On Women’s Hockey and “The Dream Gap”

I have been enjoying a real women’s hockey weekend. I do not like the “woho” portmanteau and don’t use it.

But the WPHPA “dream gap” roadshow is back in Toronto and I caught most of the games, live or streamed. I also attended a very interesting discussion on the topic of “woho”.

I used to dislike most sports, including hockey. Then as more women’s sports became available, I started to get interested. I don’t think this should be hard to explain. Women doing sports have vastly more entertainment power than men doing the same things.

By the way, I am a “cisgendered” Male, in the present day language.

I am sure a lot of the resistance from the sports establishments to women’s sports is just simple fear of competition. That seems to be in decline as women’s athletics attracts more attention and gets more bums in seats, eyeballs before screens. Besides, the gals will work a lot cheaper.

The sum of what I heard Saturday night at the conference was that women’s hockey is about 20 years behind such games as basketball and soccer. The panel did not seem sure about the exact reason for that. But that is the gap in their dream.

But one thing they were sure about, was that all it needs to get a fan base going for women’s leagues is some investment. People can’t watch what they do not know about or can’t find. They do not buy tickets to crappy little arenas which do not even have proper seats. They do not watch games through “doorbell” cameras or where there are no commentators or the commentators are disengaged or do not know what they are talking about.

The big idea behind WPHPA is they want themselves a proper league to play in, like the soccer and basketball girls have. One of the panelists talked about having a salary of $40K to $70K. They seemed to be resigned to the idea that they are not going to get parity with male players any time soon.

So, no $6M a year salaries. But the NHL players may not be getting that for much longer either. I have been reading that NHL is suffering from declining revenues. It seems to be due to an outmoded business model. They are not adapting to a changing market in which fans have a lot more options for watching games. Of course, most of those involve video screens, not seat cushions.

Back to the panel discussions; the panel ladies did not seem very impressed with the NHL commissioner, Gary Bettmann. Snoring sounds were made in association with his name. Most are past or present hockey players and all part of the board or staff of WPHPA, and they would have some pretty good information.

The consensus is that while the top management is asleep, many of the NHL team management are very interested in the idea of a women’s league. Revenues in pro sports have been flat all around for years, with women’s teams providing the only growth potential.

Only one panelist contradicted this in any way. She worked in publicity. She had some experiences such as taping a news story about a top female soccer player and getting it killed because it might cause people to tune in to a rival network. A women’s league might draw attention in the wrong direction.

This does not completely make sense. If NHL wanted a women’s league aligned with their preferred broadcasters and media, they would just have to arrange to provide coverage. If they do not think the coverage would be profitable to them, why do they care if someone else provides it? But I have noticed that business people are not always so sensible. They are often more concerned with maximum control rather than maximum profits.

But the panelists noticed that NHL teams in many markets are encouraging WPHPA. It is also significant that they are doing nothing for NWHL; more on that below. They are providing access to ice for practice, making donations of money and resources, providing many key WPHPA people with jobs, and so on. The NHL player’s association has been vocal in support of a women’s league.

Various sports networks seem interested in covering women’s hockey the same way many are now covering women’s soccer and basketball. Women hockey players seem to get on hockey talk shows regularly. Of course these networks cannot cover what is not there, or is poorly promoted. A league of some kind is needed.

So, there are pressures building from many vectors for a women’s league. The consensus is that the NHL is the only entity which can provide one. It has the big arenas and the infrastructure. The model the panelists were talking about was of the WNBA, the women’s basketball league, which was created out of the men’s league. Each team created a ‘sister’ team. This model has been a success and adding to each team’s total revenues.

The big excuse which the NHL management has been giving for not starting a WNHL has been that they do not want to start one while another league is in existence. That now means NWHL. They say they do not want to look like bullies.

This seems like a contrived reason. Over the past thirty years since women’s hockey has become noticeable again several female leagues have existed. They have all been very ad hoc operations. The players and most of the staff of these entities would have been very happy to have folded it up and joined the NHL if it had shown any interest. Most of these women’s leagues have been ego trips for one or a few founders who should not have been able to stand in the way of everyone else’s desires.

Our panel of hockey women did not want to get into a discussion about the one standing women’s league, NWHL. They were concerned that the media spun the issue as a conflict between NWHL and WPHPA; “the girls are having a fight.”

