The NHL and The CWHL: The Struggle for Women

After the Stanley Cup was won in 6 games, tweets, articles, facebook posts and general buzz about the NHL and hockey have died down in preparation for the upcoming season. Every fan can tell you who took home Lord Stanley, and who should take the Cup home next year.

But far fewer could tell you who won the 2014 Clarkson Cup, let alone that the Clarkson Cup is the highest prize in women’s professional hockey.

I come from a family of sports nuts, and as such, rebelled by leaving the room every time sports were on television.  To my everlasting surprise, I fell in love with hockey five years ago.  It was everything I liked: challenging, physical and so, so fast.  And, hey, the eye candy wasn’t bad. 

My love affair with hockey was all-consuming.  I read everything I could about the NHL, watched my favorite teams online and on television, and spent far too much time talking hockey with anyone who would listen.  And, in one jarring moment, realized I did not know if women could play hockey professionally.

I had to search to find the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL).  Comprised of five teams and boasting a much higher percentage of Olympic athletes than the NHL, the CWHL’s season is short and sweet.  Each team plays approximately twenty games, all of which are hard-fought and amazing to watch.

While those who work in the CWHL are champions, conditions in women’s professional hockey are embarrassing.  There are few opportunities for players to compete, and players aren’t paid a dime.  Can we really call a league professional when the players work free?

These women work day jobs in order to afford what is a second full-time job, and teams sometimes fundraise to pay their coaches.  The CWHL operates on a budget of one million dollars for all five teams, covering only coaching and travel expenses.  Players are expected to foot the bill for trainers, gym time, and figure out how to pay the rest of their bills on top of that.  To contrast, look at the minimum player salary in the NHL, which from 2013-2014 ran a team a cool $550,000.

The women of the professional hockey world are fed up with the conditions they must put up with in order to play.  Noora Räty, the Finnish Olympic team goalie, announced her retirement from professional hockey after her last Olympic game.

In her last season with the Minnesota Golden Gophers she boasted a .950 save percentage and 17 separate shutouts, making her one of the best goalies in the world by any standard.  Räty wrote unless she could sign with a challenging league while earning a livable wage, she would be forced to retire.

This dismal future for hockey players has driven people such as Trina Forbes-Crosby (Taylor and Sidney Crosby’s mother) to join the board of the CWHL.  Her decision to work with the league came after her daughter revealed she was saddened that her hockey career would end with her college graduation.  When Forbes-Crosby thought about her son’s career (and incredible luck having been born with testicles), she was moved to action.

The best women athletes in hockey have no venue to continue playing after college, unless they are willing to work for nothing.  This is something we need to address not just as fans of competition, but as a society.  I want to see these women succeed, and the income and attendance disparities between the NHL and the CWHL are more than shocking; they are saddening.

The Olympics make it clear every four years that, yes, there is a market for women’s hockey.  Our U.S. Women’s Hockey team, most of whom play in the CWHL, took the world by storm this January, presenting a competitive, fun image to the media and playing their hearts out every game.  It is a fast, fascinating game, and has a satisfying amount of body contact.  Women comprise greater than 30% of the NHL’s fanbase and play on hockey teams in nearly every state in the U.S.  What, then, is keeping the numbers of attendees of CWHL games down?

The CWHL is floundering for a simple reason: a lack of money funneled into a women’s game.  It’s a Catch-22: they need money to appeal to fans, but they need fans to earn money.

The only way the CWHL will be able to compete with the strength of the NHL and its affiliates is not to compete.  Rather, the NHL has a responsibility to promote CWHL players and games alongside it, adopting their sister clubs and cross-promoting games and players.  While this will be costly at first, the NBA and the WNBA partnered in a similar fashion years ago, bolstering ticket sales and opening doors for women everywhere.  Together, the NHL and the CWHL would create cross-appeal and create opportunities for female fans and players alike.  In fact, two teams – the Toronto Stars and the Calgary Inferno – are already receiving some support from their brother organizations.

This, of course, has the side benefit of earning the organizations even more money.  Why sell one Crosby jersey when you can sell a Chu jersey, too?

It is more than just a question of capital; it is a question of equality, both for women currently at the top of their playing field, and for the thousands of girls who watch them online, at the rink, and on television.  What sort of life can they aspire to right now?  We owe these girls, and the women who serve as their role models, more than that. We need a challenging, financially viable league in which professional female hockey players can thrive, and the NHL and the CWHL can give us just that.

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