Women’s professional hockey is at a crossroads unlike any other North American sport in recent history.
One of the two major leagues folded over a year ago and refused to amalgamate with the other. For the collegiate players looking to turn pro soon, the current pros and the minor hockey players in need of role models, the future is uncertain.
Women’s sports have long been overlooked and hockey has been especially slow to progress due to barriers of entry that aren’t present in sports like soccer or basketball. No women’s league has ever received support from an established organization like the NHL. There are fewer opportunities for young women and girls to have leagues of their own or a set path to success in the sport.
High quality players can climb the ranks of minor and collegiate level hockey, but after they graduate the path forward in the profession becomes unclear.
There are currently two places for women to play professional hockey in North America: the National Women’s Hockey League and the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association.
The NWHL was founded in 2015 and is the standard for the sport at the pro level. It was the first women’s league to pay its players a salary and, as of this year, has six teams in the United States and Canada.
This year brings a new expansion team in Toronto, as well as a “bubble” for the season to take place in Lake Placid, New York during the pandemic.
The PWHPA is a non-profit established after the collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League in 2019. Most of the Canadian and American national team players are a part of this league in pursuit of a sustainable future in the sport.
After revenue issues caused the CWHL to fold, over 200 players announced they would not play in any league the following season. The players were dissatisfied with the NWHL’s salary model, with US Olympic team member Hilary Knight comparing it to a beer league.
The inaugural PWHPA season starts in 2021 with a record-breaking sponsorship deal from Secret, a deodorant brand and many more sponsorships to come.
Many coaches and managers believe external help would need to be provided to create a sustainable and successful league, similar to the way the NBA supports the WNBA. Individual NWHL teams have had successful partnerships with NHL organizations in the past and the PWHPA showcased its talent at the 2020 NHL all star game.
Mustangs women’s hockey head coach, Candice Moxley, said the lack of prominent women players meant she didn't have many role models growing up in the sport. Instead, she spent most of her time playing among boys.
“In order to be sustainable, the NHL would have to step in and assist,” mentioned Moxley in an interview on Nov. 24. “However, with the coronavirus pandemic and leagues taking financial hits, I would expect this to take a little longer than one would hope.”
Many details are yet to be worked out for a potential deal, but the main issue is that it is difficult for the two leagues to coexist. The fragmented sponsorships between leagues is what caused the CWHL to collapse, and the talent is diluted by having extra teams.
Moxley is coaching players who hope to play professionally after graduation, so it’s important for there to be somewhere for them to go.
“For our game to be successful at the next level there needs to be one league in operation,” she said. “If you were going to base a decision on the product, the PWHPA would be the best option.”
Moxley believes the NWHL may be a better option for players in the immediate future, however, the PWHPA is a better choice to have long term growth and success in the sport.
For young players who have never played professionally before, the NWHL provides financial assistance and an established infrastructure. A brand new league may make it difficult to develop as a player, especially when the competition is higher.
For everyone else, the PWHPA offers women a sustained career as a pro athlete and the chance to be a role model for future generations. The folding of the CWHL and disinterest in the NWHL have shown it's time to revamp how leagues are structured — and the support of the best players in the world shows that the PWHPA provides that.
What happens next is still up in the air as the sport must take major steps soon and emerge out of its most vulnerable stage.
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