With the momentum behind women’s hockey at an all-time high, the decision-makers need to sort through a confusing mess or risk blowing a colossal opportunity.
More than 9,000 fans are cheering for Kendall Coyne Schofield, but you can’t blame her for failing to notice that all the commotion — the shrieking, whooping, screaming and clapping that’s enough to make your head hurt — is directed her way. The Team USA captain is in enemy territory, after all.
Sitting on the bench at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, Coyne Schofield is animatedly talking to linemate Brianna Decker, gesturing toward the ice with her stick, while everyone around her shows their appreciation. The reason they’re cheering for the five-foot-two American is because, seconds earlier, the arena’s big screen ran the clip that made Coyne Schofield a household name. You know the one: the 26-year-old ripping around the ice at the NHL All-Star skills competition in the fastest skater race, jets topping out at 35 km/h while she forces open as many eyes as any hockey woman ever has in less time than it takes to tie up your skates — 14.346 seconds.
History was made and barriers were broke. It was such an honor to be the first woman to compete in the @nhl All Star Skills Competition last night. I can’t wait to see what the future holds! #NHLAllStar pic.twitter.com/Sc125oBGCx— Kendall Coyne Schofield (@KendallCoyne) January 26, 2019
Coyne Schofield won’t know that the replay led thousands of Canadians to cheer for her during a game against Team Canada until a friend sends her video evidence to prove it. And right now, the rivals are still within reach. A few shifts later, she skates around the Canadian net with a defender in pursuit, and Coyne Schofield’s artful backhand pass through traffic finds Decker, who finds the back of that net. This highlight is less welcome in Toronto. The only sound now is from a handful of American players celebrating. Coyne Schofield yells as she double fist-pumps and goes in to hug Decker, who just narrowed Canada’s lead to one.
Despite a flurry of chances for Team USA late in the third period, Canada holds on to win Game 2 and eventually Game 3 of this inaugural Rivalry Series — a best-of-three joint production of the NHL, Hockey Canada and USA Hockey to help showcase the top two women’s hockey nations on the planet in a non-Olympic year. All three games are broadcast live across Canada and the U.S., and each arena draws more than 9,000 fans, including a sellout crowd in London, Ont. forced to brave the elements on an icy day that saw schools closed in the area.
This is the potential of women’s hockey when it’s promoted and funded and features a best-on-best. And these NHL-supported moments — the 14 seconds in San Jose in January, the three-game Rivalry series in London, Toronto and Detroit in February — are over. Right now, Coyne Schofield is living and practicing in Chicago on weekdays and playing with the Minnesota Whitecaps in the National Women’s Hockey League on weekends. Meanwhile, Decker spends her weekends playing with the Calgary Inferno in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. This month, the two linemates are vying for championship titles, but they’re different championship titles — Coyne gunning for the Isobel Cup while Decker plays for the Clarkson. On the other side of the Scotiabank Arena ice, it’s no different for Team Canada.
That the best players in the world are meeting in one-off publicity events instead of their professional leagues is just one of the confusing messes facing the women’s game today. Huge funding issues, tiny salaries, short schedules and murky politics all stand in the way of growth — just as they have for years. But this moment is also an unprecedented one for women’s professional hockey, a high point of momentum and attention spurred even higher by the spotlight that landed on Coyne in January — though she’s the first to point out any elite women’s player could’ve wowed on that stage. That light won’t stay bright forever, though, and the momentum won’t keep building on its own. Players are ready to keep it going, and the fact that opportunities in the women’s game are better than ever is only further fueling their desire to play in a pro league that features all of the world’s best. If the decision-makers in women’s hockey don’t make a move soon — while hockey is still one of the fastest-growing sports in America among young girls — it will be a colossal opportunity colossally wasted.
A woman with designs on playing pro hockey and living in North America has 10 options today, four markets up here in Canada and six in the U.S. But the best in the world often choose to play where they do for one reason: It’s the closest team to their house. For Coyne Schofield, hockey-crazed Minnesota works best geographically. Her husband, Michael Schofield, plays for the Los Angeles Chargers. The pair live in California during the NFL season, and in Chicago the rest of the year. Unable to make the Whitecaps’ weekday skates — a nine-hour drive from Chi-Town — Coyne Schofield seeks out practice time in both her home cities. “My family comes first and they always will,” she says.
Until either league can pay a living wage, the cities in which they operate will largely determine the players they draw. The NWHL’s five teams are all based in the U.S.: Boston, Connecticut, Buffalo, New York and the expansion team this season, Minnesota. Meanwhile, the CWHL’s six franchises span three countries, with teams in Calgary, Montreal, Toronto, Markham, Ont., Worcester, Mass., and the south of China. “You hear the odd time where people wish they could play in one league over the other, but because we don’t make enough money, it’s hard to pick up your life just like that,” says Renata Fast, the Toronto Furies and Team Canada defender whose speed matches the name on the back of her jersey. “I feel like people are almost stuck playing in one league because of the locations of teams and what’s more convenient for their lifestyles.”
