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Women’s pro hockey is about to have its moment

Women’s pro hockey is about to have its moment

When the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) folded in March 2019, most of the best women’s hockey players in the world were in Finland, preparing for the World Championships that were set to begin a few days later.

But not Liz Knox, who had joined the CWHL in 2011.

“None of the Olympians were here. So lucky little me, I had a million media requests,” the Ontario native says.

As co-chair of the CWHL Players’ Association, Knox took two days off from her day job in construction to field those inquiries. At the time, she didn’t have any concrete plans or goals for herself or the players she was representing. But she did know that she didn’t want history to repeat itself.

“Five, 10 years down the road, I don’t want to be having the same conversation again. I don’t want to be in the same position where we are not seeing the sponsorship dollars or the media coverage we want or still relying on our national team players to promote the entire league,” she told the Athletic in a March 2019 interview.

Across the Atlantic Ocean in Finland, American players Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne were also trying to figure things out. “They said, ‘Ok, we need to get everyone on a call. We just need to talk and figure out what’s going on,’” Knox recalled.

It boiled down to two options: they could join the then National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) — which has since rebranded as the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) — and deal with many of the same issues they faced in the CWHL.

Or, they could try something much more radical: stop playing entirely.

They chose the latter.

In May 2019, Knox was one of more than 200 players who announced she would be sitting out the upcoming season. A few weeks later, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA) was founded.

“We can’t know what will happen next, but we move forward united, dedicated, and hopeful for our future and the future of this game we love so much,” Knox said in a press release announcing the PWHPA’s incorporation.

“It was terrifying to step away from the game,” Knox reflects now. “We didn’t have anything. We didn’t have contacts, we didn’t have a resource book, we didn’t have any idea of how a league operated. We were literally just players who stepped away from the game.”

Three years later, the PWHPA is on the verge of announcing something big. There have been reports about potential team locations, player salaries, and season dates, but nothing has been officially confirmed. Yet.

Knox declined to share specific details when we spoke, but didn’t try to contain her excitement.

“To see how far we’ve come in three years, it’s empowering,” she explained. “We’re finally at a point where we’re almost able to be like: This is why it mattered then. This is why it was hard, because it has never been done.”

With details still forthcoming, at least one thing is clear: the future of women’s hockey was built on history. Lessons from the generations of women’s hockey players and leaders who pushed the sport to where it is now, but also lessons from women’s soccer and basketball and tennis, too.

And so, in this moment of limbo, it is worth looking back at a bit of that history. Because the idea of a women’s hockey league is not new. Before there was the PWHPA or PHF, there was the NWHL and CWHL, yes, but there was also another NWHL, as well as the COWHL, plus a USPHL and WPHL that were leagues in name and acronym only.

The story of women’s hockey is a story that goes in circles, and repeats back on itself. It’s a story that makes you ask, ‘Haven’t we been here before? Haven’t we heard that line already?’

“Women’s hockey has always folded in the spring, and had something in the fall. So in three months, something has always been made,” Knox says. “We love and respect the people who did that because it was not easy… But to build something that’s going to last decades, it’s going to take more than three months.”

‘Olympics might open door for women’s pro hockey’

One year before Knox was born in 1988 — and three years before the first ever women’s ice hockey world championship in 1990 — New Yorker Donald A. Wilson announced his plan to start a 26-team women’s professional league that would pay players $1000 per week.

“This is all-out hockey with no holds barred,” said Wilson in a November 1987 interview with the Toronto Star. “We want to bring dignity to women in sports.”

That league, which was supposed to be called the United States Professional Hockey League (USPHL), never got off the drawing boards.

Ten years later, in the lead-up to the Olympic debut of women’s hockey, new plans were unveiled to make sure momentum didn’t stop after the gold medal game.

Ahead of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, at least 20 athletes signed letters of intent to play in the Women’s Professional Hockey League (WPHL), the brainchild of recent University of New Hampshire grad Ed Saunders, who had written his senior thesis on the concept. The league, designed in the model of men’s major junior hockey, was slated to pay players between $500 and $1000 per week during the four-month season.

“To know there is a possibility there would be somewhere for us to play after the Olympics, to maybe make a career out of it, it’s everyone’s dream,” Cammi Granato told USA Today in August 1997 under the headline ‘Olympics might open door for women’s pro hockey.’

