CRANBERRY, Pa. -- A couple of major changes happened in the professional women's hockey landscape in the spring of 2019
On March 31, the Canadian Women's Hockey League announced that it would cease operations on May 1, after 12 seasons. The six-team league had paid its players a stipend in its final two seasons in existence. The CWHL's folding left the five-team National Women's Hockey League as the only organized professional women's league in North America.
On May 2, hundreds of women's players from North America and Europe announced that they would not be playing in any North American professional league in the 2019-20 season, with the goal of bettering the current landscape and future of the women's game by creating a more sustainable professional league:
Team USA forward Hilary Knight has been one of the most prominent leaders of the movement. Knight played her first three seasons of professional hockey with the CWHL's Boston Blades from 2012-15. When the NWHL was formed in 2015, the first league to pay its players a salary, Knight signed with the Boston Pride and played for the team for two seasons. After winning gold in the Olympics in Pyeongchang, she returned to the CWHL, signing with the Montreal Canadiennes. She played the remainder of the 2017-18 season in Montreal, and returned to Montreal for the CWHL's final season in 2018-19.
The fight that the women's players are taking on now at the professional level is similar to the 2017 U.S. women's national team players' boycott of the Women's World Championship. The players in 2017 announced that they were sitting out of the upcoming tournament in search of better treatment from USA Hockey. Among the things they were fighting for were livable wages, better health insurance protections, maternity leave, and in general just more equitable support from the organization, from the developmental level and up. The players and USA Hockey came to an agreement, conditions greatly improved for the women's players, and they played and won gold in the World Championship.
I spoke with Knight after Team USA's practice at the joint women's training camp at the Lemieux Complex, and she said that 2017 fight set the precedent for the current fight they are taking on. They know it's possible to fight for better conditions and support.
"We got a whole new level of resolve and confidence," she told me. "We know how to go about things tactically, to hopefully better the next generation. A lot of things that we're doing, yes it helps us out on the ice a little bit. But mostly it's going to help out the next generation that's coming up."
I asked Knight what it felt like to see the selflessness of the hundreds of women's players, with so many women coming together and sitting out themselves in order to work toward a better future.
"It's phenomenal," she said. "I encourage companies to follow suit. We have the best players in the world, players in the world who have tried to work three jobs to continue to play and continue their careers. It's a great mixture of strong, talented women, and we're hoping that the companies that have signed on are getting their worth and we continue to hope that more people support us."
I was also interested in getting the perspective of national team players who have never played in a professional or semi-professional league of any kind. One of those is Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, who scored the game-winning shootout goal in Pyeongchang to help the Americans win their first Olympic gold in 20 years. Lamoureux-Davidson, 30, graduated from the University of North Dakota in 2013, and has only played internationally as an amateur since then.
"I haven't played in a league before because the CWHL didn't pay the players and the NWHL kinda pays the players," she said. "It hasn't worked out. In my mind I was able to create a better training scenario for myself at home. If there's a professional league that supports the players in a substantial way that we all feel a player's association is what it needs to be, then I'll for sure make that decision when the time comes. Hopefully I'll play in a league, and it's there before I retire."
Last week, Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported that the NHL is working on a plan for an NHL-backed women's hockey league "if the time ever becomes necessary," which likely means if the NWHL folds, considering Gary Bettman has always said he doesn't want the NHL forcing the NWHL or any existing league out of business.
The NHL already invests in women's players to a small degree. They're investing $100,000 to the NWHL annually, and helped end the national team's boycott of USA Hockey by agreeing to pay USA Hockey $25,000 per player, a significant chunk of the $68,000 annually that the national team players were asking for.
While the leaders of the current movement haven't come together and said that an NHL-backed league is the end goal here, they know it would come with its benefits.
"I think the PWHPA (Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association) has always said that we want something that is sustainable and viable," Knight said. "Having the knowledge of an organization that has been around for many, many years would be helpful. But we're still looking for what that solution might be for the upcoming years."
In a potential NHL-run league, women's teams would likely be put in cities that already have NHL teams in order to create a partnership that shares facilities, resources, and marketing, like the partnership the NWHL's Buffalo Beauts had with the Sabres when they were both under the ownership of the Pegulas last season.
In a sustainable women's league, NHL-run or not, the opportunity to have a team in Pittsburgh and have the facilities of the Lemieux Complex and the possibility to partner with a team like the Penguins is an intriguing one.
"I love the Penguins organization," Knight said. "We had a quick event with them a couple of days ago and it was phenomenal, with what they're doing here for girl's and youth hockey and development. The diversity and inclusion piece is awesome. It would be a dream come true to have a team affiliated with such a renowned organization."
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