Tired of the status quo and low pay, more than 200 of the world’s top female hockey players announced Thursday they will not play at all this year in an attempt to establish a single, economically viable professional league in North America.
”One hundred percent it’s a big risk,” said goaltender Liz Knox, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League Players’ Association co-chair. ”But it’s like how long do we want to suffer through this and keep doing the same thing over and over again before we say: ‘There’s got to be better for us.”’
The players announced their decision on social media in a strikingly unified effort that came together in less than a month. The group includes stars such as Americans Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield and Canadian national team goalie Shannon Szabados, and all of them expressed their dissatisfaction with the current state of the sport while demanding a say in establishing a league.
”We’re not playing anywhere professionally in North America. We just want to build something better,” Knight said. ”Now, what that looks like could be a handful of different things. But our main purpose and goal is to promote the growth of the game and increase the visibility. But ultimately, we need the sustainability factor to make us all feel better about what we’re doing on a daily basis.”
The announcement stressed cross-border unity in North America, home to the top women’s national teams in the world in the U.S. and Canada. The players cited obstacles they’ve had to contend with, including being paid as little as $2,000 a year and paying for their own health insurance.
”We may have represented different teams, leagues and countries – but this is one family. And the time is now for this family to unite,” their statement read. ”This is the moment we’ve been waiting for – our moment to come together and say we deserve move.”
The decision is an immediate threat to the future of the National Women’s Hockey League, the U.S.-based five-team league that is the only current option in North America after the CWHL, which had six teams in the U.S. and Canada and China, formally shut down Wednesday.
The NWHL, however, said it planned to push forward with its fifth season this October and would offer salary increases and a ”50-50 revenue split from league-level sponsorships and media rights deals.”
The NWHL statement did not mention its earlier plans to expand into Toronto and Montreal next season.
All eyes were also on the NHL, which has provided financial support to both the CWHL and NWHL but steered clear of throwing its full support behind a women’s league.
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly noted the NWHL remains in existence, and the NHL has no intention of interfering with its business plan or objectives. Daly added he doesn’t anticipate ”at this early stage” having women’s pro hockey placed on the agenda for the league’s board of governors meetings next month.
”We will further explore the situation privately before taking any affirmative position on next steps,” Daly said.
The pledge to sit out comes just two years after the U.S. national team earned a pay raise after threatening to boycott the 2017 world championships being held on U.S. soil. And it comes amid other efforts by women’s teams to be treated and paid equitably. The U.S women’s soccer team has sued the U.S. Soccer Federation over their wages and treatment.
”The unity of the players speaks volumes to what is so important to what comes next,” U.S. player Kendall Coyne Schofield said. ”I think with over 200 players and once voice and one collective unit, we’re going to continue to fight for the best option.”
The decision comes little over a month since the CWHL made an abrupt decision to shut down due to financial issues, leaving the NWHL as the only remaining pro league. But rather than make the jump to the NWHL, the players spent the past two weeks reaching a consensus to risk sitting out an entire year.
”Obviously we want to be on the ice, but I think that kind of speaks volumes to how critical it is and how important it is to us,” said Szabados, who spent last season playing for the NWHL Buffalo Beauts.
”It’s strength in numbers. It’s coming from all of us. It’s not just a few of us,” Szabados added. ”It’s not just players who play for one league or the other. It’s over 200 of us that kind of want to stop being pulled in 10 different directions and kind of get all our resources under one roof.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman previously told The Associated Press he doesn’t want the league to be seen as ”a bully” in pushing either of the two leagues out of business. As for assuming control, Bettman has repeatedly said the NHL doesn’t believe in either of the league’s business models.
Bettman reiterated his position during an interview with The AP this week. He referred to the CWHL ceasing operations as something that ”proved the point that we have genuine concerns about sustainable models.”
”What we’ve repeatedly said is if there turns out to be a void – and we don’t wish that on anybody – then we’ll look at the possibilities and we’ll study what might be appropriate,” Bettman added. ”But at the end of the day, we’re not looking to put anybody out of business. And if the NWHL can make a go of it, we wish them good luck.”
That’s not good enough, Knox said.
”The NHL’s saying, ‘Until there’s a voice in women’s hockey we’re not going to step in,”’ Knox said. ”Well, here’s a void. Here’s the players saying this is not enough. We’ve earned better than this. We’ve earned the respect we have, and we deserve what we’re asking for.”
Knox also placed the onus on Hockey Canada and USA Hockey for providing more resources to develop the women’s game.
”Take a look in the mirror, Hockey Canada and USA Hockey,” she said. ”I mean, these are your players who are winning you Olympic medals saying, ‘We’re just not getting enough right now.’ … I would certainly hope it’s a moment for them to self-reflect and say, ‘OK, where are our interests and where do we see it fitting in the future?”
The six-team CWHL operated as a not-for-profit league and was restricted by Canadian tax laws in how much it could pay its players. Though established in 2007, the CWHL didn’t begin paying its players what was considered a stipend – ranging between $10,000 and $2,000 – two years ago.
The NWHL was established in 2015, and became the first league to pay its players annual salaries which ranged from between $26,000 and $10,000 in its inaugural season. Financial difficulties, however, led the NWHL to slash salaries by as much as half a little over a month into its second season.
The NHWL no longer publicly releases player salary numbers.
”The NWHL has time and time again shown it’s not that long-term, viable option for women in hockey, and it does not showcase the best product of women’s hockey in the entire world,” said Coyne Schofield, who most recently played for the NWHL’s Minnesota Whitecaps. ”There’s a lot of things that go into it. … The business model is one of those, the salaries, health insurance, the treatment of the players. There’s a lot of things that make it really tough to be a professional athlete in the NWHL.”
What makes the pledge notable, Knox said, is getting a majority of non-national team players to also commit to the decision because they in some ways have more to risk in not playing.
”They’re making the ultimate sacrifice to say, ‘I would rather not play another professional game this year and possibly the rest of my life than live another day knowing we’re in a world that professional female hockey players do not have the stage they deserve,” Knox said. ”And I think that’s a powerful thing.”
AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed to this report.