Most of the best hockey players in the world are gathering at Pittsburgh this weekend for a training camp and practice games between Team Canada and USA Hockey.
They would be in Sweden for the Four Nations Cup, but that tournament was canceled due to a dispute between the Swedish players and their national federation, which does not pay them to play for their country, even if they miss work.
The Canadian and American players normally take time off from their professional teams to play internationally, but neither does that, because the women in Pittsburgh are boycotting their future jobs. "Boycott" is probably the right word, although it is not ideal. The CWHL, where most of them played, suddenly struck at the end of last season, finally a victim of tense finances that did not improve. Can you boycott something that doesn't exist? There is still the US-based NWHL, and it is completely devoid of the few stars that were part of it last year. American Olympians such as Amanda Kessel and Kendall Coyne-Schofield have joined the former CWHL players this season.
But the problem with boycotting something that was scantily visited and had poor vision is that people don't notice it when it's gone.
The players try to change that. The professional women's hockey player association, founded after the fall of the CWHL, rolled out a slick campaign with members this week, with contributions from celebrities such as Don Cherry, Ron McLean, Gerry Dee and a host of Sportsnet types. Set the tone of Stompins Tom & # 39; s & # 39; Good Old Hockey Game & # 39 ;, it starts with exciting hockey scenes and takes a dark turn when players like Brianne Jenner, Sarah Nurse and Marie-Philip Poulin explain that they can't get anywhere play. The spot is launched by Budweiser Canada, and it is immediately a more impressive bit of promotion than all the professional ladies' competitions managed at their best moments.
It is also a bit gloomy. That is natural.
"We believe that we should continue to tell our story," said Jayna Hefford, head of the PWHPA. A former Canadian Olympian, she is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and was the CWHL interim commissioner for the final season. Despite the enormous attention that the Canadian and American teams are attracting at the Olympic Games and World Championships, there is nothing close to a viable professional competition on this continent, one that would even offer modest wages, insurance and good logistics and planning.
"None of those things exist anywhere for women's professional hockey players," says Jefford.
Until they do, the PWHPA says its 200-member members will wait. They played exhibitions and held clinics in Toronto, Chicago and New Hampshire this fall, and plan to have more "Dream Gap Tour" dates in early 2020. They have more business partners on board, following Budweiser to spread the message. That is something.
But there is also the stubborn fact that all awareness campaigns really only need to be directed to one place: the head offices of the NHL.
There have been years of talks about possible NHL involvement in a professional women's competition, as happened a quarter of a century ago with the birth of the WBNA. But Commissioner Gary Bettman has always maintained that his competition would not intervene when pro-competitions were already active, and he said about the same after the CWHL had collapsed and the NWHL decided to continue despite the boycott. The NHL even doubled its investment in the NHWL – only US $ 100,000, essentially a rounding error for the big league – this season.
Bettman's hesitation is understandable in a specific way, because the opting of bigfooting in a professional women's competition would not be ideal in the short term. But in all other ways this is a plug-in for the NHL. All the best Canadian and American players have said that the NWHL – which has repeatedly lowered salaries that are now a season lower than US $ 20,000 – does not meet the standards of a viable competition. They are waiting for the NHL to get in. And that could easily be achieved by forming a small competition of six teams with a moderate reward that could provide a foothold for professional women's hockey. It would be a start. The WNBA is the obvious example, but the NHL could also look at women's football in Europe, where many of the world's largest men's clubs – Barcelona, PSG, Arsenal, Manchester City – play teams of women in front of large crowds. The best women's competition in Great Britain is sponsored by a large bank and players are close to a full-time salary, a growth that has largely happened in recent years.
Visibility was the key. Even last season, when the CWHL recorded some of the best NWHL players, it played at strange times in suburbs and only a handful of games came on television. Franchises were constantly on the move and there was no strong foundation to build on. The CWHL struggled to become viable for a dozen years, but it would always struggle under those circumstances. Can women have their own hockey competition? There is no way to know until those with the means to make it happen decide to try it.
"The only thing we ask for is that opportunity," says Hefford.
The NHL has been hearing that message for years. It is long past the time it listened.