#269 24.1.2021

Hello and happy Sunday!

And, more importantly, happy second day of the NWHL season. The puck dropped yesterday on the first games of the two-week bubble tournament hosted in Lake Placid, New York.

  • Before the NFL Conference Championships kick off later today (and don’t forget to enter your team in our GIST-exclusive FanDuel fantasy contest!), get ready to embark on the hunt for the Isobel Cup with today’s Sunday scroll.
  • We’re giving you everything you need to know about the history of the NWHL, why some of North America’s best players aren’t competing in it and what it all means for the future of women’s hockey. Let’s dive in.

Quote of the Day

At the end of the day, I’m playing for those little girls in the stands…[who] are maybe the only girl on their boys’ teams. We are trying to give those girls something to look to and have hopes and dreams to reach.

— Buffalo Beauts forward Jordan Juron, on her decision to return to the NWHL after initially boycotting the league as a member of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA).

Jordan Juron talking to young girls while on the ice
Source: Jordan Juron/Twitter

📖 The history

Hockey player celebrating on ice in front of crowd
Source: Matthew Raney/New York Times

The National Women’s Hockey League was founded in 2015. While the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) had been operational since 2007, the NWHL was the first pro women’s hockey league to pay players a salary.

  • The CWHL followed suit, but the salaries of both the CWHL and NWHL were meager, maxing out at $10k and $15k, respectively. Many players in both leagues worked (and are still working) full-time jobs to supplement their weekends spent playing pro hockey. Let that sink in.

Despite consistent calls for a merger, the NWHL and CWHL operated independently from 2015 to 2019, with the NWHL composed exclusively of U.S.-based teams and the CWHL featuring mostly Canadian teams, in addition to one based in the U.S. and one in China.

Then sh!t really hit the fan. Struggling financially, the CWHL (which operated as a not-for-profit organization) announced in March 2019 that they would fold, leaving over 125 of North America’s best hockey players without a place to compete.

  • After the CWHL made the announcement, the NWHL hoped to serve as a landing spot for the league-less athletes. The NWHL even announced plans to expand to Canada and that they had secured a “significant financial investment” from the NHL.

🚨 The controversy

Team USA hockey players huddle on ice in celebration
Source: Team USA Hockey

Sounds great, right? Not so fast. In April 2019, Team USA secured a controversial shootout victory at the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Women’s World Championship. Little did we know that off-ice dynamics would soon overshadow the on-ice drama.

  • On May 2nd, 2019 — a day after the CWHL officially folded — over 200 players announced via coordinated Twitter statements that they would not compete in any North American hockey league.

Many of those players soon formed the PWHPA, an organization fighting for a single, viable, cross-border professional women’s hockey league. A key element of their vision for a sustainable league is official involvement from the NHL.

While the NHL’s role remains crucial to how this saga plays out, as of now, the league’s only firm commitment is to not get involved. The league and the PWHPA partnered on multiple NHL All-Star weekends (remember this?) and the NWHL’s Boston Pride and Minnesota Whitecaps currently have partnerships with their NHL counterparts, but the NHL has stopped short of throwing their support behind an entire women’s pro league.

  • When the CWHL folded in 2019, the NHL said, “we would consider starting a women’s league if there were no alternatives for women to play professionally in North America.”
  • The NBA and WNBA offer a successful and sustainable example of a men’s league investing in the women’s game, but with the NWHL still operating independently, it seems the NHL remains set on lackluster small-scale investments. Womp womp.

🏒 Where things stand

Overhead view of empty NWHL ice hockey rink
Source: MStyle Marketing

Yesterday’s start to the NWHL’s Isobel Cup bubble tournament delivered the debut of a new team, the Toronto Six, and marked the league’s long-awaited expansion into Canada. This year’s tournament also features an all-female officiating crew. HYFR.

  • And, most notably, the league has agreed to a deal with NBC Sports to air the semifinal and final matches, marking the first time pro women’s hockey has aired on a major U.S. which we say, about damn time.
  • But as we celebrate this spotlight on women’s hockey, it’s crucial to remember that the world’s best players will not be gracing our TV screens. The top players across North America are still members of the PWHPA and will be notably absent when women’s hockey finally earns a national stage.

Meanwhile, the PWHPA has inked some high-profile sponsorships of their own. Back in October, Secret committed $1 million to support the group’s Dream Gap Tour, the largest corporate commitment to women’s pro hockey in North America.

✨ The future

Hilary Knight on ice in Team USA jersey
Source: NBC Sports

With all of these isolated accomplishments, it seems there won’t be a comprehensive resolution any time soon. Following the NWHL’s April 2020 announcement of the Toronto expansion team, the PWHPA released a statement reaffirming their commitment to moving forward independent of the NWHL.

  • While women’s hockey remains splintered, it’s clear the strides made by both the NWHL and PWHPA only help the game progress and gain more visibility. We’re not choosing sides, but PWHPA member Hilary Knight sums things up perfectly.
  • “I’d say the future of women’s hockey is extremely bright,” she said. “We’re helping that young girl who is watching us fight [to] make her dream of becoming a professional hockey player possible. And that’s what everyone wants.”

Learn more

📗 What to read:

Many of the PWHPA members are no strangers to fighting for better pay. Read this detailed timeline of the tense negotiations during Team USA’s boycott of the 2017 IIHF World Championships and the players’ subsequent landmark deal with USA Hockey. Progress.

🎉 What to celebrate:

An epic women’s sports crossover. Cutouts of Seattle Storm players, the reigning WNBA champions, along with many other WNBA stars, will be in the crowd throughout the NWHL bubble tournament. We love to see it.

🎧 What to Listen to:

This podcast episode from Just Women’s Sports with PWHPA member Hilary Knight. Knight discusses her hockey journey and how Canadian and American players set aside their differences to form the PWHPA.

🏈 What to play:

Unrelated to hockey, but one last plug for our GIST-exclusive FanDuel NFL fantasy contest. Submit your picks here before today’s NFC Championship kicks off at 3:05 p.m. ET for your chance to take home $100. Good luck!*

P.S. This isn’t a regular sponsored post, it’s a cool sponsored post.

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