The current state of professional women’s hockey, explained

U.S. Olympic gold medalist Hannah Brandt competing in the PWHPA Pro Challenge
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Later this week, the only professional women’s hockey league in North America – the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) – will begin its sixth season. All games will be played in a bubble environment at the 1980 Rink-Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, New York, the site of the iconic 1980 “Miracle on Ice” game.

But it seems unlikely that any player who competes in Lake Placid this month will travel to next year’s Beijing Olympics as a member of either the American or Canadian Olympic team.

Of the 23 players named to the U.S. roster for the 2020 World Championships (the event was ultimately called off due to COVID-19), zero are currently playing in the NWHL. Instead, 16 are members of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA), five are still in college, and the remaining two are playing abroad in the Zhenskaya Hockey League. Canada’s current roster tells a similar story.

So how did we get to the point where the only professional women’s hockey league in North America doesn’t include any American or Canadian Olympic hopefuls? Here’s a brief history of the saga:

Recent women’s hockey timeline:

  • Following the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics – where the U.S. women’s hockey team defeated Canada to win its first gold medal in 20 years – most American and Canadian players returned to either the NWHL (founded in 2015) or the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (founded in 2007).
  • In March 2019, the CWHL announced that it would be ceasing operations on May 1, 2019.
  • On May 2, 2019, over 200 female hockey players – including every post-grad member of the U.S. team that won Olympic gold in 2018 – announced via twitter that they would not play in any North American professional league during the 2019-20 season, essentially boycotting the NWHL. The statement pointed to low wages and lack of insurance coverage as the motivating factor: “We cannot make a sustainable living playing in the current state of the professional game. Having no health insurance and making as low as two thousand dollars a season means players can’t adequately train and prepare to play at the highest level.”
  • On May 17, 2019, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) filed its articles of incorporation. In an announcement, the PWHPA said its goal was to “provide financial and infrastructure resources to players; protect and support their rights and talents; provide health insurance; and work with companies, business leaders, and sports professionals worldwide who already have voiced support for women’s hockey.”
  • Beginning in September 2019 and continuing until March 2020, PWHPA players competed in a series of exhibition tournaments called the “Dream Gap Tour.”
  • On October 5, 2019, the NWHL began its fifth season. Each of the league’s five teams played 24 games (up from 16 the previous season). The championship game between Boston and Minnesota, originally scheduled for March 13, 2020, was ultimately cancelled due to COVID-19.

So what exactly is the PWHPA? 

The PWHPA is organized around five hub cities: two in the United States (Minnesota and New Hampshire) and three in Canada (Calgary, Montreal, and Toronto). The organization currently includes 125 players (including nearly 40 Olympians).

That said, the PWHPA isn’t a league. Instead, it was created to provide athletes with training opportunities “until they have a professional league” that provides a liveable wage and insurance coverage.

While the PWHPA doesn’t pay players directly, it does offer athletes the chance to compete for money. In October, Secret deodorant announced a $1 million commitment to the PWHPA, which the organization’s Operations Consultant Jayna Hefford says will go to funding prize pots, among other things. The PWHPA hasn’t yet formalized its plans for 2021, but Hefford says the plan is to hold a second season of the Dream Gap Tour at some point this spring.

While Hefford, a four-time Olympic gold medalist for Canada, knows many narratives pit the PWHPA against the NWHL, she says her hope is that both organizations have the same main goal for the future: that female hockey players can be female hockey players first.

She views the difference between the PWHPA and NWHL as one of vision, approach, and speed. “If we accept what we’ve always had, that’s what we will always get,” she explained in a call last week.

Hefford also believes the NHL also needs to play a role in the long term future of women’s hockey. It’s a model that has helped other fledgling women’s leagues grow (the WNBA has always been partnered with the NBA, while the NWSL began with funding from the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican federations).

Where does that leave the NWHL?

Even without the world’s best players on its rosters, the NWHL has pushed ahead. In April, the league announced it was launching a new expansion franchise in Toronto. During the offseason, the league also restructured both its front office and ownership structure.

Each NWHL team has a salary cap of $150,000. Last season, the highest announced player salary was $15,000, while other players make just a couple thousand dollars a year. (The league does not publish full salary data.)

This week, all six NWHL teams will travel to Lake Placid for the start of an abridged two-week season, which will conclude with the Isobel Cup semifinals and final on February 4 and 5.

As for whether the lack of current national team players will impact the 2021 NWHL season and significance of the Isobel Cup, Metropolitan Riveters captain Madison Packer says the short answer is “no.”

“While we would love to have them if they felt they wanted to participate in the league, it’s their right to make the decision to play in the PWHPA,” Packer explained in a call on Sunday. “Once you see the level of play [in the NWHL] this season, people will be pleasantly surprised… Regardless of who you’re playing against, you’re competing for a trophy.”

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Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
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PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.