So, the streak ended. The Boston Pride lost its first game of the season 4-3 on Saturday to the Minnesota Whitecaps. It was a tremendous game, one which captain Jillian Dempsey tied it twice in the third, including with under a minute to go, only to be felled by the Whitecaps 7 seconds later.
They won the second half of the back to back and clinched the regular season championship. The Connecticut Whale won their second game of the season in a thrilling 8 round shootout over the Metropolitan Riveters.
But none of these was the biggest story in women’s hockey this weekend.
That’s because the NHL hosted 20 female Olympic hockey players at the All-Star Game in St. Louis this weekend. They’ve done that the past few years – bring a few Team USA and Team Canada players in to demonstrate the skills competition events, “promote” the women’s game. Last year, Kendall Coyne-Schofield was asked to replace an injured Nathan MacKinnon in the Fastest Skater competition, finishing 7th out of the 8 contestants – only around a second slower than the event’s champion Connor McDavid. Brianna Decker demonstrated the passing event – and promptly finished faster than eventual winner Leon Draisaitl. Thus, starting a #PayDecker on Twitter, demanding that the NHL pay her what they were paying each of the NHLers to win an event. They instead chose to donate $25,000 to a charity of each of the four players in attendance’s choice.
I would love not to have to write this article at all. Because I’m honestly sick and tired of the back and forth in the women’s hockey community. But I feel that, as a member of the community who happens to have a voice, it would be irresponsible of me not to use it for the right reasons. I am going to lay out my thoughts on the PWHPA, NWHL, their relationship, the NHL’s involvement in women’s hockey, and some of the more problematic members of the players’ community. Hopefully, it provides perspective on where I am writing from, and why I am doing what I am doing. Otherwise, it’s just me ranting, and that’s not productive for anybody.
The National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) is in its 5th full season. They began with 4 teams, all based in the United States, and were the first league to pay their players a salary. Unfortunately, a lot of the early funding in the league was shrouded in mystery, and an abrupt decision was made partway through their second season to slash player salaries in half to make payroll. They likely started a bit more ambitiously than they should have, and, as a result, lost some credibility with their players.
This (rightly) frustrated players to the point of deciding not to return the following year. To the league’s credit, they have consistently made efforts to both acknowledge their shortcomings, and to get better. They have a full 50/50 revenue split this season with the players and signed a 3-year deal to stream all of their games on Twitch. Those are great starts. Now with 5 teams and an expanded game schedule, their ability to cultivate new sponsors has been impressive this season. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. Player salaries are still lucky to be above $10K. But it’s better than nothing right now. Given the lack of available resources, the league is doing the best it can.
At the start of this year, nearly 200 women’s hockey players declared their intention to refuse to play in any professional league in North America following the sudden collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL). Leading the charge were the respective National teams from the US and Canada. This was, in all intents and purposes, a boycott of the NWHL. These players felt that the league did not provide adequate resources (fair) and was not a sustainable model moving forward. Initially, I was totally in support of this. The players all put out a joint statement, outlining their intents and ending with the #ForTheGame. As time went on, however, there were some strange flags out of the group. It was reported that some of the younger players felt pressure from National Team players to join the movement.Then the movement continued to struggle to properly articulate what it was that they didn’t think was sustainable about the NWHL. This is probably my biggest sticking point with the group, because while they have been steadfast in what they’re looking for (insurance, consistent ice time, professional amenities, etc.), they have been significantly less forthcoming on their reasons why the NWHL cannot eventually provide them these things.
The group has found it difficult to find the best ice times, but when they have organized, they have been successful. The Dream Gap Tour has provided opportunities for players to play in front of much larger live audiences than the NWHL has been able to consistently provide. They have been outfitted by Adidas and have struck up temporary partnerships with NHL franchises to host tour dates. Those are all fantastic developments. Ideally, we could combine both the NWHL and PWHPA and the resources/amenities both provide, and that would constitute the start of the league these women want. But that may prove difficult, and we have already seen two specific instances of players who have played in a PWHPA showcase later signing with an NWHL team. Both citing an opportunity to play on a more consistent basis, with the PWHPA’s response being to erase any existence of them from their website.
There has been a tone of subtle elitism in the rhetoric of the PWHPA – I know that having Hilary Knight call the NWHL “a glorified beer league” was not appreciated by players or fans alike. They view themselves as well above the NWHL players. While I agree that the most elite of the elite are a part of the PWHPA, how can we say that any of the women playing professional hockey aren’t elite? Allie Thunstrom and McKenna Brand couldn’t play on team USA given the opportunity? It’s the gatekeeping that is inherent to the sport of hockey that ultimately is its greatest enemy. It’s not always racially motivated (more on that later), but there is a level of personal discrimination that is rampant throughout the sport. If you aren’t a part of the group, you don’t count. That is not OK.
