movement. There are questions about its governance structure, goals, and tactics; some don’t believe that the sport can handle a sit-out at this point, and would rather work to improve a structure that already exists.

According to The Ice Garden, so far, six players have signed NWHL contracts for this upcoming season.

“To speak to those who are currently signing in the NWHL, I don’t know if there’s any animosity,” Sass said. “We all knew it would be a personal decision for everyone. I think you need to do what you think is best for yourself, but also take into consideration, years down the line, what a sacrifice now for yourself would look like for future generations.”

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There’s no doubt that #ForTheGame has negatively impacted the NWHL’s present standing — since the campaign was announced, the owners of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres have given up ownership of the Buffalo Beauts, and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils have ended their partnership with the New York Riveters.

But league isn’t dead yet. Last week, the NWHL and NWHLPA announced a new one-year contract, which sees the salary cap increase from $100,000 to $150,000 per team, the per diem increase from $20 to $25, a 50-50 split between the league and players and the number of games in the season increased to 24. Players now get a guaranteed post-game meal and breakfast when traveling. So, progress is being made.

“I think what it really boils down to is every women’s hockey player that I’ve spoken to wants the state of women’s hockey to be better, that’s regardless of if they’re retired, part of #ForTheGame, signing with the NWHL, or haven’t made their intentions clear,” said NWHL analyst and freelance sportswriter Erica Ayala.

“I just think that as of right now for a variety of reasons there is a difference of opinion of how to do that. You have some players who have stuck with the league and have seen enough progress that they’re willing to kind of stick it out with the NWHL.”

But players like Sass are done compromising. Recently, Sass tweeted out a photo of herself split in half — on the left, she was standing in her hockey uniform; on the right, she was at the architecture firm. She was taken aback by the positive remarks she got in the comments; she felt they were missing the point.

 

The reality behind Sass’ photo is unhealthy, mentally, physically, and emotionally. Her schedule wasn’t just unsustainable — it was impossible.

On Tuesday nights in season, she would get home from Riveters practice at 11:15 at night. She woke up at 4:30 a.m. the next morning to commute to Elmwood Park, New Jersey for a 6:00 a.m. goaltending practice that she had to pay for out of her own pocket, since the Riveters didn’t provide regular goaltending instruction. After an hour-long practice, she would shower and get dressed for work in the locker room, go drop off her equipment at the practice facility, then catch an 8:30 a.m. train from Newark to Penn Station, so she could be at work at 9:00.

Leaving her job at 6:00 p.m, Sass would frequently head straight to a personal training session from 7 to 8:30. After stretching, doing some social media promotion for the personal trainers, getting dinner, grabbing a train to Jersey, walking back to her car, and driving back to her home, she’d often walk through her door at 10:45 at night, ready to start again.

“Some people said, ‘You have it all! You can pursue your passion as an architect, you can also play pro hockey,” she said. “But that isn’t the message we want to send to the younger generation. We’re fighting so that we don’t have to be role models for multitasking to the next generation.”