Women start union, hope to have new league

Elite women's hockey players have announced the formation of the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association -- a united front of some American, Canadian and European players which will serve as "a vehicle to support the creation of a single, viable women's pro league in North America."

The PWHPA includes stars like Kendall Coyne Schofield and Hilary Knight of Team USA and Shannon Szabados, Marie-Philip Poulin of Team Canada and Noora Raty of Finland -- as well as the nearly 200 professional women's hockey players who have announced they are not playing in a league next season until they are provided with better financial support and resources, as well as stronger health insurance.

The PWHA will help those players navigate training needs as well as help them land support from sponsors.

"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," Coyne Schofield said in a statement. "It's time to stand together and work to create a viable league that will allow us to enjoy the benefits of our hard work."

The PWHPA is receiving pro bono support from the law firm Ballard Spahr, which has also advised the U.S. women's national team in its dispute over equitable support with USA Hockey.

The women's hockey landscape has endured major upheaval over the past two months. In late March, the Canadian Women's Hockey League made the stunning announcement that it was shutting down, citing a business model that "has proven to be economically unstable." The news came a week after the league's Clarkson Cup had a record 175,000 fans tune in as the CWHL brokered a last-minute deal with the NHL Network to stream the game to a United States audience.

The U.S.-based National Women's Hockey League is the only remaining league in North America, but the 200 players announcing they would not play in any league next season is an indictment on the NWHL's reputation. The NWHL also had a successful season last year, including seeing the All-Star game in Nashville, Tennessee draw 6,200 fans -- the largest crowd for a pro women's hockey game in the United States. There were also encouraging attendance figures, including the Minnesota Whitecaps, in their first NWHL season as an expansion team selling out every home game. (TRIA Rink in Saint Paul has a capacity of 1,200).

Even though the NWHL has promised to increase salaries for the 2019-20 season -- the lowest salary last year was $2,500 -- and give players a 50-50 cut of all revenue from league-level sponsorship and media deals, many players have expressed skepticism of the league's viability, as well as frustration with the lack of transparency that has existed in the past.

Terry and Kim Pegula, who also own the NHL Sabres, turned over their ownership of the Buffalo Beauts this offseason, effectively cutting ties with the NWHL. Also, the New Jersey Devils dissolved their marketing partnership with the Metropolitan Riveters.

The NWHL still insists it will have a 2019-20 season. Monday, the NWHL announced its first two player signings. Madison Packer re-signed with the Riveters for a salary of $12,000 while Kaleigh Fratkin re-signed with the Boston Pride for a salary of $11,000.

The hope for the PWHPA is to make the women's hockey community less fragmented.

"We are prepared to stop playing for a year -- which is crushing to even think about -- because of how important a sustainable league will be to the future of women's sports," Szabados said in a statement. "We know we can make this work, and we want the chance to try."

Added Raty in a statement: "We might play for different teams, and come from different countries, but we're united in our goals."

Privately, the NHL is exploring its options on whether or not it should sponsor a women's hockey league. Thee NHL is considering an option that is similar to the NBA's involvement with the WNBA, according to sources.