Inside the $1 million commitment that will elevate the Professional Women's Hockey Player Association Dream Gap Tour

The Professional Women's Hockey Players Association's Dream Gap Tour features 125 of the sport's top players, 38 of them Olympians. David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Kendall Coyne Schofield last played in a competitive hockey game on March 8 in Arizona, the final stop of the 2019-20 Professional Women's Hockey Player Association Dream Gap Tour. In the nearly eight months since then, the IIHF women's world championships were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and nobody knew if the PWHPA would be able to schedule events again. Coyne Schofield, captain of the U.S. national team, worried that all of the momentum her sport gained over the past few years was coming to a screeching halt.

"Through the months of dealing with COVID-19, a lot of us felt like women's hockey was pushed aside. It wasn't top of mind," Coyne Schofield said. "While we all enjoyed watching the NHL playoffs during the summer, it was a reminder that we still need to value the women's game. We need to find a way to showcase the women's game. There's no reason the women shouldn't have been playing in a playoff like the men were, just like we saw the NBA and WNBA playing out their seasons side by side."

Then, in October, Secret announced that it was upping its contribution for next season -- not only helping women's players get back on the ice but also ensuring that the Dream Gap Tour will keep growing. Secret pledged $1 million, the largest commitment ever made to professional women's hockey in North America.

"When I heard the news out of [PWHPA head] Jayna Hefford's mouth for the first time, I got emotional, to be honest. I was speechless. I think I even shed a tear," Coyne Schofield said. "Because we fight, we fight and we fight to show our worth and to prove our worth. For Secret to come on board and show we are worth what we have been saying we're worth is a monumental moment for the game. Now Secret sets the market for everyone else who wants to be involved."

There's a stat WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert shares often, including in a conversation with LaChina Robinson at the 2020 espnW: Women + Sports Summit: Less than 1% of sports sponsorship dollars goes to women's sports, despite 84% of sports fans being interested in women's sports and women controlling 85% of U.S. spending power.

"We should be able to really transform the way women's sports are valued," Engelbert said. "Some of it's in the algorithm of the way it gets valued because I believe it's off a men's model, heavily discounted. But some of it is in exposure."

That seems especially pertinent in women's hockey. When the CWHL folded in 2019, citing an unsustainable business model, the U.S.-based NWHL became the only professional women's hockey league in North America. But nearly all of the sport's top players -- including most Canadian and U.S. Olympians -- decided to sit out from the NWHL -- or any league -- until one formed that they believe is a sustainable long-term option and can pay them a living salary. That group formed the PWHPA in 2019.

Many have called on the NHL to fund a women's league, similar to the NBA's relationship with the WNBA, considering that the NHL could easily share infrastructure and resources. Although the NHL has been supportive of women's hockey, the league has shown very little interest in funding a league. As deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN in March, "We continue to try to be helpful where we can be, but other than that, we don't have much of a role." Hockey Canada and USA Hockey are also in line with the PWHPA's goals, but neither federation has matched that support with meaningful financial contributions.

That has led the PWHPA to rely heavily on corporate sponsorships.

In 1956, Secret, a subsidiary of Procter & Gamble, became the first deodorant product made for and marketed to women. "Secret has always stood, from its birth, for women's equality," said Lisa Reid, Secret Canada's brand director. In recent years, Secret has turned attention to women's sports. In 2019, Secret donated $529,000 -- $23,000 for each of the 23 players on the U.S. women's soccer team that won the World Cup -- to help close the pay gap. Secret took out a full-page ad in The New York Times, urging the U.S. Soccer Federation to "be on the right side of history" during the USWNT's fight for equal pay. This summer, Secret became a presenting sponsor of the NWSL's Challenge Cup, which allowed women's professional soccer players a chance to get exposure and play some of their season amidst the pandemic.

"As we looked at it, hockey is Canada's iconic sport," Reid said. "When you see inequality there, too, it's both symbolic and pervasive. So we wanted to support top women's athletes and give girls role models to look up to."

In its first year, PWHPA counted Adidas, Budweiser, Dunkin', the NHLPA and Secret as "premiere partners." While each of the companies has pledged to be back, Secret wanted to be even more involved.

"We wanted to make a big commitment, a big statement about the importance of equality in women's hockey," Reid said. "We wanted to continue to support the women to be able to train and compete ... but also, there's some marketing investment as well, so we can continue to shine the light and tell the stories of athletes and what they have been facing so we can change the future of women's hockey."

The timing could not have been better for the PWHPA, which was coming off a six-stop barnstorming tour across North America that ended in March in Arizona. "We felt really good about year one," Hefford said. "It came together really quickly, obviously, but we were really happy with the success we could achieve in a short period of time. From my personal perspective, I wanted to make sure we were elevating what we did. How could we do it bigger? How could we do it better? For us to move this along, we needed to see progress."

Then COVID-19 hit, and everything became uncertain. Hefford said the PWHPA never feared it would have to sit out a season, but the league needed a big financial commitment more than ever, especially with the top athletes not playing in high-level competition for nearly a year.

"We were asking, how do we regain the momentum we created?" Hefford said. "How can we make sure that women and women's sports aren't left out of the story?"

According to Hefford, the $1 million from Secret will be divided into three categories. The first is operational costs: travel expenses, ice time, coaching, meals, etc. The second is cash prizes to players on the 2021 Dream Gap Tour to make it a true championship-style tour.

"That's something we're really excited about," Hefford said. "It can engage fans on a different level but also just for our athletes. This is nothing they've ever experienced before, being able to play a game and earn money from it."

The third pillar is media and marketing support to make sure the PWHPA stays visible. Last year, the Dream Gap Tour picked up streaming partners in Monumental Sports Network (run by Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis) and ESPN for its final two stops. Hefford is aiming bigger for 2021.

"We hope to have these games broadcast and, at the very least, streamed," Hefford said. "There's a lot of elements we're still putting into place, but this commitment by Secret will allow us to elevate our entire tour and support our players in a much bigger way."

The PWHPA pared down from eight regional chapters to five -- Calgary, Minnesota, Montreal, New Hampshire and Toronto -- for the upcoming season, which will allow the league to better allocate resources. "There's additional ice time this season than they had last season. Every region has a permanent dressing room, access to strength and conditioning," Hefford said. "These are little things that you would expect but didn't always exist."

The PWHPA is hoping to announce its 2021 Dream Gap Tour schedule soon. As of now, the league provides three on-ice training sessions per week for players at each of the five regions, though local COVID-19 restrictions have interfered. (For example, the New Hampshire rinks are currently closed. Toronto can skate with up to 10 players on the ice at a time, while in Montreal, there can be only two).

For a player such as Coyne Schofield, progress means everything at this stage, and the commitment from Secret was a huge morale boost during an uncertain time.

"It really shows that there are people out here that value our game," Coyne Schofield said. "Without those partners, without that financial support, we can't put our best product on the ice. I think it's exceptional, but I also hope it's not exceptional because we need it to continue."