Knight is not the only outward personality who’s commentary on the divide between the PWHPA and NWHL has me concerned, but she’s the most prominent. We as a society could do a lot better in picking our icons. Take Coyne-Schofield. She has parlayed the success in the All-Star Game last year into a part-time broadcasting deal with NBC Sports and the San Jose Sharks, and is the go-to interview any time there are questions on the subject of women’s hockey. She ALSO happens to have made some disparaging and uninformed commentary on Colin Kaepernick in the past, and is quite close with known abuser Patrick Kane.
just in case you forgot. pic.twitter.com/aA10SaB0Zh
— DJ Bodega Cat (@yolo_pinyato) January 22, 2020
Tie Domi has been a great advocate for the PWHPA, but he has his OWN history of racism and bigotry – not to mention that, the day he went on Hometown Hockey in Canada, he spent the rest of the next 24 hours on Twitter insulting NWHL fans, calling the NWHL players scabs, and spreading misinformation. Then, he was retweeted, liked, and commended by several PWHPA members for his comments.
Add in the fact that the more the National Team players chime in on the debate, it feels as if there is a personal rift between them and NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan, one we in the public may never be privy to. That’s potentially the most frustrating part, because it leads high-profile supporters such as Cassie Campbell-Pascal the platform to go on television and speak nothing but misinformation on Friday night:
“The PWHPA, that’s a union” HNIC straight up broadcasting misinformation. The PWHPA is NOT a union. pic.twitter.com/y5suZag4kB
— Medha (@monjaury) January 25, 2020
First of all, the PWHPA is NOT a union – it never has been. Second of all, WHAT? None of that makes any sense, and yet there were prominent women’s hockey players celebrating her tirade. She should have stopped after, “I’m not a lawyer.” Not only is her statement about the NWHL objectively false, it’s incredibly insulting. We Can Do Better.
The NWHL released a statement on Monday rebuking Campbell-Pascal’s comments, and, as has been the case, managed to get their point across in a respectful, thoughtful manner, whilst still condemning the anti-NWHL commentary. They really sum up my thoughts on the PWHPA-centric rhetoric with their final sentences – it’s designed to scare players away from the NWHL. And it’s become increasingly apparent the this is the only play in the playbook for those refusing to play in the NWHL.
Then, there’s the whole NHL of the problem.
There is no reason the NHL can’t be providing significantly more capital to professional women’s ice hockey than the mere $100,000 they currently are. That’s a nice start, but it’s barely a penny to a league whose revenue passed $5.09 billion last season. And frankly, it’s embarrassing. The 3-on-3 tournament was a great idea in concept, but, true to NHL fashion, they missed on the execution horrifically. In addition to CCP’s erroneous comments, the league did not resurface or at least scrape the ice prior to the 3-on-3 beginning, only to do so AFTERWARD. While they played the same length of game as the men did in the All-Star Tournament on Saturday, they were forced to play running time. Why? Completely unnecessary. Although the league outwardly stated that they were not siding with either the PWHPA or NWHL, 19 of the 20 players selected were from the PWHPA (Alex Carpenter is under contract with KRS Vanke Rays Shenzhen in the Russian Women’s league). The reasoning? They wanted solely to focus on the US/Canada rivalry. So, they chose to rely on retired members of both programs to select the rosters. That creates an inherent bias towards only National Team members, rather than trying to pick a diverse group of players who could truly represent the game. Why not invite Jenni Hiirikoski, who is widely regarded as the best defender in the entire world? Or Tatiana Shatalova, who has looked stellar in the NWHL this year as a true teenager? There are more than just two countries, more than just these 20 players. You do the game a disservice by ignoring that fact.
Gary Bettman has stated that he has no interest in starting a league while one exists. Thus comes the crux of the issue, and, I must state, the following is purely conjecture on my part. I cannot stress that enough, because I would like to avoid contributing to the misinformation campaign going on. In my opinion it appears that the CWHL took this statement as a reason to fold in order to force the NHL’s hand. The NWHL refused to budge, and that angered CWHL fans. Rylan has been nothing if not blunt in her refusal to bow down, and personally, I don’t blame her. The NHL has its own history of being miserable with minority representation, and have quite enough issues running their OWN league, so why should I believe that they would be able to competently run a second one, particularly without it becoming a sideshow? Their messaging has been atrocious, with Gary Bettman stating this:
“Can we expect women’s involvement as a regular ongoing part of the All-Star weekend?”
Bettman: “Let’s see how it goes tonight…the fact that we can shine, using our light, a brighter light on the women’s game is a positive for them, for the game, and for young girls watching.”