After Granato and her U.S. teammates defeated Canada for Olympic gold medal a few months later, the new league still seemed to be on track.

“The first thing I thought of is, ‘This is great for the league,’” Erin Whitten, one of the last cuts from the U.S. Olympic team, told the Associated Press after the Americans won gold. “It’s great publicity for women‘s hockey. Look at what happened with women‘s basketball.”

“I’ve had a lot of people calling with questions … interested in buying a franchise, playing, coaching,” Sanders said in the same AP story. “Maybe it opened people’s minds and knocked down some barriers.”

But not everyone was convinced.

Despite the NHL trademarking the name “Women’s National Hockey League (WNHL)” shortly after the Nagano Games, the organization wasn’t actually interested in using it.

“We need a better pipeline. We need more experienced players,” then NHL spokeswoman Bernadette Mansur said. “After Salt Lake City, a rational conversation can be had.”

USA Hockey was more supportive of plans for a women’s pro league, at least in statements to reporters.

“We share some of (Saunders’) goals. Philosophically, we’re in support with what he’s doing,” USA Hockey spokesman Darryl Seibel said in the lead-up to Nagano.

But by June 1998, planning had been put on hold.

“It was a matter of finances,” said Saunders in a phone interview last week. “It wasn’t huge money, but when you start factoring all the costs, and making sure that the experience for players was up to the standard that should be expected, we just couldn’t find a way to make it tenable.”

Before there was the NWHL, there was the NWHL

At the same time that planning for the Women’s Professional Hockey League ceased, the first National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) was coming into existence in Canada.

Founded in 1999, the NWHL replaced the Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League (COWHL).

In this NWHL, players didn’t make money. In fact, some athletes paid dues to play in the league, depending on which of the eight teams they were on.

“There were ‘have’ and ‘have not’ teams,” says Sami Jo Small, who played for Brampton and Toronto. “(Some teams) had more money and structure and ownership dollars, and I was fortunate enough to play for those teams.”

While based in Canada, the NWHL became home to many of the top post-grad players from the U.S., Europe, and Asia. After its second season, the NWHL expanded to Vancouver for a total of 10 teams.

“This is just the beginning,” NWHL President Susan Fennell said at the time. “Women’s hockey has just turned the corner.”

But by 2004, the NWHL was shrinking again. The two Alberta-based teams withdrew from the league, citing high travel costs, and formed a new organization: the Western Women’s Hockey League (WWHL) with Hayley Wickenheiser as one of its stars.

“We needed a league to grow women’s hockey in the west and it wasn’t happening within the NWHL,” WWHL co-founder Kathy Berg told the Globe and Mail in 2004. “We just have some different ideas on where to go with the league than they did… and so it seemed like the best thing to go out on our own.”

Alas. A so-called “rift” had opened up in women’s hockey. And not for the last time.

At the time, the NWHL wasn’t concerned. “The NWHL is stronger every year and continues to be strong,” Fennell told the Canadian Press. “We’re the best women’s league in the world and we’ll continue to attract the most competitive players in the world in showcasing the sport.”

But news coverage from the next year instead focused on a bitter dispute over a potential tournament between the two leagues that would crown a Canadian champion. While the WWHL proposed a “Frozen Four” format featuring two teams from the east and two from the west, the NWHL refused.

“The NWHL championship will not become a semifinal for some other event,” Fennell told the Globe and Mail in August 2005. “You then start to dilute what the NWHL represents.”

The NWHL and WWHL did manage to come together to form a 13-team league at the start of the 2006-07 season, but that merger broke apart midway through the year.

And in the east, the problems were visible. As the season came to a close, the NWHL didn’t have a president (Fennell resigned in 2006) or a TV network to broadcast its championship. At a February 2007 game between Montreal and Brampton, play was halted with 2:04 remaining to make way for public skating.

“That was a bit of the reality that that league and the teams were facing,” reflects Jennifer Botterill. “Not just getting the funding, but getting the contracts, the ice time for games and practices. That was just part of what we were dealing with on a regular basis.”

On May 18, 2007, the eastern division of the NWHL announced it was suspending operations.

“We’re taking a time out to reorganize,” Oakville Ice manager Bill Metcalfe told CBC. “Let’s take a little bit of time – however much that is – and fix it.”

‘We need somewhere to compete and play’

That “time out” lasted only a few months.

After the NWHL pressed pause, Sami Jo Small says conversations between teammates quickly transitioned from ‘How could this happen?’ to ‘What can we do?’

