May 02, 2019 10:30 PM
More than 200 of the top female hockey players in the world have decided they will not play professionally in North America next season, hoping their stand leads to a single economically sustainable league.
The announcement Thursday comes after the Canadian Women's Hockey League abruptly shut down as of Wednesday, leaving the five-team, U.S.-based National Women's Hockey League as the only pro league in North America.
It’s been nearly one year since Minnesota got its National Women's Hockey League team. It marked the league’s first expansion.
In the team’s first season, the Whitecaps sold out all 10 home games at TRIA Rink. An average of 1,200 fans packed in, which was the top attendance in the league. Following the season, the NWHL called the team “a profitable business venture".
Now some of the biggest names on the roster say they will sit next season out, fighting for health benefits and better pay.
Hannah Brandt, Lee Stecklein, and players across the NWHL and Canada all posted the same statement to social media. It said, in part, “… we cannot make a sustainable living playing in the current state of the professional game."
The players said they will not play next season unless conditions improve.
“These women are citing that some of their players are only making $2,000 a year and that they have to pay for their own healthcare,” said Courtney Boucher. “You quite frankly don't see that on the men's side in any capacity.”
Boucher played college hockey and is now a doctoral grad student at the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport.
“Women’s hockey in particular, and I think women’s sports in general, are growing at a rapid rate and just within a generation,” said Boucher. “I think there is definitely a need and a want for a sustainable league and get more information on how we can best move forward.”
She said women’s hockey players have seen success in the past, including when they boycotted the 2017 world championship.
“They were successful and their demands were met,” said Boucher.
Olympian, Whitecap and former Gopher Hannah Brandt said in her own personal statement to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS, “We have come together as women’s hockey players across North America and the world to take a stand for a long term viable option to grow the game at the professional level. We want a sustainable option to continue to play the sport we love at the most elite level. We need the resources and support to make this happen. This is about the growth of the game not just on the ice but in all aspects. We are united as players fighting for what we believe is right for today, and most importantly for generations to come.”
The group of players, led by American stars Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield and Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados, hopes their move eventually pushes the NHL to start its own women's hockey league as the NBA did with the WNBA.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said the league would not choose sides or get involved unless there was a void to fill, but the league later said it will begin privately evaluating its stance on whether to back a women's professional hockey league.
Bill Daly, the league's deputy commissioner, says it is premature to weigh in at this point, but added, "We will further explore the situation privately before taking any affirmative position on next steps."
Daly noted that the National Women's Hockey League remains in existence, and the NHL has no intention of interfering with its business plan or objectives.
Still, Daly's reference to a private evaluation marks a step forward for a league that has previously stated it had no intention of considering backing a competing professional women's league.
Daly did not provide a timetable for how long the evaluation might take. He adds he doesn't anticipate "at this early stage" to have women's pro hockey placed on the agenda for the league's next board of governors meetings next month.
In a statement, players say they "cannot make a sustainable living playing in the current state of the professional game" with no health insurance and salaries as low as $2,000 a season.
U.S. star Kendall Coyne Schofield tells The Associated Press that the National Women's Hockey League has repeatedly shown it is not a viable, long-term option for players.
Schofield says the NWHL "does not showcase the best product of women's hockey." She says the business model, salaries, health insurance and the treatment of the players are all factors.
Bauer Hockey said it supports the hockey players as they boycott.
Mary-Kay Messier is president of global marketing for the hockey equipment giant and the sister of NHL Hall of Famer Mark Messier. She says she believes the NHL must play a key role to develop a viable women's professional hockey program.
Messier says the NHL and its clubs have the ability to effectively promote the women's game with the resources beyond money. She says the NHL also can use the world's top female athletes as ambassadors and role models, which will both grow the game and build diversity in hockey.
Bauer has endorsement deals with Marie-Phillip Poulin and Hilary Knight, who are among the women who decided not to play.
Messier, who also is a board member of the nonprofit Play Like a Girl group, says the offseason provides the hockey community a chance to come together to support women's professional hockey.
The NWHL released a statement saying it "respects the wishes of all players to consider their options," and remains open to meeting with them to address concerns.
Associated Press & Callan Gray
Updated: May 02, 2019 10:30 PM
Created: May 02, 2019 10:48 AM
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