Women's hockey stars to boycott pro leagues

U.S. women's hockey isn't done fighting for equality (2:51)

In an interview from 2018, U.S. Olympic hockey gold medalists Meghan Duggan, Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne Schofield and Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson talk about their fight for improvements to the women's game. (2:51)

More than 200 women's hockey players -- including Team USA stars Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield and Canada's Marie Philip-Poulin -- have announced they will not be playing in a professional league next season.

"We cannot make a sustainable living playing in the current state of the professional game," the statement read, which was released by individual players on social media Thursday. "Having no health insurance and making as low as two thousand dollars a season means players can't adequately train and prepare to play at the highest level."

Many players have gone on the record to say they want the NHL to support a women's league with financial and infrastructural resources, and sources told ESPN that the players hope the joint announcement could apply pressure on the NHL to act.

The NHL on Thursday said it will further explore the situation privately before determining any next steps.

The NWHL is the only remaining professional women's hockey league in North America.

"While we have all accomplished so much, there is no greater accomplishment than what we have the potential to do right here and right now -- not just for this generation of players, but for the generations to come," the players' statement read. "With that purpose, we are coming together, not just as individual players, but as one collective voice to help navigate the future and protect the [players'] needs."

In a statement Thursday, the NWHL said it respected the players' wishes to explore their options, while adding that plans continue for the season to begin in October.

"Of everyone working in women's hockey, we are among the players' biggest fans," the league wrote. "In 2015, there wasn't a professional women's hockey league in the United States. Prior to our launch just four years ago, there was never a movement for others to take over women's hockey, or for any wide-scale league in North America. In a challenging climate for women's sports, our leadership has been proud to invest a great deal of time and resources in women's hockey and these athletes. We believe in them."

The statement also noted that increased salaries and a 50-50 split from league-level sponsorships and media rights deals have been offered.

There has been uncertainty clouding the women's hockey landscape since the Canadian-based CWHL made a shocking decision to fold after the 2018-19 season. The CWHL said in a statement that "while the on-ice hockey is exceptional, the business model has proven to be economically unsustainable."

Ever since the U.S.-based NWHL debuted, there had been calls to merge the two leagues. Players were upset that resources were fragmented, and they believe there isn't a big enough talent pool to support two leagues at this time. What's more, the low pay in each league means players have to juggle other full-time jobs, and the travel itineraries are less than ideal.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has gone on the record several times to say he didn't want to intervene with either league as long as they both existed in their current states -- mainly because the NHL didn't want to look like it was choosing sides or swooping in as a "big brother" to save the day, according to league sources.

"As long as elite women hockey players have professional opportunities, it is not an environment we are prepared to wade into in any formal way," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN when the CWHL folded, leaving only one league. "We have always supported professional women's hockey, and we plan to continue to do so. That doesn't mean we need to form or directly subsidize an existing professional league."

The NHL previously gave $50,000 annual contributions to each league. When the CWHL folded, the NHL upped its contribution to the NWHL to $100,000.

"We've certainly seen a lot of the NHL's statements that have mentioned they would be prepared to step in if there is no viable option for women's ice hockey in North America," 2018 Olympic gold medalist Meghan Duggan told ESPN. "If that opportunity presents itself, I trust that they have a vision as well. If you look at what history tells us, it's that startup women's leagues are very successful when they're connected to an existing league. That's true throughout Europe, in women's soccer, the WNBA, and the NWSL with their support from U.S. Soccer. That's part of what we're looking for."

Duggan said that while "certainly the NHL makes a lot of sense," the women want a partner that will see the players' value and share their long-term vision.

"[The goal] is simply to work toward one viable league in North America, and we'll consider any proposal that addresses that," Duggan said.

Dani Rylan, the founder and commissioner of the NWHL, said the 2018-19 season was one of growth. Rylan says she wants to expand the league next season with franchises in Montreal and Toronto, though no formal details have been announced.

The 2019 NWHL All-Star Game in Nashville, Tennessee, drew 6,200 people -- the largest crowd for a pro women's hockey game in the United States. Combined, the skills challenge and All-Star Game generated more than one million viewers on Twitter. And 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 NWHL does not disclose information about its budget or revenue. Only some of the investors are made public. That has been a point of contention for the NWHL Players' Association, especially in contract negotiations, in which it wanted to know how the league arrived at $100,000 for the salary cap.

Rylan told ESPN in April that she expects player salaries to increase for next season. The lowest-paid players made $2,500 for the season.

"We have two different business models," Rylan said when asked why the NWHL would succeed when the CWHL couldn't. "We are for-profit. We have the flexibility to sell our assets, whether it's at the league level or the team level, and I think that's fundamentally the biggest difference."

Coyne Schofield commuted from Los Angeles to Minnesota to play for the Whitecaps last season.

"To be honest, the reason I wasn't in Minnesota full time was the compensation piece," Coyne Schofield said. "I wasn't willing to pack my bags up and move to Minnesota for the salary I was receiving. Am I worried about the game aspect? I am and I'm not. At the end of the day, the product we were receiving wasn't the best product in the world. So sometimes I second-guessed if it was fully beneficial to play in certain games. The tough part is going to be not being around teammates."

Coyne Schofield said players have begun talking about what next year will look like and how they can train without being in team settings.

Duggan said many of the Team USA players have been through something similar before, during their 2017 boycott for equity with USA Hockey. She said the legal team that they consulted with in 2017 has been "trusted advisers during this as well."

"There's certainly some similarities in terms of coming together and standing up for something you believe in, risking a lot in order to help grow the game and leave the game in a better spot than when you entered it," Duggan said.

Duggan, who sat out last season as she waits to be medically cleared, said all players understand the risk involved.

"We've all talked about it," Duggan said. "It's scary, it's uncertain, it can be uncomfortable. But that's a great thing, and that's a good thing, and it's awesome and exciting at the same time. It's life-changing and trailblazing, and for the greatest cause."