Women’s hockey players are fed up with being told to be grateful for the scraps of professional leagues they’ve been given, so they’re taking a stand. Last Thursday, more than 200 of the best women’s hockey players in the world announced they would not suit up for any North American professional women’s hockey teams this season until there’s a league in place with the resources and support deserving of the best athletes on the planet.
“We are fortunate to be ambassadors of this game that we revere so deeply and yet, more than ever, we understand the responsibility that comes with that ambassadorship: To leave this game in better shape than when we entered it,” the women said in a statement.
“We cannot make a sustainable living playing in the current state of the professional game. Having no health insurance and making as low as $2,000 a season means players can’t adequately train and prepare to play at the highest level.”
Up until a few weeks ago, there were two professional hockey options for women in North America. But on March 31, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), abruptly announced it was closing its doors after 12 years due to an “unsustainable” business model. The CWHL, which operated as a nonprofit, began paying its players stipends between $2,000 and $10,000 in 2017. It officially folded on May 1.
Currently, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) is the only viable professional women’s hockey league in North America. It operates under the same $100,000 salary cap as the CWHL did, and pays players a minimum of $2,500. But since it launched in 2015, the NWHL has faced criticism from the media and players for a lack of transparency when it comes to finances — it does not disclose its budget or revenue, and only some of its investors are known to the public. This has led to a lack of trust between the NWHL and many elite players in he sport.
Monique Lamoureux-Morando and Jocelyne Latmoureux-Davidson, members of USWNT and twin sisters, carefully told ThinkProgress that the players were not boycotting the NWHL specifically, but rather were refusing to play in any North American professional women’s hockey league. However, considering the only existing league in North America is the NWHL, that seems to be just a matter of semantics.
“The league that exists right now is not sustainable, it doesn’t have our best long-term interests in mind,” said Lamoureux-Morando.
Liz Knox, a former CWHL goalie and co-chair of the CWHL Players Association (CWHLPA), told ThinkProgress that after the shock of her league folding, she immediately began hearing from colleagues who weren’t ready to give up on their professional dreams. They wanted to stick together and fight for a better future.
“What we want, what we’ve always wanted, is to have a sustainable league, something to be proud of,” Knox said. “Billions goes into global hockey. We don’t have pennies.”
Soon, Knox got a call from U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) stars Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield, who made a suggestion: What if everyone joined together and took a stance, and said, we’re not playing? Knox was excited by the idea, and immediately reached out to members of the CWHLPA.
“The resounding answer was yes,” she said.
— Hilary Knight (@HilaryKnight) May 2, 2019
Conversations about a sit-out actually began back at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, according to Lamoureux-Morando and Lamoureux-Davidson. However, after the CWHL unexpectedly closed its doors, the discussions escalated quickly. The players were already intimately aware of the power of a boycott.
Two years ago, the USWNT threatened to skip the world championships if USA Hockey did not provide them with an improved contract. At the time, the women’s national team players were only earning $6,000 every four years of an Olympic cycle, and were provided with far inferior travel accommodations and benefits than their male counterparts. That boycott was a success; USA Hockey ended up offering them a contract that included a base salary of approximately $70,000, and the boycott ended just in time for the world championships on home soil.
That boycott certainly provided an infrastructure of solidarity, communication, and messaging that can be built on this time. But this current movement — which is being referenced by the hashtag #ForTheGame on social media — is much more complex. It’s much bigger, because it includes players from all over the world, and it doesn’t yet have a concrete set of demands. Rather, players are taking a leap of faith hoping a net appears.
While most players are willing to take this risk, #ForTheGame doesn’t have unanimous support. In an interview with The Ice Garden, NWHL Player’s Association (NWHLPA) director Anya Battaglino said that none of the #ForTheGame organizers called her to talk about this movement, and expressed frustration that this was slowing — or at least fragmenting — the progress that women’s hockey was making. To her, it makes sense to fight for the improvement of the league that’s already in place, rather than asking for something that doesn’t exist.
The players behind #ForTheGame don’t believe that the NWHL holds the keys to a viable future for the sport. Rather, many want to see the National Hockey League (NHL) to put legitimate resources into a professional women’s hockey league.
“If you look at the history of women’s sports, the successful leagues are attached and linked to an already existing league,” said Lamoureux-Davidson, pointing to the WNBA, which is supported by the NBA, and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), which is supported by U.S. Soccer. “We’re confident that can happen in women’s hockey, too.”
The NHL has expressed reluctance to get involved in women’s professional hockey, in part because it didn’t want to chose sides between the NWHL and CWHL, and also because it didn’t want to “look like a bully” by putting the independent leagues out of business. But to some, those were convenient excuses, not legitimate reasons.
Last season, the NHL gave $50,000 annual contributions to each women’s league. When the CWHL folded, the NHL upped its contribution to the NWHL to $100,000. To the NHL, flush with cash, that’s a laughable amount of money. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman makes around $10 million per year. In the 2017-18 season, NHL revenue was about $4.86 billion. The average value of an NHL team is $630 million. The average team makes $25 million in profit, according to Forbes. The salary cap this season was $79.5 million.
“The [NHL] has never been healthier,” Bettman said last year.
But #ForTheGame isn’t just looking to the NHL to step up. It’s also hoping that U.S. and Canadian hockey federations — which benefit immensely from the success of their women’s national teams — support a pro women’s league, too.
“USA Hockey, they say hockey is for everyone, that they’re trying to make hockey more diverse and include everyone and show everyone that they can play the game,” said Lamoureux-Morando. “By making women’s hockey more visible from a year-to-year basis, you’re going to inspire girls to put skates on, you’re going to have more people playing the sport, and then you’re going to have more fans. In that scenario, everyone wins.”
It seems simple when broken down like that, but nobody is fooling themselves into believing that the path forward is going to be easy. Knox, who works as a contractor during the day and is training to be a firefighter at night, isn’t one of the players who has a national team contract to keep her in the sport. She knows that by the time the league she wants is established, the sport might have passed her by. After all, there are more than 200 players involved in this boycott, and it’s unrealistic to think that any new league would have that many roster spots right out of the gate.
“It’s terrifying, honestly,” Knox said.
“That’s what’s so powerful: This many women saying, ‘I might never play again, but I want the next generation to have something better,'” said Lamoureux-Davidson.
Of course, it helps to have words of encouragement from legends such as Billie Jean King, one of the founding members of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). King spoke to the players leading the organizing and made sure a message was passed along to the entire group: “Change is hard. If you’re looking for the right time to make change, it’s never going to happen.”
Knox said that there have been plenty of moments of doubt over the past few weeks, but that’s why she’s grateful to be part of a team. There’s always another player in the group text sending words of encouragement; they take turns lifting one another up and recognizing the big picture.
And since the boycott went public, she’s been getting plenty of strength from outside her circle, too. On Friday, the father of a young girl that Knox coaches reached out to her. “He said, ‘You’ve taught my daughter so much on the ice, but that all pales in comparison to what you taught her yesterday.”