Women’s hockey in North America has already had a rough 2019, and things got much more interesting over the last week. Hundreds of pro hockey players are hoping to win improved working conditions by boycotting all professional play around the world, including in North America after one league folded and another struggles to pay athletes a living wage.
The Canadian Women’s Hockey League suspended operations earlier in the year, putting to an end an awkward cold war between itself and the NWHL, a rival league that’s operated in cities like Boston, Buffalo and New York since 2015. Players cited a number of reasons for the #ForTheGame movement, including the fact that some make as little as $2,000 a year, can’t afford travel and living expenses to play in cities, and pay for their own health insurance. Most workers also have traditional jobs to make most of their income despite their pro status.
Kendall Coyne-Schofield, one of the most notable players organizing the boycott, posted a message on Twitter explaining the situation.
The list of players who have commented on the boycott on social media is pretty staggering.
Hilary Knight, who has been outspoken about both growing women’s hockey, spoke to the Associated Press about the situation and what it means for pro hockey.
“Worst case is we just fall back into pedaling around the current leagues that we have. That would be unfortunate, and I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Knight told the AP on Thursday. “But we have a chance to create a better future. We have a chance to build, to continue to be pioneers in our sport, and we’re going to take that opportunity.”
The #ForTheGame movement seems to have already had a pretty significant impact on the future of the NWHL, though it may not initially be a positive one. According to The Athletic, there are some that think one of the league’s most prominent teams, the Buffalo Beauts, may not be able to continue without the players threatening a boycott.
According to several sources, players have serious doubts that the team will be operational next year.
“We are in the midst of finishing a complete review of the Beauts coming off our first season running the team. Once we’ve finished our review, we’ll figure out how we’re going to move forward,” a team spokesperson said when reached for comment.
The Beauts not able to stay solvent is notable — they’re the only team in the NWHL not controlled by the league itself. The team is owned by Terry and Kim Pegula, who own the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres as well as the Buffalo Bills. The Pegulas purchased the team last year and women’s hockey in Buffalo has been a success. The team won the league’s Isobel Cup two seasons ago and was second in attendance last year. But the presence of stable ownership might not be enough to keep the franchise afloat, leading many to wonder about the viability of the rest of the league as well.
It’s safe to ask what the NHL’s role in all this is, and the answer is as of this writing “nonexistent.” League commissioner Gary Bettman has been on record as saying the league is interested in women’s hockey but noted multiple times that neither league is profitable, making it seem extremely unlikely the NHL serves as a steward for women’s hockey the way the NBA has helped support the WNBA over the years.
The AP story about the boycott confirms it’s unlikely the biggest hockey league on the planet is willing to make major overtures to support women’s hockey.
All eyes were also on the NHL, which has provided modest financial support to both the CWHL and NWHL but steered clear of throwing its full support behind a women’s league as the NBA has done with the WNBA.
Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, noted the NWHL remains in existence, said the NHL has no intention of interfering with its business plan or objectives. Daly added he doesn’t anticipate “at this early stage” having women’s pro hockey placed on the agenda for the league’s board of governors meetings next month.
“We will further explore the situation privately before taking any affirmative position on next steps,” Daly said.
That extends to the league’s Players Association, which was criticized for a tepid showing of support for women’s pros. This, for example, was a very popular tweet in hockey circles on Saturday.
That’s because the NHLPA’s own, real statement came days after a strong statement of support from the NFL’s Players Association earlier in the week.
It’s worth noting that some individual NHL players have spoken out to publicly support the movement, but the lack of noise about it from the NHL and other groups is alarming given the very real chance that things could fall apart for the NWHL in the face of mounting player support for a boycott. Players are steadfast in their fight for improved labor conditions, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear solution to the major issues with the NWHL right now, a league that just a few months ago was thought to have survived its battle with the CWHL and was considering expansion.