The answer was the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), which was founded by a group of players that included Small and Botterill.

“We just had to do something,” says Botterill. “We need somewhere to compete and play… We wanted to be a part of that solution to try and make it happen.”

“Essentially, it was just to be a one-year interim league as a stop gap as a place for us to play while the (NWHL) owners sort of figured out what they wanted to figure out,” explains Small.

One of the changes was to implement a more egalitarian approach to team funding. “No matter what amount of money came in, it was equally divided amongst all of the teams,” she says.

The CWHL also applied for non-profit status as a registered Canadian amateur athletic association (RCAAA). This designation allowed the organization to receive donations from individuals and businesses, which could then be written off on tax returns.

Beginning in 2009, the champion of the CWHL faced off for the Clarkson Cup against the champion of the WWHL. In 2011, the two leagues merged under the umbrella of the CWHL.

It was in this newly merged, unpaid, non-profit league that Liz Knox’s post-grad journey began. After attending Wilfrid Laurier University, she joined the Brampton Thunder in 2011.

“College is a funny space when you talk about pro hockey,” Knox reflects. “Your college coaches will tell you, ‘This is the most professional you’ll ever feel.’ And to a certain extent, that’s true. But is (college hockey) the highest level of hockey that I ever played? No. The CWHL was – bar none – the best hockey I ever played.”

‘We don’t make enough to have no say in this’

In 2015, a new NWHL was launched, this time as a for-profit business in the United States. As the story goes, founder Dani Rylan initially wanted to form a New York expansion team as part of the CWHL. Instead, she created the NWHL.

The NWHL’s big selling point was that it would be the first professional women’s hockey league to pay its players. But other headlines went unfulfilled. An April 2015 New York Times report said the NWHL would include a players’ union and some form of health insurance. Instead, the league provided workers comp and a players’ association that — seven years later — is still not a union. Next season, the league’s eighth, will mark the first time players receive health insurance.

The NWHL, like many of its predecessors, often operated by making big promises in flashy press releases while failing to follow up with concrete details. Like how, after the Boston Pride won the first ever NWHL title in 2015, the league broadcast teased expansion to Montreal and Toronto (two CWHL strongholds).

The NWHL’s first year was also marked by a trademark dispute, a lawsuit from an initial investor, and questions about funding. And then, at the start of season two, player salaries were slashed to keep the league afloat.

But despite the NWHL’s struggles, its very existence still pushed the bar in women’s hockey higher.

In 2017, the CWHL announced that it would begin paying player salaries, due in part to league expansion to (and funding from) China.

While Knox says her experience in China was ultimately positive, the lack of player voice in the league’s decision served as the catalyst for her to join the league’s Players’ Association and as a larger wake-up call about player rights.

“We don’t make enough to have no say in this,” Knox explained of her thinking. “We felt very much like we’re being taken for granted.”

This sentiment – perhaps more than anything – was at the core of the PWHPA’s founding in 2019. And yet, the idea that women athletes should have autonomy over their careers and the right to speak out about what they are worth? It is still often treated as a radical idea.

“People call us greedy,” Knox said. “It’s very easy for a lot of people to be like, ‘This is the girls complaining. They don’t have enough, they want to make millions of dollars like the NHL.’

“No, we don’t. We want basic employee rights, where we have parameters around our work day and we have access to the needs of professional athletes.”

Maybe it’s the longstanding culture of women’s hockey, or the current social media age that we live in, but perhaps the biggest misunderstanding about what the PWHPA has been working on is this: Those barnstorming Dream Gap Tour games? Those haven’t been the organization’s main focus.

But just because the day-in and day-out work hasn’t been broadcast on Twitter doesn’t mean it hasn’t been happening.

“We have collectively brought in enough money to be able to hire consultants to build a league that has our voice at the table through it all,” Kendall Coyne Schofield said on a recent episode of Julie Foudy’s “Laughter Permitted” podcast. “We are now able to go out and pitch and say, ‘This is what we believe in. This is what we believe is professional. Do you want to be a part of this?’”

“It’s so much more complex than I think we’ve ever given it credit for,” says Knox. “When I realized the research that had gone into it, just to see, ‘Is this possible?’ I think that was an ‘aha’ moment where I was like, ‘Oh, this is going to take a while.’ But this is why it’s never been done, because the players just wanted to play hockey.”

