Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Coronavirus threatens women’s ice hockey after pivotal year

Posted on 23 August 2020 by Alexandra Ibaceta

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Over 200 of the world’s best women’s ice hockey players are boycotting playing in any North American hockey league until there is a viable league for them to play in.

Among those players were Hilary Knight (Team USA captain), Marie-Philip Poulin (Team Canada captain), Kendall Coyne Schofield and Natalie Spooner.

After the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded (CWHL) after the 2018/19 season, these players signed a statement saying that they will not participate in any league until there are changes made such as a livable wage and health insurance.

Players playing in the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) only received their first paycheque in 2015 and it was anything but a livable salary. Players in the CWHL only started getting paid in 2017, and until then the league only paid for ice rental, uniform costs and travel.

Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) was formed after this statement was released and is led by Jayna Hefford, who is a four-time gold Olympic medalist with Canada and a hockey hall of famer.

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“Our end goal is to have a professionally viable league,” said Hefford.

“We’ll make sure that the league is viable 20/30 years from now, that it’s sustainable over the long term and it provides the athletes with an opportunity to actually excel in their performance.”

“I think we would want to have adequate facilities then adequate training time. Currently, our players practice two nights a week and often it’s at nine o’clock at night. That’s not what professional athletes usually do. They usually train during the day and they have training facilities attached to their arenas, and they’re on the ice almost daily.”

“We believe there should be professional full-time staff so be that coaches be that medical staff or strength and conditioning staff,” added Hefford.

“There should be professionals running league and employed full time by the league. The players should have salaries that are livable wages and it might not be exactly where we want them to be initially, but we know that’ll come as the sport grows.”

“An element that should be included certainly is year-round health and medical coverage. All these things have never existed for women’s professional hockey to this day; so until we’re in a situation where we have that, we’ll continue to push for that from our perspective.”

Although the players are boycotting playing in a league, that doesn’t mean they’re not getting any ice time. The association created the ‘Dream Gap Tour’ where the members play against each other in exhibition games across North America.

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With this collective work towards something better, the association has partnered with brands such as Budweiser, Bauer, Adidas, Unifor, Dunkin’ Donuts, Tim Hortons, and Secret.

Originally it was hoped that the Dream Gap Tour wouldn’t have to go onto a part two and players can get back to having regular and consistent ice time around the international duties, but amid the coronavirus pandemic a second tour is in the horizons.

“I think that’s where we are right now. There are maybe some other things that could happen that could make our scenario even better. But those are all a little bit uncertain at the time but I think a dream gap part two is definitely our focus at the moment. With hopefully a few more other exciting things that we can add into the mix,” said Hefford.

Women’s ice hockey was hit worse on an international level after the IIHF World Champions were cancelled. This is crucial for world rankings, which then allow for Olympic qualification. Now qualifications are rescheduled to happen at the end of the year with no alternative to the World Champions given.

“It’s been a really difficult last 12 months for women’s hockey and for these players but I think their resiliency and their determination to create a better future has been really admirable,” said Hefford.

She isn’t unfamiliar to this particular situation, Hefford was part of the 2003 Canadian team who saw their World Champions cancelled because of the SARS outbreak in China.

“I know how they feel and it’s just so disappointing. It’s so difficult when you train all season for that one chance to compete for a championship and, and you don’t get the opportunity

“I think from an athlete point of view, when this started happening some of the events being cancelled, it’s an incredible disappointment but, as this is going on I think everyone’s realised how critical this time is for humanity. Sport becomes pretty minimal and it’s disappointing but at the same time we have a much bigger challenge ahead of all of us I think.”

An ideal scenario for women’s hockey in North America is to have a league run by the NHL. The PWHPA has been working closely with a few teams, which has seen players promote the association wearing their merch in post-match interviews and having members of the league to talk pre-match.

“There’s a number of teams that have expressed interest in that. I think there’s some teams, we worked directly with the Philadelphia Flyers, Arizona Coyotes, Chicago Blackhawks and the Maple Leafs here in Toronto,” explained Hefford.

“There’s a lot of teams that either already know they want a team, or I think are exploring the waters by getting involved with us and doing events with us.

“So far, it’s been really successful, and I think they see the value in it. It’s important for the young girls to be able to actually see the best in the world play, meet these athletes, be on the ice with them and see what the best looks like. That’s what’s really inspirational.”

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Team USA vs Team Canada matches in the ice hockey world are the equivalent of FC Barcelona vs Real Madrid in the football world. Men or women’s hockey, these games are sold out and are two of the most dominant teams. But on a domestic level, there is nowhere near the same number of supports of women’s leagues are there are men. But why?

“I don’t think you have to choose and that’s where I think sometimes it’s like, Oh, you know I’m an NHL fan I don’t watch women’s hockey,” said Hefford.

“Personally, I’m a hockey fan. I like watching the NHL, watching women’s hockey and Olympic hockey is just another element of a sport that you really enjoy watching. So I think just allowing the players to be on a platform where the game can be seen, it’ll generate a lot of fans and the women’s game ends up being a more affordable opportunity for people to see professional sport.

“If you want to go to Maple Leafs game it’s very difficult to take your family to. The cost of getting tickets is really high so maybe we hit another dynamic or demographic of the market that wants to take their family to a pro sports and it becomes another option.

“I think as people see the game and they meet the women and realise how skilled they are how talented they are, the type of ambassadors and role models they are. Once they meet them, they want to support them and want to follow them and watch them play.”