At the finale of the USA versus Canada rivalry series last month in Detroit, Kendall Coyne Schofield stood in front of a cluster of reporters. As often happens at such events, Coyne Schofield was asked what's next for women's hockey. "We need one league," the 26-year-old forward said sternly. "We know it's up to us as players to push for it, and we know the NHL will be right alongside us along the way."
The one league movement has existed since the U.S.-based NWHL debuted four years ago, branded as the first women's professional league to pay its players. The Canadian-based CWHL has been around since 2007. In 2017, the CWHL began paying its players a stipend as well. However, across 11 teams in two leagues, the top talent is too dispersed, and the money isn't significant enough to constitute a living wage. That forces a majority of the women to keep their jobs as accountants, teachers, engineers and sales reps while somehow squeezing in the time (and scrounging the resources) to remain elite athletes.
One solution would be for the NHL to swoop in and form a WNHL, pooling its deep pockets and infrastructure to support one league with a stronger foundation. Of course, it's not as easy as that. Here's a glance at the landscape as it stands now.
Note: The NWHL declined an interview request for NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan, with a league spokesperson saying: "For us to discuss our collective goals for professional women's hockey in North America at this vitally important time would be counterproductive to the process. We agree with the players and observers who have said that it's time for action, not talk."
What does the NHL have to say about it?
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has gone on the record several times to say that he doesn't want to intervene with either league as long as they both exist in their current states. In October, Bettman told the Associated Press that he didn't want "to look like a bully" and push the existing leagues out of business but he added that he didn't want to take over either league because "we don't believe in their models." Privately, sources told ESPN that the NHL would be interested in helping run a women's league but does not plan to do anything meaningful until the leagues have merged -- or both folded altogether.
What's the NHL league office's level of involvement now?
Sources said the NHL gives a financial contribution to both leagues -- the exact same amount to each -- just as it does to other hockey organizations from time to time. (For example, in 2017, the NHL quietly gave USA Hockey $25,000 per player to help fund a four-year agreement with the women's national team and end a stalemate).
An industry source said the NHL contribution to both leagues is "less than six figures."
Who runs the leagues now?
Jayna Hefford, a recent Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, is serving as the interim commissioner of the CWHL. (She is a CWHL alumnus, and the league's most outstanding player award is named in her honor). The CWHL is not-for-profit, an important distinction from the NWHL. It has an 11-member board of directors that meets monthly. According to Hefford, the board of directors approves a budget at the beginning of the season, and after that, there isn't much flexibility.
The CWHL owns five of its six teams. Those operate on their own. The GMs hire the coaches and sign players, but the teams are centrally funded. The team in Shenzhen is not owned by the CWHL. It pays its own operating expenses, including staff and player salaries.
Rylan, a former Northeastern University player, is the commissioner and founder of the NWHL. The league operates all of its teams, except the Buffalo Beauts, which are privately owned by Pegula Sports & Entertainment (Terry and Kim Pegula are the owners of the NHL's Buffalo Sabres and the NFL's Buffalo Bills). For the other four teams, the league hires and oversees employees, including coaches, trainers, equipment staffers and business managers. It also employs game-day staff, including broadcasters.
The NWHL says it has eight staffers at its league office.
Do the leagues communicate?
Hefford, Rylan and Bettman have never sat in the same room to chat about shared goals. Hefford told the ESPN on Ice Podcast that she has "had ongoing conversations" with Bettman, "and the one thing I can say about Gary is, everything he's said publicly is what he's said privately."
On her communication with Rylan, Hefford said: "I've spoken to Dani a few times. We continue to discuss options and look at the future for the women's game, but there are some challenges in terms of our models and different things. It's an ongoing relationship where we try to figure out the best route for the women's game, but in the midst of that, we have so much on our plate, just operating our own league. So it's doing a little bit of balancing both. During the season, our eyes [are] on our leagues."
Do the players have representation?