Leaving the decision primarily to geography also makes sense because of the striking similarities between the CWHL and NWHL. Both play on weekends from October through March, both award a championship cup, both have teams affiliated with NHL clubs to varying degrees, both played their recent all-star games in NHL buildings around an NHL game and both pay salaries players can’t live on. In the NWHL, the going rate is $3,000-$10,000 USD, and in the CWHL, players make $2,000-$10,000 CAD (excluding the Chinese franchise, the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays, which is an island unto itself and pays players upwards of six figures thanks to funding provided by its ownership group, KRS.)“People are almost stuck playing in one league because of the locations of teams.”
Look for big differences and you’ll find three: The NWHL has a measly 16-game regular-season schedule, while the CWHL plays 28; the CWHL is a not-for-profit, started by players and run by a commissioner who’s advised in part by a board of directors, while the NWHL is a business started by a former NCAA player and funded by private investors; and the CWHL began in 2007, while the NWHL kicked off eight years later — with a bang.
In March 2015, Dani Rylan, a 28-year-old from Tampa, Fla., announced she was starting a U.S.-based pro league. To that point, the only professional women’s team in the U.S. was the Boston Blades of the CWHL, and women had never been paid to play hockey in North America. (The CWHL didn’t pay its players until 2017). In the blink of an eye, Rylan changed all that. She established teams in Boston, Connecticut, New York and Buffalo, and announced players would make between $10,000 and $26,000 USD in that first-ever 2015–16 season.
Teammates at Northeastern University, Coyne Schofield was a soft-spoken rookie when Rylan was a senior and the Huskies’ captain. “At the time, we didn’t have anywhere to play after college,” she says. “When we heard about the new league, I think everyone was excited.” Coyne Schofield says she doesn’t know Rylan very well today, but those who do say the entrepreneur is the type who could sell snow to a Siberian in the middle of a storm. “The league came out of nowhere and it sounded amazing — they were going to pay almost living wages right off the bat,” says Fast, who was a senior at Clarkson University when she heard news of the NWHL. “I hadn’t heard any plans for a second league and then, all of a sudden, it was kind of sprung on social media and everyone was excited, I think, and confused at the same time.”
Count Brenda Andress, then the CWHL’s commissioner, among those who were confused — and blindsided, and probably angry, too. She and Rylan had been working together to bring a New York-based team to the CWHL. When Rylan changed plans and announced a new rival league instead, all that went out the window. Andress doesn’t criticize what she calls “a business decision,” and applauds the resulting growth of the game in the U.S. “But I don’t think it was the right move for the game and I’ve always maintained
Certainly it created friction when suddenly there were two. The majority of players on the Boston-based CWHL franchise jumped ship to the NWHL, including Team USA star Hilary Knight, who’d been the CWHL’s first American-born MVP in 2013. But even with the promise of a salary for the first time ever, not a single Team Canada player made the move to the NWHL, despite the belief that a team in Buffalo would be a draw for them. Former Buffalo Beauts head coach Ric Seiling says he tried to recruit members of Canada’s national team, but “the players were blocked by Hockey Canada from coming across.
“I was told numerous times from numerous players that Hockey Canada said, ‘We’re not stopping you from going, but if you leave, we can’t guarantee you a spot on the Canadian national team.’”
The GM of Canada’s women’s team, Gina Kingsbury, denies this. “We would never impose or [strong-arm] them on where they need to play or should play,” Kingsbury says, adding that Hockey Canada ensured players were well-versed on medical coverage and other considerations when it came to playing in the U.S. To date just one Team Canada player has joined the NWHL, and that’s goalie Shannon Szabados, who signed with Buffalo ahead of this season.
Even if there was bad blood between the leagues, Andress and Rylan first began talking about the possibility of a merger in Year 2 of the NWHL, during the 2016–17 season. Andress resigned last July following 11 years at the CWHL’s helm, so it’s now on Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford, the league’s interim commissioner, to help lead those discussions with Rylan. Hefford says they’re often communicating, though nobody’s dishing on the nature or content of those conversations.“Who knows what we could’ve done as a league, as one?”
Hefford, Rylan and others working behind the scenes in the women’s game are tight-lipped, and when they do talk about the future, the picture they paint is clear as mud. According to an industry source, the NWHL and CWHL are working toward a merger. Hefford won’t confirm that and Rylan declined Sportsnet’s request for an interview (as did the rest of the league’s front office). An NWHL spokesperson said in a statement to Sportsnet that, “for us to discuss our collective goals for professional women’s hockey in North America at this vitally important time would be counterproductive to the process. We agree with the players and observers who have said that it’s time for action and not talk.” Hefford will say the reality of one league is closer than it’s ever been, though she won’t reveal who will run it or what it will look like, just that she thinks the NHL should be involved. As for timing, “I would like to see this go just as fast as everybody else,” the four-time Olympic gold medallist says, “but it’s not that easy.”