But all expressed contempt for the working conditions in NWHL. Some had direct experience of these conditions. One had made a comment in the press about both NWHL and CWHL being “glorified beer leagues.” She clarified that a bit. A beer league has better conditions than in NWHL. Beer league players would not put up with having to share showers with the opposing team.

This is the essence of the whole situation with women’s hockey and WPHPA; the best players want to be paid enough to live on, to have proper support, and to be treated with respect as world class, professional athletes.

This is what really attracts me about WPHPA. I like it when people stand up and demand their rights. I like it when people stop passively taking whatever crap is handed out to them and organize to create something better for themselves. I think WPHPA is a model for people in a wide variety of situations.

This is why, after being somewhat interested in CWHL and the Canadian National Team for some years, I got really interested last year after CWHL collapsed and WPHPA suddenly emerged. It is amazing what they have achieved in eight months.

This, while I have been frustrated lately by some iniquitous situations I have found myself in, and unable to get the cowardly, apathetic people around me motivated to do anything about it. WPHPA, you help to revive my faith in humanity. Thank you.

I should bring this piece home with a little history of women’s hockey from my own perspective. I might be able to clarify some things for people who are not as familiar with the topic and might not understand some of the things I have been talking about.

It seems there was a lot of hockey played by women in the 1920s and 30s. This seemed to have been wiped out by the post war conservative era. Hockey also became more brutal in that time, and padding and helmets came to be required. A revival of women in many sports began at the end of the 1970s, including hockey.

The International Ice Hockey federation began holding women’s world championships in 1990. Its rules against body checking were widely adopted and made the game easier for women to play. Women’s hockey became an olympic event in 1998.

A National Women’s Hockey League ( NWHL) started in Canada in 1999. It was formed after the collapse of an Ontario Women’s league. The players had to pay to play in it. It folded in 2007. Some players from that league then started Canadian Women’s Hockey League CWHL. This folded calamitously last April.

According to some long time players in these leagues, their problem was they were thrown together without much thought, in response to the crisis caused by the collapse of the previous league. Some people thought; “lets try something and hope it works”. This is why the present WPHPA is so focused on building things in a careful way.

I started to really get interested in women’s hockey when I started watching women’s events at the olympics. The famous 2014 gold medal game in Sochi, where the Canadian women came from two points back in the last two minutes; that’s what hooked me.

One of the olympic players talked on camera about how CWHL was “where we play between the olympics.” So I set out to track down this entity. I had a hard time. It is like it did not want to be found. I finally caught up with it at the MasterCard centre in Etobicoke and watched the Toronto Furies play the Boston Blades.

I thought there was something strange about all this. There were usually very few spectators. I felt like I stood out. Some of the volunteer staff looked at me like I was a strange specimen. With some of them it seemed like the games were really a personal thing between the players and a few friends and outsiders were not welcome.

Some rituals of women’s hockey struck me as strange. There was this “show up a this shopping mall parking lot at such and such time and you can touch Spooner’s gold medal” thing. Then there was this practice of selling jerseys the players had worn for one game and discarded. It seemed to be a selling point that they were not washed before going on sale. Ahummm…?

I made some comments about this on the Furies twitter feed and got blocked. That made it harder to follow them. When the Thunder team moved to Markham, I started attending most of their home games. When Sami Jo Small took charge of the Furies I got her to let me out of the doghouse.

The CWHL attitude toward their audience changed after the NWHL came into existence. This league was based in The States and founded by one Dani Rylan. At first I actually welcomed it.

It seems Rylan was originally going to start a new CWHL team in the states. Then she stabbed CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress in the back, started her own league, and raided CWHL for players and sponsors.

She promised to pay the players something, but cut the pay in half during the first season with no announcement. Work conditions in NWHL are abysmal, as related above. One NWHL player was left paraplegic after an accident in the first season. They have no insurance.

American NWHL players, led by Hilary Knight, began coming north to play in CWHL. There is a story that Knight left the US of A because she was scared of Rylan, which is nonsense but shows the esteem Rylan was coming to be held in. At least in CWHL the players were covered by Hockey Canada’s insurance, and paid a small stipend for part of their expenses.

