Professional women’s ice hockey in North America has been shaken up several times this summer. If you don’t know what’s been going on, now is the perfect time to get caught up before the 2019-20 season begins. Although the future is uncertain, it’s an exciting time to be a fan.
The state of women’s hockey before this summer
At the beginning of 2019, two professional women’s leagues operated in North America. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) was mostly made up of Canadian teams, with one apiece in China and the United States. The newer NWHL was finishing up its fourth season and had five teams, all based in the United States.
Being a professional player in these leagues was not financially lucrative. The NWHL was the first of the leagues to pay its players, and salaries initially ranged from $10,000-$26,000, although they were reduced midway through the 2016-17 season due to low attendance and the league’s lack of a media deal at the time. The CWHL didn’t even pay its players until 2017, and even then the maximum salary was $10,000. Most players worked full-time jobs in addition to being professional athletes on the weekends, and additional resources provided by both leagues were minimal.
Merging the two leagues would have been close to impossible due to various legal reasons. Though the NHL has expressed interest in supporting women’s hockey, and has provided some financial investment to both leagues, its leadership has not expressed interest in running either one. Commissioner Gary Bettman has said the NHL would only explore running a women’s league if there were no other viable options for elite players in North America.
But even with two leagues operating on the same continent, things were looking up. The NWHL had recently expanded to include a team in Minnesota. The CWHL’s Clarkson Cup final was broadcast on three television channels in North America. Both leagues were now paying their players and seeing increased attendance. Despite huge obstacles for players and both leagues having their ups-and-downs, women’s hockey was growing.
March 2019: The CWHL announces that it will fold
On March 31, the CWHL announced it would cease operations. This came as a surprise to players, general managers, coaches, fans, and countless other members of the league’s operational staff who thought that the league was growing, not failing, after 12 seasons of operation.
In the aftermath of this unexpected news, the NWHL announced it would be adding two teams based in Canada; however, the league never released a timeline for the expansion. The league later announced that commissioner Dani Rylan met with Bettman soon after the CWHL made its announcement and secured an additional $50,000 investment from the NHL.
As the situation stood, more than 125 ex-CWHL players would no longer have the opportunity to play professionally. Leaving to play in the NWHL or a European league would be difficult for many reasons, including visa issues and the fact nearly every player would also need to find a second job in a new city if they wanted to cover living expenses while playing.
April 2019: Team USA wins gold over Finland at IIHF Worlds in a controversial victory
OK, here’s some actual hockey to break up the heavy stuff.
The IIHF Women’s World Championships were held in Espoo, Finland, in April. In an unexpected turn of events, the final didn’t come down to the U.S. and Canada as it had in literally every previous world championship in history.
The game was surprisingly close. The Americans outshot Finland in the first period; Finland came back and outshot them in the second. At the end of regulation they were tied, 1-1. Then Finland’s Petra Nieminen scored a beautiful goal on an empty net and her team took to the ice to celebrate their first ever world championship.
Then, for immensely complicated reasons that no one understood at the time, and are still confusing after the fact, the goal was taken away minutes later.
Instead, the game went to shootout, and Team USA won its fifth consecutive gold medal. Many players in the tournament returned home without knowing when they would have the opportunity to play next.
May 2019: 200 players declare they will boycott the NWHL #ForTheGame
On May 2, more than 200 players announced through a coordinated Twitter statement using the hashtag #ForTheGame that they will not play in “ANY professional league in North America” until certain conditions are met. These players range vastly in age, nationality, league, and background, but they share a desire for better pay, health insurance, and other support.
We may represent different teams, leagues and countries but collectively we stand as one. #ForTheGame pic.twitter.com/O9MOOL8YOt— Hilary Knight (@HilaryKnight) May 2, 2019
A few weeks later, some of the players behind #ForTheGame then established the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, to promote “the creation of a single, viable women’s professional league in North America.” So far, the association has over 170 “due-paying members.” The leaders plan to use the association to provide resources and ice-time for member players, as well as host exhibitions.
The driving leadership behind this movement comes from several groups that no one ever expected to unify. Within the nine-member board, players come from the former CWHLPA, the NWHL, and the national teams of several countries. In particular, many vocal leaders are members of the American national team, who you might recall seeing in the news when they won Olympic gold in 2018, or when they held a successful boycott of their own in 2017 to secure better wages and conditions from USA Hockey.
Maybe the single most wild part of the summer is that members of some of the biggest rivals in hockey, the American and Canadian national teams, are working together in this organization. That said, stranger things have happened.
The future of professional women’s hockey in North America
For now, the #ForTheGame movement continues, although some players who initially voiced their solidarity with #ForTheGame have since removed the hashtag from their social media and signed with the NWHL. Other participants have signed with teams in foreign leagues such as the Swedish Women’s Hockey League (SDHL), but it’s unclear where most of the others will play, if at all, this fall.
The NWHL will continue operations with its five teams (based in Boston, Buffalo, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Minnesota) this season, albeit without some of the best players in the world. But that doesn’t mean the league isn’t growing: teams will now play 24 games rather than 16 like in previous seasons, new sponsors have partnered with the league, and many players have spent the summer running NWHL youth development camps to help train the next generation.
Additionally, leaders from the NWHL such as Players Association executive director Anya Packer (née Battaglino) have expressed a desire to communicate with the PWHLPA and #ForTheGame movement about their demands and needs.
Several NWHL teams have had partnerships with their local NHL counterparts in the past, so the possibility of a future relationship with the biggest pro hockey league in the world isn’t out of the question. For example, Pegula Sports and Entertainment (the organization that owns the Buffalo Sabres) owned the NWHL’s Buffalo Beauts for one season, but they returned ownership to the league this summer. The Bruins have maintained their relationship with the NWHL’s Boston Pride, and it’s unclear whether the Minnesota Wild and Whitecaps have maintained a partnership.
For now, these are the five professional women’s hockey teams in North America for the 2019-20 season:
- Boston Pride- Warrior Ice Arena in Boston, Massachusetts
- Buffalo Beauts- Northtown Center in Amherst, New York
- Connecticut Whale- Danbury Arena in Danbury, Connecticut
- Metropolitan Riveters- ProSkate in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey
- Minnesota Whitecaps- TRIA Rink, St. Paul, Minnesota
Even with the boycott, the NWHL will still feature some of the best players in the world this year. The available roster spots left behind by the #ForTheGame players will give traditionally underrepresented players a chance to play professionally, such as women from the national teams of Slovakia and Kazakhstan, as well as some top DIII players. Games start on Oct. 5, and you can follow along with our coverage of the league and other women’s hockey news at the Ice Garden’s site and Twitter.