Hockey season is about to begin, but there has never been more uncertainty in the women's game.
It's a paradox. Girls hockey is among the fastest-growing sports in America. Programs are also sprouting up in places like Kuwait, while China is launching a program ahead of the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. In 2018, 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. Team USA's thrilling gold-medal shootout win over rival Canada in the 2018 Olympics was part of significant momentum at the elite level. In January, Kendall Coyne Schofield became the first woman to participate in the NHL All-Star skills competition (and dazzled). She and four other top stars subsequently signed partnerships with Adidas and have been featured in a variety of brand and product campaigns.
But when it comes to professional women's hockey, the sport is at a crossroads. Despite growth last season, the Canadian Women's Hockey League made the stunning decision to fold in May citing an "economically unsustainable business model." That left the rival National Women's Hockey League as the only remaining professional league in North America. While the NWHL also reported record attendance and viewership last season (its fourth), Coyne Schofield and many other top stars decided not to play in that league -- or any pro league -- this fall.
They joined a newly created Professional Women's Hockey Players Association to achieve their goal of a unified sustainable league. The snag? One league already exists -- the NWHL, which is set to kick off its regular season on Oct. 5. If that leaves you with more questions, don't worry. We've got answers. Here's a rundown of what the women's hockey landscape looks like at this moment.
What is the PWHPA?
It's not a labor union, but rather an advocacy organization. There are 173 dues-paying members including some of the sport's top stars like Team USA's Coyne Schofield, Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, Canada's Shannon Szabados and Marie-Philip Poulin and Finland's Noora Raty. Each player is part of one of the eight chapter regions: Boston, Buffalo, Calgary, Markham (Ontario), Minnesota, Montreal, Toronto, the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
"It was obviously devastating when the CWHL folded," said Sarah Nurse, who played for the Toronto Furies last season. "But it was the kick in the butt we needed to push for what we truly want and what we truly deserve. It was very easy for a lot of the girls to be happy in the spots that we were in and not push for more. We didn't want to take a lateral step, we wanted a step forward."
Added Alyssa Gagliardi, who played for the Boston Pride of the NWHL last season: "We didn't want to just jump into the only option, because it was the only option. We wanted to make sure we were thinking long term about the future of the sport. I was grateful to have the NWHL opportunity, but looking forward, I want to be part of a professional league where I can make a livable wage, have health insurance, full-time staff, all of those aspects."
PWHPA members say they don't expect the millions that NHL players make, but they do want to be able to have hockey as their primary vocation. The NWHL last year had a team salary cap of $100,000 (they increased it to $150,000 this season). Gagliardi said that last season with the Boston Pride, all but three of her teammates also had full-time jobs.
"It's not just the pay equity and pay gap -- that will come, and we know that's something that is not going to come overnight," Nurse said. "But it's the professionalism that we're looking for. Simple things like getting our laundry done, ice time before 9:30 at night, being able to travel on the road with a full staff. Last season we often traveled without our athletic therapist and medical team, we were often sharing medical staff with other teams. Our coaching staff didn't have access to video resources, they didn't have their own locker rooms. Our equipment manager couldn't give us laces or hockey tape. We had to go buy them ourselves."
Said Gagliardi: "We joke, but it's kind of sad -- the resources we got in college are what you wish you had when you graduated. Those are the resources no league to date has been able to provide consistently. We're not asking for millions by any means, just something to live off of. Plus those resources. Think where the game could be if, in the last four years [since I graduated college], I could train full time and play hockey. And if there was an entire league that could do that. How good could this game be?"
Who leads the PWHPA?
The PWHPA is currently led by Jayna Hefford, a Hockey Hall of Famer who most recently served as interim commissioner of the CWHL when it folded. "What these players are doing is courageous," Hefford said. "It's a selfless act. They're sacrificing what they could do right now -- play in a league, because that's the easy thing to do, and make some money. And in turn, they're choosing to change the conversation. They're united in this quest to find something that's sustainable for the sport and sustainable for the next generation."