Having been in the commissioner’s seat for nine months now, Hefford says it’s been “a steep learning curve” as she tries to map out the right model for the future of the game while also taking care of the present CWHL. Andress was in the same boat not long ago. She says if Rylan and Hefford manage to achieve the one-league merger “accolades to them.” Then she laughs. “Dani grew the game over in the United States,” Andress says. “But who knows what we could’ve done as a league, as one?”
Years later, that’s the question everyone is still asking.
Coyne Schofield got a pretty sweet gift from one of her newest sponsors last month. They’re personalized Adidas sneakers, the left one mostly white and the right one mostly black. Ten stripes on the shoes signify her decade on the national team, a copy of her signature is also printed on them, along with her all-star competition time, the date of her skate (Jan. 26, 2019) and her No. 26. Coyne Schofield’s favourite feature is this, though: “Breaks” is written on one shoe, “Barriers” on the other. A matching pair has been sent to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
When she made history at the skills competition, Coyne Schofield didn’t have much time to be nervous. She’d found out just four hours earlier that Nathan MacKinnon wouldn’t be skating; that she’d be taking his place, becoming the first woman ever to compete on that stage. Previously, the plan had been for her to demonstrate the drill. “The most pressure I felt was the self-inflicted pressure of knowing that I had the weight of our sport on my shoulders,” Coyne Schofield says. “The skate had to be perfect, otherwise the narrative turns to: ‘I told you so. They don’t belong.’”
That’s heavy, but she managed to deliver in the moment, partly because she “has rockets on her skates,” as Knight puts it, and because — like most of her elite teammates — she’s spent her entire life proving herself worthy. Growing up in Palos Park, Ill., Coyne Schofield was limited to boys’ house league for much of her early minor career because she got cut multiple times from the Orland Park Vikings AA travel team. Then, at age 11, she tried out for the Chicago Trail AAA boys’ team and made it — as an underager. “Now that I’m older, I can understand what might’ve happened, why I might’ve been cut [in Orland Park],” she says. “My parents are pretty positive it was because I had a ponytail coming out of my helmet.”
The same year she started playing with the Trail, Coyne Schofield was recruited by former Team Canada goalie Manon Rhéaume to play for the first all-girls team at the famed Quebec Pewee Tournament, again as an underager. It marked the first time she’d play on a girls’ team and be coached by a woman (the first and only woman to play in an NHL game, no less). “To that point, I’d never met anyone — I felt — as driven as me,” Coyne Schofield says. “I was always told I needed to take a chill pill, that I was so young and so serious. It was amazing to meet all these other girls at a young age that had the same dreams.”
The team lost in the semi-finals. While she was disappointed, Coyne Schofield was also buoyed by the fact that she’d get to return to the tournament the next year with girls her age. But Rhéaume’s team wasn’t invited back. “If I was to make an educated guess, it might’ve been the ponytails again,” Coyne Schofield says. She must’ve considered lopping her blonde hair off then? “No way,” she says, laughing, “it just got longer and longer every year.”
“It gives me chills. Just look at the opportunity we have to inspire the next generation.”
Her list of accomplishments did, too. Coyne Schofield was the only 15-year-old selected for the 2007 U-18 national team, “at five-foot-zero and 105 pounds,” she says, laughing. “Can you get any smaller?” By the end of her college career at Northeastern, she’d added two inches, about 20 pounds, and the Patty Kazmaier Award as the top player in the NCAA. She’s now a six-time world champion and after Olympic heartbreak in 2014 that saw her receive a silver medal with tears in her eyes — Coyne Schofield was Team USA’s leading scorer in Sochi — she helped the Americans win gold on the Olympic stage for the first time in 20 years in Pyeonchang in 2018. The impact of that win is enormous: There’s no faster-growing membership group at USA Hockey right now than girls age eight and under.
In Minnesota, where Coyne Schofield has averaged more than a point-per-game in her rookie season and plays in front of sellout crowds of 1,200 people — the Whitecaps have sold out all nine home games this season — she sees those little girls who have recently picked up the sport. They’re lining up for autographs after each game, wearing their team jerseys or track suits. “They remind me of myself when I was little,” she says, though the difference is those girls have pro leagues to aspire to.
“It gives me chills,” Coyne Schofield says. “Just look at the opportunity we have to inspire the next generation.”