The NWHL has a player association, but it is not unionized and does not have a CBA. Until this past season, NWHL players did not have legal representation. Christina Simanca-Proctor is a real estate attorney in New York City. When she read an online article about the NWHL players' pay last year, she reached out to the NWHLPA. Simanca-Proctor and Valdi Licul, who specializes in employment law, now offer the NWHLPA counsel.
At the start of this season, there were three priorities for the NWHLPA. It wanted to designate players as employees again (they were employees the first season, and then the designation switched to independent contractors). It wanted salary increases for every player. And it wanted increased benefits, such as per diem.
The NWHL players are once again classified as employees. They did not get a salary increase for every player. The per diem rates increased from $10 to $20 for road games, which is a big jump but still much less than the recognized federal standard of $51.
The CWHL, similarly, has a players association. The NHLPA has had a partnership with the CWHL for the past two seasons (the agreements are on a year-by-year basis). The NHLPA provides financial support for the league; it puts on the CWHL Clarkson Cup Award Show and is the presenting sponsor of the Jayna Hefford Award. The award show is a well-received and much-appreciated event for the players.
The NHLPA says it is not involved in CWHL player contracts; their staff is available to answer any questions players have, though nothing specific is made available. The NHLPA says it will answer questions from players in either league -- the CWHL or NWHL -- though it does not represent them.
What do the players get paid?
Both leagues have a salary cap of $100,000. The lowest-paid player in the NWHL this season is making $2,500. The range for CWHL players is $2,000 to $10,000, CAD.
"We don't even often refer to it as a salary because in my mind, it's not really necessarily [a] big enough number to be called a salary," Hefford said. "So I really look at it like a stipend for players to reimburse expenses on their end."
The team in Shenzhen is an exception, however, as it operates on its own and gets funding from the ownership group RDS. Players get housing and jobs working clinics and helping hockey grow in China. The KRS Vanke Rays players can make as much as six figures.
The NWHL says that over five years, it has paid more than $2.5 million to players. Players get 15 percent of sales from jerseys with their names on them. Salaries were much higher in the first season (and publicly available on the league's website), with players making between $10,000 and $25,000. In 2016, the NWHL slashed salaries by 50 percent midseason in an effort to stay "financially viable," according to Rylan at the time.
"From a player's perspective, we had our best financial year in year one. That was the most professional pay structure we had," said Anya Battaglino, the president of the NWHLPA. "A $25,000 contract feels like $50,000 in the six months you're playing. In an entry level job, that's crushing it. So our best pay was in year one. Then in year two, we had a salary cut, and it was our most challenging year yet. Year three we improved. Then in year four, our contracts had gotten stronger, we had people like Christina involved, and we got back to a salary-cap structure. So if you could take it as a blip in the radar in year two, we've gotten better year over year since then. The pay is half of what it was in year one, a quarter in some cases. So if I'm giving you a stock report, it's still red. But it's better than being a downward trajectory. We are absolutely progressing forward and getting better year over year."
Do the leagues get any other assistance?
USA Hockey does not give the NWHL any financial assistance. There is a partnership for officials -- USA Hockey designates officials for NWHL games, which helps them evaluate them, but the NWHL pays for the officials on the ice -- and USA Hockey has people on the league's Player Safety Committee.
Individual NHL teams have partnered with clubs across the two leagues, including the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames, Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils and Minnesota Wild. Regarding the CWHL's NHL deals, Hefford said: "The NHL partnerships all vary, but there's a base consistency. There's a lot of things that includes, from resources to financial assistance." It can also manifest with league events being hosted at an NHL venue (such as the Clarkson Cup at Ottawa's Canadian Tire Centre last year, for example).
In the NWHL, the Wild partner with the Whitecaps, the Devils with the Riveters and the Bruins with the Pride. However, there isn't much clarity -- even to the players -- relating to the substance of these relationships. "We do know these relationships have not produced any pay or benefit increases for players or the procurement of better equipment or increased services, such as food services," Simanca-Proctor said.
Often, players can procure ice time at NHL facilities -- but usually when they are not otherwise being used. Some NHL teams sometimes help promote NWHL games or players on social media. Others lend some marketing help. And some have stepped up when needed. For example, when the Riveters needed help with goaltending this season, the Devils offered more ice time so the team could hire a goalie consultant and work with the goalie on the ice for a few sessions.
