Women’s hockey pushes forward but a familiar question remains: What happens next?
Interest in the game spikes every four years when the Olympics rolls around, but wanes in between. The creation of two competing professional leagues has given more women the chance to play at a high level outside of their national team and college programs, but are those options sustainable? As Eric Duhatschek reports, joining forces and establishing stronger ties to the National Hockey League may be the best path forward.
The most dramatic and uplifting hockey game played at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi didn’t feature Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby or Patrick Kane. It occurred in the gold-medal match between the Canadian and U.S. women, a game that went down to the wire. Canada tied it in the dying seconds and then won in overtime, after a U.S. shot at the empty net in regulation came gently to rest at the goal post.
It was high drama. It had a pleasing heroine – Marie-Philip Poulin, who has scored the golden goal for Canada’s women in back-to-back Olympics – and it had an opportunity once again to jump-start interest in the sport of women’s hockey.
So here we are, just over a year out from another Olympics, and while the landscape for women’s hockey has changed and improved on some levels, it still hasn’t caught on with the viewing public in any meaningful or long-lasting way.
Many of the best young female players can earn scholarships and play at a reasonably high level in the U.S. college system.
The problem is what happens next, after their eligibility runs out.
Right now, there are two competing professional leagues to choose from – the five-team Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the four-team National Women’s Hockey League. The CWHL doesn’t pay its players. It covers costs, and some equipment, but not sticks and skates. The NWHL, founded in 2015, does pay salaries, though they are modest and, recently, introduced a 50-per-cent across-the-board pay cut to its players on the grounds that it was the only way to get to season’s end, without folding.
If that sounds eerily similar to the rivalry that once existed between the NHL and the World Hockey Association, there may indeed be a parallel.
Former Canadian Olympian Cassie Campbell-Pascall, a CWHL board member and a Hockey Night in Canada commentator, believes the league’s relationship with the NHL is its best hope of one day morphing into a for-profit operation that pays its players a living wage.
“The NHL is watching us, they’re interested in us and they want it to work,” Campbell-Pascall said. “To be honest, what kills women’s hockey is people who don’t understand the big picture. It’s about eventually having a relationship with the NHL, where we have a professional league, and all of our teams fall under the umbrella of NHL teams.
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