The positive effect of NWHL was that CWHL started to wake up. They stopped acting like their existence was a state secret. The managers of the teams, and the players themselves, began promoting the league. They started streaming games and found reasonably capable people to do commentary.

However, the core management of CWHL seemed to resist this. They were stuck in a ‘nonprofit agency’ mindset. I have observed a few nonprofit organizations over the years. They tend to lose sight of their original purpose, and come to be about maintaining an income for the managers and on not getting in trouble with Canada Revenue.

It was apparent even to an outsider like me that running CWHL as a non profit was not a viable model in the long term. But a lot of non profit organizations in Canada develop creative approaches to funding their activities. A good tax lawyer could likely have worked out some sort of federated structure that would have enabled CWHL to attract sponsorships, sell tickets, and grow.

It saddened me that the hockey gals could not make a living doing what they were very good at. They seemed to just accept the situation. Their games were usually pretty good simply because they were there because they really liked playing. I hoped that the departure of Andress would have some positive effects.

Then came the sudden collapse of CWHL. Rylan cheerily announced she was going to start two teams in Canada. Everyone in Toronto and Montreal told her just where to go with that. This is where I really started sticking pins in Dani Rylan dolls.

The fall of CWHL was clearly the kick the players needed. The rise of WPHPA has been amazing. They seem to be working out a model that works for them. Numerous sports leagues are now operating in this way; as a tour of exhibition games, with no home arenas. Their second year, when they will have had a chance to do some long range planning and find better arenas, promises to be really great.

The writing is on the wall for NWHL. Their fundamental problem is that the best players do not want to play for them. All Canadian players, and all the best American players, have affiliated with WPHPA and taken this “#for the game” pledge. They are not playing for anyone but themselves until they have a proper league to play in.

This brings me back to the present, as the hockey panel wrapped up its discussions. The moderator gushed about her hockey playing friends and their future prospects, saying that they “do not know how to fail”. The theatre emptied; there were more games to play tomorrow before the “Dream Gap Tour” moved on to its next stop.

One final thought about women’s hockey; where is the Canadian government? Hockey Canada does all it can to help WPHPA. But as an old socialist, I say the government must be used to intervene in the public’s interest when private enterprise is unwilling or unable to fill a need.

Ice hockey is considered a key element of Canadian culture. The empowerment of women in all fields has become a national priority. What is wrong with the federal government, through the Ministry of Canadian Heritage, providing the funds to kick start a women’s hockey league for Canada? They have assisted all sorts of other artistic and cultural industries and organizations to get going.

This is something to think about if the startup from NHL continues to be unavailable or on unacceptable terms. I am sure I will have more about “woho” to blog about by this time next year.

Until then, the story can be followed at @PWHPA, #DreamGap and #ForTheGame.

Comments 1

  • Nice thoughts, thanks for organizing and sharing.

    There is nothing preventing a new league from being formed. Obstacles are self-imposed. The world’s best players are not in a league and their numbers are large enough to populate teams in five original six cities. Many of those are compensated through national programs, which would seem to make it more feasible to arrive at a living wage as well.

    The puck is on the stick of the most powerful people in ice hockey, the ones who take tough business decisions like precluding NHL players from participating in the Olympics when IOC conditions were deemed unworkable. That is an impossible position for a fan; it was almost surely the right business decision at the time. IOC postured as though the NHL was bluffing. The NHL is playing the long game and the same may happen if/when the women are under the NHL umbrella. It is not out of malice to the game. It is a business decision.

    With this is mind, that the business people working hard to grow the NWHL are not adored by the elite players should not come as such a shock. I doubt Mr Betman is on Ovi’s holiday card short-list either. The divide in increasingly Olympian v non-Olympian. If the friction in women’s hockey ends with scorched earth of “with us” or “against us”, everyone will lose. Mr Domi’s mansplaining social media attack on reasonable observations, accommodated implicitly yet again by Mr MacLean and several elite players, is a step in that direction. So too are “beer league” observations.

    Investors and players aiming for a superior league should not forget the stated position of the NWHL and its Commissioner:

    “If any individuals or groups come forward and declare they are ready to start and invest in a new league where women can receive a substantial full-time salary and medical insurance, we would be ecstatic to have a conversation about a partnership or passing the torch.”

    I supposed a linguistic can quibble that “the torch” be replaced with “the puck.”

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