The PWHPA is advised by a team of lawyers from Ballard Spahr, the same firm that represented the U.S. women's hockey team in their wage dispute with USA Hockey ahead of the 2017 world championship. Billie Jean King and Illana Kloss are also advisors; Hefford says Kloss is especially involved on a day-to-day basis. They've secured several sponsorships, such as with Budweiser and Dunkin Donuts (which also partners with the NWHL). Hefford said the PWHPA will be releasing even more sponsorship news in the next couple weeks. Adidas, meanwhile, partnered with the PWHPA to create jerseys and provide the athletes with training gear.
So if they're not playing in a league, what will players in the PWHPA be doing this season?
The PWHPA arranged for training opportunities and ice time in each of the eight chapter regions. They're also scheduling intra-squad games and scrimmages against local college, club and even boys youth teams. But the big event is the Dream Gap Tour, which kicks off Saturday in Toronto. Consider it a barnstorming tour where the players will be showcasing the game in exhibitions, plus doing community engagement events and clinics, specifically trying to reach young girls.
They also have dates scheduled in New Hampshire (Oct. 4-6) and Chicago (Oct. 18-20). Hefford says there will be at least six showcase events this year. The games will all be streamed on the PWHPA's website.
So that brings us to the NWHL. What's going on with that?
Business as usual. "We're not going anywhere," commissioner Dani Rylan told ESPN earlier this month. "It's definitely disappointing, to say the least, when the people that you built a business for, or a platform for, feel that destroying that business is the best way forward."
Anya Battaglino is a former NWHL player who now is director of the NWHL players' association. The NWHLPA was in the middle of negotiations with the NWHL for standard player agreements for the 2019-20 season when the CWHL folded. The women's hockey community has always been fragmented -- two leagues dispersed the top talent across two countries and had vastly different business plans with the CWHL being a nonprofit. Now was finally an opportunity for everyone to stand united. Battaglino and the NWHL were riding high after viewership for the 2018-19 season was at an all-time high; the all-star game in Nashville drew 6,200, the largest crowd for a pro women's hockey game in the United States, and several teams routinely sold out their arenas for home games.
She was hoping players from the displaced CWHL would see the foundation they built, and the business plan that was in place, and realize that they had something they could grow together. "It basically sparked this need internally to create one league we had been trying to work on for so long," Battaglino said. "I understand the battle cry of 'we want more,' but we had an avenue here that was working. The idea of taking a gap year without a clear business plan just didn't make sense to me."
However, many players decided against it. "I think there's so much passion behind not joining the NWHL, there was an inability for a lot of people to hear what was actually happening," Battaglino said.
The NWHL carried on. During their negotiations, Battaglino said Rylan was more transparent and inclusive than she had ever been before. The players fixed some verbiage in the previous contracts they didn't like. For the first time, it was the players writing the contracts and the NWHL executive office making edits to it -- not the other way around. One thing Battaglino would like to clear up is claims that the NWHL doesn't offer insurance. "The players are full employees and get workers comp," Battaglino said. "Anything that has to do with hockey, they are covered medically for."
The NWHL initially explored expanding to Canada when the CWHL folded but decided to stick with their five American teams for now. There were some initial challenges once the PWHPA formed. The Pegula family -- which also owns the NFL Buffalo Bills and NHL Sabres -- severed its ties with the league and relinquished control of the Buffalo Beauts. The New Jersey Devils also dissolved their marketing partnership with the Metropolitan Riveters.
Rylan -- the NWHL's founder -- was determined to keep her league afloat and made several improvements to lure players in. They increased the regular-season schedule from 16 to 24 games and restructured the schedule for multiple games clustered on weekends rather than multiple weekends of travel.
Rylan said player salaries are up 26 percent over last season. Some players are making as much as $13,000 this season -- which is for six months of work.
Rylan didn't offer specifics but said she also increased per diem rates (they were $20 last season, which is far below the federal recognized rate of $51).
Additionally, for the first time, players are receiving a 50 percent split of revenue from all league-level sponsorship and media deals. That includes the league's three-year streaming partnership with Twitch, which was announced this month.
"Brands want to be part of a feel-good story," Battaglino said. "There's nothing more satisfying for brands to know that 50 percent of the dollars they're putting in is going directly to players."
The NWHL has retained some of their big sponsorship deals, such as with Dunkin Donuts, and added several others, including Chipwich, this season.
Also, this month a team of investors, led by Miles Arnone, purchased the Boston Pride, making it the only privately owned team in the league. Arnone said he plans to hire a full-time team president as well as "improve sponsorships, run more substantial ticket sale drives, and focus on merchandise sales and outreach to the community."