— Dr. “Despa”-Szto (@courtneyszto) January 26, 2020
And an NHL executive was quoted in an Athletic article stating that the players “got the opportunity to play in front of 40 of the NHL’s best.” I’m sorry, but why should that matter? These statements, when taken in context of the league’s bumbling PR strategy, screams that the women are treated as a bit of a sideshow for them. This was the VERY FIRST question asked of the female players in attendance of the NHL All-Star Game during their official media availability:
The first question to the elite women’s 3-on-3 media availability is…about whether they’ve gotten a chance to talk to the NHL players.
— Laura Albanese (@AlbaneseLaura) January 24, 2020
I mean, the Canadian and American women HAD TO SHARE A LOCKER ROOM AT THE ALL-STAR GAME. Like, come on people.
So, I just gave a LOT of information, and did a lot of complaining. That’s not going to do a whole lot though. So, what can be done to remedy this?
First off, the PWHPA needs to develop a detailed action plan for what they want. What is specific and measurable that you are looking for in a league? We have seen little snippets from individual players, as previously mentioned, but nothing collective. This leads to a general lack of clarity around the movement. Additionally, while we may never know the specifics, there needs to be some acknowledgement of a disconnect between the PWHPA and NWHL. Publicly. From both parties. The NWHL has been supportive of the movement, even going so far as to state that they would gladly step aside were there a better option available down the road, whereas the PWHPA has consistently subtweeted the league, and taken passive-aggressive digs. The PWHPA believes that there is nothing more to discuss with the NWHL, despite the league and its representatives feeling relatively blindsided by the movement and stating that there wasn’t a large appetite to negotiate in the first place from the PWHPA leadership. The ideal solution is for the two to combine, but that just seems unpalatable because of some sort of personal grudge between the more prominent players and leaders on both sides, and frankly, I’m sick and tired of it. Act like adults, sit down, and figure it out. You don’t have to like each other, but you have to be nice to one another. You have to respect what everybody is trying to do, because you all want the same thing. The path may be different, but the endgame is the same. So please stop acting like petty middle schoolers and negotiate properly.
We gotta stop blaming the NWHL/NWHLPA for there not being unity when we’ve been told multiple times that they TRIED to negotiate with the PWHPA, who wasn’t) rightly or wrongly, you decide) interested. They did try. It takes two to tango + they’re not even doing the same dance.
— eleni demestihas (@strongforecheck) January 27, 2020
Secondly, combine your efforts. Honestly, it’s super obvious at this point. If the PWHPA and NWHL were working in conjuncture with one another to build sponsorship relationships and grow the sport, we would be significantly closer to the type of league that they want than we currently are.
Thirdly, the NHL needs to either put up or shut up. They only want to avoid jumping fully into this issue because they believe they won’t personally make any money off of it. It would be prudent to note that the league is essentially held afloat by the profits of the Maple Leafs, Rangers, and Canadiens, but yes, definitely can’t invest in this OTHER hockey thing. If it is a men’s sport, it’s called an investment – a summer 3-on-3 league already has had its US TV rights sold to CBS Sports, with no proof of concept, no plan other than a name, and it won’t even start until the summer of 2021, yet a league in its 5th year, or one lasting around a decade isn’t proof of concept enough because it’s women? Give me a break. It’s because a bunch of old guys in hockey are stuck in their ways, and they don’t think the women’s game is as worthy of attention as the men’s. So, you don’t want to look like the bad guys, coming in and taking over? Fine. Childish, but fine. THEN INVEST IN THE LEAGUE. It’s not complicated. They like to tout that “Hockey is for Everyone” but refuse to do the easiest thing they could.
Finally, everyone involved needs to go out and hire better PR people. Because the fact that so many of your fans can see how stupid a lot of these missteps are is a little sad. And it would put a stop to the campaign of misinformation. I do not want to make it a Canada vs. US thing, but it definitely feels as if a lot of the misinformation and sensationalization of this “feud” is coming from north of the border. I can’t figure out if it is latent frustration that the CWHL folded and the NWHL didn’t or what the problem is, but it needs to stop. I know your feelings are important, but there are these things called facts – I highly suggest that we use them. And I know that it is by no means everyone on both sides of this kerfuffle that are responsible for the rhetoric being used. I highly doubt that everyone is OK with the public discourse on this topic. But inaction speaks loudly, and if you allow a select few to be a mouthpiece for the whole, everyone gets blamed.
I am going to link to a few important sources of information below, I encourage you to read up on them to get more informed – I am not the Nostradamus, I don’t know everything. I’m just really good at being angry. So, learn, then support. Go to college games, go to NWHL games, go to PWHPA showcases, and show people that there is a future in women’s hockey. Because there is. And wouldn’t you like to be on the right side of history once it blows up?
By: Spencer Fascetta | Follow me on Twitter @PuckNerdHockey