The Beauts, however, have seen a significant benefit from their Buffalo Sabres partnership because they are all owned under the Pegula Sports & Entertainment umbrella. This means Beauts players get more access to Sabres facilities as well as access to skills ice (which other teams do not have). Opposing players have noticed that the Beauts have much nicer and newer gear than other teams. Buffalo players also get catered meals before games, and some Beauts players are helped with housing.
Beauts goalie Shannon Szabados is the only senior national Team Canada player in the NWHL this season. She told ESPN on Ice this week that Buffalo is "one of the best, if not probably the best run professional woman's hockey team in the entire world."
Szabados went on: "We have ice every single day, sometimes twice a day. It's always open and available. Same with the gym and access to facilities, and it really is just top-notch. A lot of our staff crosses over, so our PR staff, you see a lot of videos of the Sabres guys wearing Beauts stuff. They posted a video the other day before our playoff game of Carter Hutton and some of the Sabres and other players wishing us good luck. It's a really unique relationship."
While other players are happy for their colleagues, they would like the disparity gap to close.
How healthy are the leagues?
This is a tricky question to answer. The CWHL was reluctant to pay players until it was sure it had enough money to be sustainable. That happened in 2017, coinciding with two teams in China (there is now only one). At the time, the league said that the marketing and endorsement opportunities helped reach that threshold. While the China venture certainly helps with cash flow, Hefford stressed that a large reason the CWHL is there is for the opportunities it affords the athletes and the league's larger mission, which is to grow the game.
The CWHL's budget for the 2017-18 season was $3.7 million, and Hefford said the budget for the 2018-19 season is somewhere in that "ballpark."
The NWHL does not disclose any information about its budget or revenue. Only some of the investors are made public. That has been a point of contention for the NWHLPA, especially in contract negotiations, in which it wanted to know how the league arrived at $100,000 for the salary cap.
The NWHL did boast some encouraging numbers regarding attendance. In their first NWHL season as the league's first expansion team, the Minnesota Whitecaps sold out every home game. TRIA Rink in Saint Paul has a capacity of 1,200. The Boston Pride sold out their past three home games (arena capacity: 800). Since the Beauts are privately owned, their attendance figures are not available, though reports suggest that crowds at their arena (capacity: 1,800) have been strong. The average ticket price for all teams is around $20.
The 2019 NWHL All-Star Game in Nashville drew 6,200, the largest crowd for a pro women's hockey game in the U.S. Combined, the skills challenge and All-Star Game generated more than one million viewers on Twitter.
If things are going so great, why is there a need for change?
The visibility of the leagues is improving, as is the on-ice product. "The optics of the league are really strong," Battaglino said. "The product is better on the ice, the players are stronger, the game is getting better every single year, and we're continuously fostering higher-quality-caliber players coming into our league. I don't want that to sound like we are totally screwed on the back end of it, but there's a lot of room for improvements."
In the beginning of the season, the Riveters did not have a designated practice facility, and players were getting last-minute notices about meeting locations, bouncing around New Jersey while adding hundreds of miles to their odometers.
Balancing other jobs and low resources makes for less than ideal travel itineraries. The league initially set an itinerary for the Boston Pride's playoff game in Buffalo with a bus leaving Boston at 6 p.m. ET Friday and not arriving in Buffalo until 4 a.m. ET Saturday -- with the playoff game being played Saturday night. The bus would then leave Buffalo after the game Saturday, at roughly 11 p.m. ET, and arrive in Boston at 6 or 7 a.m. ET Sunday. Such long and taxing bus trips are common across many levels of hockey (including leagues with more resources, such as the AHL).
When Boston coach Paul Mara -- a former NHL player -- said those were less than ideal conditions, especially for a playoff game, he asked if the league would fly his players instead. The league said if that were the case, players would need to get to Buffalo on their own. The league would offer hotel rooms for two nights but only a $200 stipend for travel, which would not have covered the cost of flights, and players would need to cover some of their own costs, including getting from the airport to hotel, hotel to rink, etc. Some players took the league up on this option; the league then dispatched a smaller vehicle for players who did not fly.
