More than 200 of the worlds best players say they wont play in North America. They hope that their actions will usher in a better era for the game
Last week an estimated 200 womens hockey players took part in a social media blitz, issuing a stark statement on the conditions they work under: Having no health insurance and making as low as $2,000 a season means players cant adequately prepare to play at the highest level. Because of that, together as players, we will not play in ANY professional leagues in North America this season until we get the resources that professional hockey demands and deserves.
The statement came shortly after the Canadian Womens Hockey League, in operation for 12 seasons, closed its doors. Players wishing to play professional hockey in North America were left with one option: the US-based National Womens Hockey League, which concluded its fourth season in March.
USAs Olympic gold medalist Hilary Knight played in the NWHL when it opened shop in the 2015-16 season. She was one of the players impacted by abrupt NWHL salary cuts made in 2016. As a result, her relationship with the NWHL was severed. A lot of things that should have been ironed out throughout the process [of talks with the NWHL] werent, and too then the expansion and, you know, its just, not a good business practice, Knight told the Guardian.
Despite operating another two seasons and expanding into Minnesota last year, the NWHL still has not reached sustainability, according to Knight. Its not a good business practice and that lack of trust was definitely there from the very beginning. What were trying to do [by staging a player boycott] isnt about destroying a league, by any means. Its just, we see a better future for the sport, and the NWHL is not going to provide that future. And thats why were not going to play in it.
Yet, if over 200 players dont sign NWHL contracts, Knight and her fellow players could destroy a womens hockey league. Anya Battaglino, the NWHL Players Association director, believes the boycott is an intentional move by the players to get the worlds richest hockey league, the NHL, more involved (the NHL has supported both the CWHL and the NWHL financially but neither league is officially tied to the NHL).
I think the rationale [from the players staging a boycott] is lets not play, because [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman has said in a statement, and apparently in meetings with them, that if there was no place for womens hockey, he may consider potentially starting a womens league, she said last week.
Battaglino believes players making the statement are discounting improvements made in the NWHL for something unclear and without guarantee. Their thought process is, Lets fold womens hockey in entirety and then well all just take gap years and wait for him to start a league. Whos behind us? With no contracts, no promises. Nothing in writing from Gary himself that this is actually real, she said.
Meanwhile, Battaglino believes the NWHLPA has worked hard to make improvements in the best interest of the players and within the financial structure of the league. Last year, we went back from 1099 to W-2 employees, we had proof of insurance, we had an increase in per diem, we had an increase in most all of the benefits that we had asked for. As we move into this season, we see another 50% increase to the salary cap, she said.
The NWHL also announced a profit share opportunity of 50% of all league-wide deals with the player pool, including media deals. The contract as it stands has been the strongest weve had and the most beneficial for the players its frustrating when were making a very life-altering decision based on a potential promise from a potential business person who may want to consider investing in you, said Battaglino.
Not everyone is willing to forgo an opportunity that already exists, especially in the absence of a better one. Surprise and confusion probably sum up my reaction, said four-year NWHL veteran Madison Packer of the players social media statement last week. Surprise because she was not initially invited to any of the conference calls. Confusion because, she isnt completely clear what her peers, including teammates and close friends, hope to achieve.
Prior to the CWHL closing, many players including Packer wanted one league, so that the best talent in womens hockey was in one place. With the CWHL liquidating assets, all signs pointed to the NWHL being that one league. Things changed quickly, however. We had one league and everyone seemed pretty excited about it. And then its all this chaos and in about 72 hours it went from, lets sit down and everyone wants to have a conversation to a hard stop any sort of conversation.
For some, thats a risk worth taking. Metropolitan Riveters goalie Kimberly Sass, unlike her teammate Packer, doesnt believe the NWHL is the future of womens hockey. I think we all saw the same message from the NHL, saying that if there was no other viable option, they would step in, Sass told the Guardian. Also with the CWHL folding, there was, I think, a realization from the group that maybe the time is now to take a stance to you know, push the pace, a little bit of change.
Sass says the conversations with the NWHLPA and the league were not enough to offer confidence, There was also a recent phone call with pretty much everyone in the NWHLs attempt at transparency and their thoughts on the upcoming season and potential investments, says Sass. From that phone call, I think we all as players realized it was in our best interest to not play next season until a long term sustainable and viable professional option was available for us.
Next steps on either side are unclear as of now. Either way, players on both sides of the argument hope womens hockey will return stronger than ever.
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