Women’s hockey, it seems, takes two steps backward after every step forward.
Last February, the United States winning Olympic gold catapulted the sport into the spotlight. This January, Kendall Coyle-Schofield and Brianna Decker did it again at NHL All-Star Weekend.
Then, last week, the regression. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded, and despite the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League announcing it intends to expand to Toronto and Montreal to fill some of the void, followers of the sport are — as has been the norm — divided.
To understand why, one has to understand the nuances that have plagued women’s hockey at the professional level for the past half-decade.
The simple realization of the goal of having one league at the professional level didn’t solve the underlying fissures dating to the birth of the NWHL, which was mired in controversy from the get-go and the direct result of the CWHL losing its way, especially with its American audience.
Dani Rylan formed the NWHL in 2015 in the face of the CWHL’s mistreatment of, and lack of support for American markets and players. It immediately paid its players, unlike the CWHL, which didn’t offer even a stipend until 2017, its 11th season.
It was, for many, no less than an open challenge to the pioneering CWHL and its nonprofit model. The NWHL was from the start a for-profit entity.
Among those thrust in the middle was the CWHL’s lone American team, the Boston Blades. Nearly all of their players jumped to the new league, specifically to the Boston Pride, the NWHL’s first Isobel Cup winner. The Blades went from winning their second league title in three seasons in 2014-15 to winning four of their final 104 games, outscored 155-22 in an 0-28 final season.
The CWHL had its supporters, though, and it’s easy to see why. It played more games, under a structure plenty believed in. The NWHL wasn’t transparent about investors. It cut salaries in half for its second season, and despite gains — like independent ownership of the Buffalo Beauts, and the Minnesota Whitecaps turning a profit in 2019 — they never went back up. Last season, teams had a salary cap of $100,000, with players averaging $10,000.
Players came and went between the leagues, and for a while, it was the only leverage they had. Even then, though, dialogue centered around the need for one league.
One professional women’s hockey league is now a reality in North America, but players aren’t exactly celebrating — because it’s never been just about that. It’s about holding everyone involved accountable for the best possible representation of the sport, and giving it the best chance of success.
There’s reason to believe that doesn’t include the NHL’s involvement, but there’s also reason to hope they could amplify the work already done to bring women’s hockey to the forefront.
While under no obligation to help either league, an NHL commitment of more than the $100,000 it’s already pledged would have sent a greater message of commitment to the development of women’s hockey, something about which it has claimed to care about in the past.
Women in sports are constantly told to take what they’re given and to be happy with that, because it’s better than how it was in the past. Any scrap of fledgling success is viewed as a milestone, not a vestige of what lesser men’s leagues are granted.
That’s not good enough. Expecting women to be happy with a single option while ignoring potential progress is a mindset that can set a sport back decades.
This is a vital time in women’s hockey history
“It’s always tough when a women’s sports team or league fails,” Rylan said on Tuesday. “That’s a narrative we’ve been looking to combat since we launched in 2015, and I believe a narrative a lot of women’s sports leagues have to face. We believe there is a business here.”
The NWHL shows no reason on paper it shouldn’t succeed. The Minnesota Whitecaps drew a profit in its first season, and each year the league has expanded partnerships with NHL clubs.
But settling for one league because it is the only league standing doesn’t resolve any of the underlying issues. In the fall, it’s unlikely that the entirety of professional women’s hockey will be the now-seven-team NWHL.
However, unless all parties involved can reach a unified conclusion, women’s hockey will prevent itself from achieving its ultimate goal — to afford the world’s best players a chance to compete, and to push forward the conversation around women’s professional sports to a new, and better, chapter.