The announcement was made on May 2nd, that over 200 players in the women’s game would sit out the upcoming season. The reason behind this was simple: they want to create a “sustainable professional league for women’s hockey” and their handle for this campaign is #ForTheGame.
This collective sit out has garnered support from women players from all the major professional leagues, both in North America and in Europe, as well as players in the NCAA. Some of the names involved include Hilary Knight, Marie-Philip Poulin, Kendall Coyne-Schofield and many more. The decision to sit out has also gained support from all corners of the hockey world as well as other prominent women’s sports stars, including Billie Jean King.
The players have been very careful not to use the word “boycott” in their statements, preferring to use the term “sit out” to describe the action they’re taking. This is a deliberate move. The word “boycott” can contain negative connotations whereas the term “sit out” is used to highlight that the players want to proactively find a solution to their goal of having a sustainable professional women’s league. This sit out is the first step towards this goal and should open up the discussion about how to achieve this. Whilst the players would ultimately prefer to be playing hockey, this is seen by many as a necessary step in making the women’s game better for all involved.
Players Take Action After the CWHL Folds
On March 31st, 2019, the CWHL announced that it would be ceasing operations due to an economically unsustainable business model. The CWHL was run as a not-for-profit organization but was unable to make enough money to continue operating that way. As a result, the league officially ceased operations on May 1st, 2019.
The news of this sent shockwaves through the women’s game. It meant that the players and staff of the six teams in that league would have no place to play for the upcoming 2019-20 season. Players were asked to return their jerseys to their clubs and these were auctioned off, along with the league’s trophies, to help pay towards the debts the league had incurred. The league was also in discussions with third-party entities to privately auction off their trophies, with the view to them being donated to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The NWHL Still Plans to Continue
The NWHL was left as the only women’s professional hockey league in North America after the demise of the CWHL. They were coming off the back of a historical season, one that included expansion into Minnesota, 16 sellout games, and over 1 million viewers of their All-Star Game and skills competition. The NWHL was a league that was showing growth year on year and was understandably excited for their new season starting in October.
Shortly after the news broke that the CWHL was folding, the NWHL Board announced that they had approved expansion into Canada, with two teams expected in Toronto and Montreal for the 2019-20 season. This news received somewhat of a lukewarm response, especially from players and members of the CWHL teams that were folding. The 2019 Women’s World Championships put a temporary stop to discussions as the NWHL took the decision to not comment any further until the tournament was over.
The news of the collective sit out has come as a bit of a blow to the NWHL. Nearly 60 players who played in the NWHL last season are involved with the #ForTheGame movement, including stars like Kendall Coyne Schofield and Lee Stecklein. The league has stated that it does plan to go ahead with the upcoming season which starts in October but removing this much talent could seriously damage the product.
As the NHL has repeatedly stated that they are not prepared to get involved in women’s hockey while there is an independent league running, this action may be seen by some as an attempt to pressure the NWHL into folding, which would allow a new league to form with the NHL’s backing. It will be interesting to see what direction the NWHL takes going forward.
How Does the NHL Fit into All of This?
Speaking of the NHL, their position hasn’t changed after the news of the collective sit out. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly released a statement stating that they are going to “explore and understand what it means to the bigger picture and in the longer term”. He also reiterated the point about not wanting to interfere with the plans of the NWHL. There will however be pressure on the NHL to take action to help the women’s game as a whole and this issue will be raised with them again as the situation develops.
As always, the NHL’s statements are carefully worded but you have to believe that any hint that they might be willing to get involved would really increase the pressure on the NWHL. It is not unforeseeable that this issue could turn ugly if the NWHL continue to press forward with their plans in the face of interest from the NHL. They need to work on a solution for all parties to prevent this from happening.
What Does the Future Look Like?
It is hard to know what will happen next and how this situation plays out. However, there is a real sense that there is no quick solution. Ultimately, the players involved in the sit out want one league that is run in a sustainable way. That will also allow them to earn a living playing the game they love. For this to happen, it is almost certain that the NHL will have to be involved in some major way. The financial backing, along with the business acumen and advertising power, will be key to a women’s professional league getting off the ground and surviving the early stages.
Some players have voiced concern at sitting out from the NWHL, going against the message of most players. Kaleigh Fratkin, who has played in both leagues, released a statement in favor of playing in the NWHL next season. She argues that it is wrong to fold the only league that’s left. Instead, they should “showcase for the first time ever the best women’s hockey in one league”.
The NWHL Has a Big Dilemma
The NWHL has stated all along that they are “committed to building the league that the players and fans deserve” so it is quite sad that they may actually turn out to be the last remaining barrier preventing that from happening. Commissioner Dani Rylan and the NWHL Board will have incredibly difficult decisions to make going forward and you have to feel that they are really in a no-win situation. They will be seen as going against the wishes of the majority of players by continuing. If they choose to fold, they are giving up everything they have worked so hard for in their four seasons so far.
There appear to be turbulent times ahead for women’s professional hockey in North America. The players are determined to get what they want and it remains to be seen just how long it will take for the players to achieve that. We will bring you more updates as they happen but for now, it is just a matter of waiting for the next move as the #ForTheGame campaign gets going.
Whatever happens, we here at All Beard No Teeth absolutely support the growth and movement of Women’s hockey, and are hopeful for a quick resolution to keep growing its continued success.
Feature Image Credit: (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)