Said Simanca-Proctor: "I respect and admire Dani's efforts to create this league. She identified a strong female professional ice hockey fan base and has taken steps to promote the sport. However, when issues arise -- for example, the untimely payment of salaries -- the response has often been, 'We're working on it. We're trying.' That response was acceptable in the league's first year, perhaps the second, but not in year four. These women deserve better, and they deserve to work for a more professional organization."
In NWHL player contracts this season, there was a clause that said players "will not directly or indirectly make, publish or communicate in any form or to any person or entity any disparaging or defamatory remarks, comments or statements, whether orally or in writing, by word or gesture, about each other, the other NWHL teams, the League Commissioner, or the League." The NWHLPA tried to get the non-disparagement clause removed from the contracts but found that the language was so ambiguous, the league would be hard-pressed to prove a violation of this provision in a lawsuit. One NWHL player said she wouldn't feel comfortable speaking out against the league. She also said that though the league isn't perfect, she feels "fortunate" that there is a place for her to continue playing, and she wouldn't want to jeopardize that.
Why are the leagues important?
There's a growing demand for women's hockey. Last July, the IIHF shared that there are now nearly 200,000 women playing hockey across the world -- up from 170,000 (a 17.6 percent increase) in 2010. It's especially noticeable in the United States. USA Hockey's membership statistics suggest a hugely growing demand. There were 79,355 registered hockey players in the U.S. in 2017-18, which is more than 3,500 more than in the previous season. The leagues offer girls playing hockey a tangible dream and an opportunity to play after their college careers are over. Moreover, they can continue development for elite players. Consider recent women's national team call-ups Hayley Scamurra and Katie Burt, who were able to keep playing and showing off their skills in the NWHL, which caught the attention of the national team.
How are games viewed now?
The NWHL, from the beginning, has prioritized having all games streamed on YouTube or Twitter. It's a significant cost investment. The next step for the league would be to find a broadcast rights and content partner.
The CWHL sets a budget early in the season for streaming. It streamed 18 games this season (there are 80 in the season, so that's roughly 20 percent). The league has a deal with Sportsnet, which carries its All-Star Game and Clarkson Cup and in January picked up two additional games for the first CWHL weekend. Hefford said there is no flexibility once the budget for streaming is allotted, so some high-profile matchups toward the end of the season were dark for many fans. However, all teams are allowed to find their own partners for streaming or broadcasting games on the radio or YouTube. All teams had some alternative options for the 2018-19 season, except for Montreal.
What does an ideal league look like?
It depends whom you ask. Here's what Hefford told ESPN: "An ideal league to me would be four to six teams. The players would be paid a living wage, whatever that is described as. It's certainly not going to be hundreds of thousands, but it's a salary that you can live on in a major city because that's more than likely where the teams will be. You'd want the best players in the league. I think that having the NHL involved would be a big part of that. I wouldn't say it is the NHL, but having their involvement and their brand and resources is important to it. That's where I see the game going."
And here's Battagliano: "For the NHL to come in like big brother and give whatever model they think is right? I've heard rumblings of what that model would be, and to be honest with you, it's really challenging for me to think that's necessarily the best option. I don't know if both leagues folding and the NHL stepping in and running it however they would like is the best option. I believe that what we've done with the Beauts is the best option for women's hockey. That's what I believe. I think that certainly comes from one league and certainly comes from joining forces -- putting all the same people in one pool, I'm 100 percent in on that. Maybe there's a Northern Division in Canada and a Southern Division in the U.S., and every team is owned by an NHL affiliate. I think when the Pegulas bought the Beauts, they set the standard that's tough to beat. That sounds like the world I wish I lived in. That's my utopia."
One prominent NWHL player told ESPN that it is "very important" for a woman to be in a leadership role running the league. "That said," the player added, "I think we all know for us to be sustainable, we need some resources from the NHL."