The NWHL still sets the league salary cap, but Arnone said that if the team can "grow commercially" it will "advance the state of economics as it pertains to the players. Then we can afford to pay the players better."
So who is playing in the NWHL this season, and what do they have to say about all of this?
The NWHL is filling out its rosters. To date, there are about 90 player signings across the five teams -- though they did have to dip into a bigger pool considering how many players chose to sit out. However, there are many returning players and, as Rylan points out, a few players who flipped from their initial commitment from the PWHPA to the NWHL.
Allie Thunstrom detailed her decision to re-sign with the Minnesota Whitecaps: "It was a really difficult decision. I've been in women's hockey for a long time, and I just felt like after last year, we had so much momentum. That's what we need to grow that fan base, so eventually ticket sales are able to support living wages. Right now, we are selling out crowds, but it's a 1,400-seat arena. Eventually, it would be great to sell out Xcel Energy Center, or another NHL arena. And to do that, you need fans and you need momentum. I just felt like everything was on the up and up, and the last thing I wanted to do was not have a product on the ice for people to see and for people to continue to support."
Is there a rift between the boycotting players and the NWHL players?
Not publicly, at least. "Everyone's situation is different," said Gagliardi. "I have friends who are playing in the NWHL -- they're still good friends. We respect everyone's decision. Ultimately I saw this as an opportunity to be a voice for change for the future. We've all had to have an internal conversation with ourselves. And if my hockey career is done, and I never get to play a professional hockey game again, I'm OK with it -- knowing the next generation might be able to do it for a living."
Said Thunstrom: "I respect all of those girls' decisions just as I think they respect all of our decisions for playing next year. Honestly, they're hitting a lot of different markets [with the Dream Gap Tour] that we're not hitting in the NWHL, so it might turn out to be a really great thing for everybody."
If the boycotting players want a different option, does that mean they want the NHL to get involved and run a pro women's hockey league?
Perhaps. But they're not waiting around for the NHL, either. Hefford said the NHL has the "infrastructure and resources that would be an integral piece to a successful women's professional league."
Consider, if NHL teams each had a sister team, the women's players could utilize the same trainers, medical staff, video coaches -- not to mention ice time and equipment.
"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," PWHPA member Meghan Duggan told ESPN in May. "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," Duggan said. "And we'll consider any proposal that addresses that."
So what does the NHL have to say?
The NHL has long held the stance that it doesn't want to get involved with women's hockey as long as professional opportunities exist. In other words, they don't want to come in as "big brother" and save the day.
"We're supportive and we're watching," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told ESPN this month. "We don't want to do anything that would undermine an existing league. If Dani Rylan and her partners are able to make a success out of it, that's great. I also understand there's another group that's gone about elevating the profile of women playing hockey, and we think that's great too. I think both sets of approaches need to sort out exactly what's working for them. This is not a 60-minute game that's going to come to a conclusion immediately. This is going to evolve."
Hefford said the NHL has been "very much the same behind the scenes as they are publicly."
"I believe the NHL is not making any decisions as long as the current state stays as it is," Hefford said. "So in that time, we'll continue to provide what we can for these athletes."
While the league itself has not announced anything formal, the NHLPA has partnered with the PWHPA as a "premiere partner for their Dream Gap Tour.
"The success of women's hockey is integral to the growth of the sport. NHL players are proud to continue with their support of the women's game by sponsoring the PWHPA," said Don Fehr, NHLPA executive director. "We look forward to seeing these talented hockey players on the ice as they demonstrate their skill and passion for the game throughout the PWHPA's Dream Gap Tour."
Why is all of this happening now?
The CWHL folding was the impetus for a movement, but this is also part of a larger story of gender equality.
"Women's sports has put this on the front page," Hefford said. "Bianca Andreescu just won the US Open, and that highlighted the fact that tennis is one of the few, if not the only sport, where women are paid equitably to men. You saw the U.S. women's soccer team and their fight recently. It's empowering. I think it's a topic on the mind to people. Combine that with the type of athletes we have [in hockey] on a united front. It's the biggest names in the game, and they're standing up and speaking for what they believe in."
ESPN's Greg Wyshynski contributed to this report.