In late May, hockey stars Kendall Coyne Schofield and Hilary Knight sat down across from Bryan Hicks, a career referee. As veteran players and leaders of the recently formed Professional Women's Hockey Players Association, Coyne Schofield and Knight were tasked with finding someone of oversee their day-to-day operations.
"So," Knight asked, "why do you want to lead this organization?"
Hicks thought back to his experience on the ice, refereeing four straight women's Frozen Fours from 2012-16 and more than 400 other Division I games, mostly in women's ECAC Hockey. He also thought about his time working with Billie Jean King at World TeamTennis, and how she made it a principle to treat all athletes the same, which often meant finding equal opportunities, even if those opportunities didn't already exist.
"It's because I've looked in the eyes of players who have lost," Hicks said. "And seeing that their careers -- with the exception of some players who may go on to play for Olympics -- had ended, it just hit me. It hit me right in the chest. It's just not acceptable for these elite athletes who worked so hard for so many years and dedicated their lives to the game, to be told, 'Congratulations, you finished college, now you're done.' I knew there needed to be an opportunity and a dream that every girls youth player can say, 'I can get there.' Every boy right now can say they want to get to the NHL. Girls need to have that same exact opportunity."
With that, Hicks was selected as the first chief operations consultant of the PWHPA. He began on July 1.
On paper, the hire is unconventional. Hicks, who lives in Wayne, New Jersey, is a longtime referee, a profession that pays to be anonymous. He's also a high school teacher, supervising PSAT and SAT testing, and previously officiated tennis, peaking as a chair umpire for Wimbledon, the Australian Open and US Open.
Perhaps his coolest career achievement: Just after turning 18, he became the youngest chair umpire in US Open history. Hicks took the assignment the summer after graduating high school. (He was a few days late to his freshman year at Seton Hall University, but says his professors were understanding considering he was a sports management major.)
But in speaking to Hicks, his passion for women's hockey is undeniable. In his new role, Hicks will "identify and form strategic relationships" for the recently-formed PWHPA and help further its mission. Hicks was recommended to apply for the job by Ilana Kloss, his former mentor at boss at World TeamTennis.
"I'm so excited to help us achieve our goals," Hicks says. "Having a sustainable league that we want by the 2020-21 season is a goal we'd all love to have. We're going to get there as soon as possible, but also make sure we do it the right way."
Over the last three-plus months, the professional women's hockey landscape has been in upheaval. In March, the Canadian Women's Hockey League announced it was folding, a sudden blow that left only one professional women's hockey league (the National Women's Hockey League) in North America.
But many of the top players don't believe the NWHL is sustainable. They also became sick of the little resources and low pay (sometimes as low as $2,000 per season) associated with their sport. That led to the formation of a union -- the PWHPA -- because, as Coyne Schofield said at the time, "We are fortunate to be ambassadors of this beautiful game, and it's our responsibility to make sure the next generation of players have more opportunities than we had."
Initially, more than 200 players said they would not play in any league next season until a more sustainable option arose. The PWHPA now says it has 173 due-paying members, nine chapter regions (Boston, Buffalo, Calgary, Markham, Minnesota, Montreal, Toronto, the tri-state NY/NJ/CT area and "other") as well as a nine-player board (Coyne-Schofield, Knight, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, Alyssa Gagliardi, Brianne Jenner, Liz Knox, Noora Raty, Kimberly Sass and Shannon Szabados) who will help guide decisions.
The PWHPA formed in late May, but there has been little information released since then.
"We know you can very quickly rush things together, but we're being very deliberate in our decision-making," Hicks says. "These players deserve every opportunity, and should not play for the crumbs. They will make smart business decisions, and smart partnership decisions, to be treated as they are and for the value that they have earned over the years."
There have been several association-wide conference calls, though a lot of communication is now delegated to chapter chairs who message through GroupMe or other social media platforms. Hicks says they hope to have "a few events" this year where all 173 members can be in the same place.
For now, Hicks says the PWHPA's mission is three-pronged.
The first is finding weekly training and practice opportunities for players. Hicks says in many of their locations, they already have "things locked in," such as rinks which have offered a minimum of two hours of ice time a week, as well as locker rooms and workout facilities.
