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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