At the same time that the world’s best players removed themselves from the game, the PHF has made significant progress: from raising player salaries (and implementing minimum salaries) to providing health insurance beginning next season.

Under private ownership groups, many PHF teams have also seen improvements in the so-called “little things” like facilities and travel accommodations that make a big difference in player experience.

For Mallory Souliotis, a member of the Boston Pride since 2018, that means she doesn’t have to worry anymore about getting to practice extra early to hand her skates over to the equipment manager for sharpening. They are already there, in the team’s dedicated locker room.

“Just some of these smaller things that add up a lot to improving the experience,” she says.

The PHF has also been competing to win back players, which can be seen in the January 2022 timing of the league’s $25 million commitment announcement.

“We thought it was important for those players to understand that there’s a viable alternative for them when they come back [from the Olympics],” PHF Chairman John Boynton told On Her Turf in January.

Some PWHPA players will make the move to the PHF. Many others won’t. But while the rift narrative tends to treat this as a competition between rival groups, the larger takeaway is that players are finally winning.

Women’s sports aren’t fragile

While many outside detractors of women’s sports often repeat the same sexist — and unfounded — arguments about revenue and viewership, a more nefarious argument is often whispered within the house itself: ‘Don’t break this, it’s fragile.’

The warning of fragility has been recited to — and by — women’s leagues for decades.

In 1970, the “original nine” in tennis — led by Billie Jean King — broke away from the men’s tennis tour to take a stand for equal pay, despite warnings from U.S. tennis officials.

But while the original nine are now seen as pioneers, at the time they split?

“We were ostracized by the other players,” Rosie Casals told the Los Angeles Times. “It was, ‘What are you doing? You’re hurting women’s tennis. You’re hurting our chances.’”

“We risked our careers,” King reflected in 2020. “Even if we didn’t play again after the tournament, we didn’t care because something had to be done.”

The warning of fragility was also there in the early days of the WNBA, both before and after the collapse of the ABL. When WNBA players chose to unionize ahead of their third season, news reports heeded caution. When they returned to the negotiating table in 2003, a Seattle Times column argued that they were “playing Russian roulette with their future” by “asking for raises they haven’t earned.”

Oof.

Concerns over fragility also invaded women’s soccer, creating a culture of fear in which abuse was able to thrive.

“There’s always been that underlying fear that — should the league get too much bad publicity, or should players speak up — that the league would just fold,” USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn recounted last fall amid a reckoning on player safety and abuse in the NWSL.

And of course, throughout many of the so-called “rifts” in women’s hockey, the fragility factor has been brought up as a reason for unity. And yet, when the world’s best players stepped away from the game in 2019? And stayed away for three seasons? The glass house did not come tumbling down.

That’s because standing up and speaking up for your worth isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength. While this should go without saying, given the history outlined above, it bears reiterating: strong foundations aren’t built on fear of failure.

“We were taught to be grateful, and we are grateful,” says Knox. “But we’re also ambitious and we’re driven and we want better and more. And I think it was only recently that we realized that we’ve earned that right.”

Sowing the future of women’s hockey

In an alternate universe, one in which the CWHL hadn’t folded, a 33-year-old Liz Knox would likely still be lugging her goalie gear to twice weekly practices.

“I wouldn’t have woken up one day and taken a stand,” she says. “I was happy enough with what I had. I knew I was never going to make money doing it.”

But when she looks to the future, does Knox — who now works full-time as a firefighter — see herself playing in the new league she’s worked to build?

“Oh God, no,” she says, laughing. “No, no, nope.”

And she knows many of her PWHPA teammates won’t be playing in it either. The league that they helped build won’t have space for them. The so-called “next generation” they imagined on the hard days is already here, with speed and skills that can’t be matched.

If there is a tragedy in this story, that is it.

Knox sums it up by quoting from the musical Hamilton: What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.

“When I’m old and I look back, I feel like this is like a ‘League of Their Own’ moment. These women did something outstanding, in the only window of time that we could have done it. And they sacrificed everything for it.”

She pauses, then adds: “I’m also excited for the time kids are getting drafted into this pro league and they have no f—ing clue.”

Ice hockey goalie Liz Knox of the PWHPA

Photo credit: Heather Pollock

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

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‘This is why it mattered’: Women’s pro hockey is about to have its moment originally appeared on NBCSports.com