The second is competitive scrimmages. Hicks says the goal is to schedule matches against NCAA schools, Canadian colleges, prep schools or local organizations, in addition to intrasquad games. (For example, the Boston region might play against the Buffalo region.)
Hicks said there will not be any exhibition games against NWHL teams. Despite the 170-plus player sitout, the NWHL has signed dozens of players and plans to function next season. Hicks said he already had an introductory call with NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan.
"We're open to having more conversations about collaboration in women's hockey and what's right for the game," Hicks says. "That doesn't necessarily mean there will be a collaboration because the players have taken a stand that they don't believe the NWHL is a sustainable league and that's why they're not playing next season. So we will not be partnering and having exhibition games with them because that's not a partner that makes sense for us."
The final prong is exhibitions. Hicks says the PWHPA will soon announce between four and six "showcase events" across the country in which players will meet with local girls hockey players, put on clinics and conduct educational talks.
Says Hicks: "We want to get our players in front of young girls and say, 'Hey, the dream does exist. You can do something with this and we're being the pioneers to get you there so you have the opportunity when you're our age.'"
Hicks grew up playing hockey in Orange, Connecticut, but knew from an early age that he probably wouldn't make it far as a player. At age 12, he wanted a winter job, and decided on officiating. He officiated youth games every weekend, mostly with players who were older than him.
"I had to learn very early on how to stand my ground," he says. "And the difference between being cocky and confident."
"Having a sustainable league that we want by the 2020-21 season is a goal we'd all love to have. We're going to get there as soon as possible, but also make sure we do it the right way." Bryan Hicks
At 14, he flew by himself to Calgary to WHL officiating camp. Before his 15th birthday, he had officiated more than 1,000 youth hockey games. Then the Connecticut Wolves of arrived to town at the West Haven Rink and Hicks, at age 16 became the youngest official in the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League. His supervisor got a kick out of the fact that he got dropped off to games in his mom's minivan.
When Hicks could drive his own car, he got a summer job, too. Hicks' stepfather was a hot dog and hamburger vendor at Pilot Pen tennis center in New Haven, so it was only a natural fit for Hicks to officiate tennis. He signed up for a one-day clinic and a year later, found himself at age 17 as a chair umpire with Justine Henin on the court.
Things took off in 2000, the summer Hicks graduated high school, when he was invited to the ITF's White Badge School. He would work three of tennis' four Grand Slams.
Hicks' career trajectory changed in October 2005 when he met King and Ilana Kloss. They were looking for a director of officiating for World TeamTennis, and asked if Hicks was interested. He was only 23 years old, a recent college grad.
"It was a little overwhelming," Hicks says. "But exciting to say the least."
Working with King, Hicks says, "put life into focus in a lot of different ways."
"I had seen how tennis was handled on the WTA and ATF tours with the differences in pay and how players were treated off the court," Hicks said. "World TeamTennis was the first time that everyone was treated truly 100 percent equal. Your gender had no effect. So much of that came from Billie Jean King. To her, everyone is respected, everyone is equal, and she's always looking out for the greater good -- even if it's detrimental to herself or to her team -- if it's what's best for the sport."
Hicks shifted back to hockey and began officiating college games. However, he kept King's lessons with him. He initially began as a men's referee but moved over to the women's side. He was flabbergasted when a few people asked him, "Are you going to give it the same effort and same professionalism that you gave in the men's game?"
"That struck me," Hicks says now. "It's Division I college hockey. The gender doesn't matter. To those people, I would say: 'It may be women's hockey to you, but it's a heck of a lot more important to me, I'm glad I'm working the games, not you.' But I could also hear Billie Jean's voice in the back of my head saying: 'You better damn well do this the right way.'"
It's those principles that guided Hicks to his role with the PWHPA. (He also will keep his job at the high school. Though he hung up the skates in 2018, he was recently named the director of officiating for ECAC women's hockey.)
One of his first goals as one of the faces of the women's hockey union is clearing up misconceptions.
"I think there are some people out there who truly believe these players are taking a short-term stand," Hicks says. "I've heard people say, 'It doesn't really matter, in two or three weeks we'll go back to a league that is not necessarily great for us and we're being paid $2,000-3000 a year.' But these players know their value is much higher than that. They're willing to take the stand, to make personal scarifies and say, 'I deserve better and I deserve more.'"