Here’s what happened the last two times the NHL threw its support behind the American and Canadian women’s national teams and their players: First, Coyne Schofield, Decker, Fast and Rebecca Johnston stole the show at the NHL All-Star Game (Decker nearly won the passing competition while demonstrating it, prompting a #PayDecker social media campaign that saw CCM award her $25,000, the same amount that went to winner, Leon Draisaitl). Second, big crowds showed up for that Rivalry Series in which absolutely nothing — aside from pride — was on the line.
There’s no question a league that will rake in more than $4 billion this year has the means to offer significant help to the women’s game. There’s no doubt the NHL’s platform can turn a player like Coyne Schofield into an overnight star, especially when she (and many of her peers) should’ve earned that notoriety years ago. And if you want to measure the instant impact NHL support can have for a pro women’s team, take a look at the Boston Pride in the NWHL. Captain Jillian Dempsey says it was getting “a little disappointing” to see more and more empty yellow seats this season at Warrior Arena, which accommodates some 850 people. But in January, the Bruins partnered with the Pride. And then attendance went boom. “We’ve had sold out crowds ever since and people wrapped around the boards,” says Dempsey, who’s a Boston native, a teacher and the NWHL’s leading all-time goal-scorer. “People are now telling us it’s sold out and they can’t get tickets. It’s a great problem to have.”
Coyne Schofield has seen enough of this evidence firsthand in the last year to know the power of the NHL brand. “They always embody [the idea] that hockey is for everyone,” she says.
“I have no doubt in my mind that if we were to get one league under the NHL, it will be successful.”“I have no doubt in my mind that if we were to get one league under the NHL, it will be successful.”
Every elite player believes the world’s best should be playing together in one league. Coyne Schofield has been more vocal than most, and she doesn’t hide the fact she’s frustrated as hell, repeating the same message over and over with her steely blue-eyed gaze and the directness of a woman with a degree in communications: “We need one league, and we need it under the NHL shield,” she says. “Otherwise we’re going to continue to stall the growth of the game, and that’s extremely disappointing.”
Like many in the hockey world, she’s of the belief that players have to drive the move to one league. If Coyne Schofield could make it work logistically — as much as she’s enjoying her time in Minnesota — she says she would make the move to the CWHL. Not only because it’s home to more Olympians, including fellow Team USA players like Knight and Decker and Kacey Bellamy, who recently jumped ship from the NWHL, but also because she believes “there’s one league that is willing to turn over to the NHL and there’s one that’s not,” as she puts it. This is a popular thought among players, but neither Andress nor Hefford have ever said the CWHL would roll over and fold if the NHL stepped up.
Coyne Schofield, Decker, Knight and the rest of Team USA have made daring, progressive statements to drive their sport before. When the American national team threatened to boycott the 2017 world championships unless USA Hockey met demands for fairer pay and treatment, the big gamble paid off — players now make some $70,000, thanks to additional funds provided by USA Hockey and by the NHL. But a boycott of one league or both could mean there’s nowhere for anyone to play next season — a greater risk than losing a single tournament. “That wouldn’t be good for anyone,” Knight says.
“We have to be able to play,” Coyne Schofield adds. “We don’t know what the answer is. But both leagues need to be willing to turn over to the NHL before anything happens, so we’re going to have to make that tough decision collectively.”
Here’s the thing: The NHL has had ample opportunity to get involved in the pro women’s game, and it has barely dipped a toe. When the CWHL was founded 12 years ago, Andress was among a group of women who presented a business plan to commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL. It was based on the NBA and WNBA model, where resources from the former are shared with the latter. After a few conversations, Andress says Bettman suggested instead that CWHL teams establish partnerships, sharing revenue and resources, with NHL teams in the same markets. Andress calls that “Step 1.”
More than a decade has passed and we aren’t yet at Step 2, that being, in Andress’s eyes, the true partnership plan the CWHL originally proposed. Instead, after the explosion in hockey interest in the U.S. following the 2014 Olympics — which ended with an epic final between Canada and Team USA that saw the Canadians win in overtime and inspired little girls to pick up hockey like never before — it wasn’t Bettman or the NHL that saw opportunity knocking, it was Rylan. That the NWHL has since entered the fold adds another wrinkle, but in the last year or so, Bettman has repeated numerous times that the NHL doesn’t want to “look like a bully” and put the other leagues out of business. He’s also said of the women’s leagues, “we don’t believe in their models,” and that he’d like to “start on a clean slate.”
Susan Cohig is spearheading the NHL’s involvement in women’s and girls’ hockey as the league’s VP of Club Business Affairs. “If there were not a women’s league operating, we’d be prepared to step in and create a scenario of running a league. We certainly would be interested in doing it, but really [only] if there isn’t a league operating,” Cohig says. “Ultimately, the players need to decide what’s best, you know?”
In other words, if the CWHL and NWHL cease to exist, Bettman and Co. would be willing to step into the void. You can imagine how that sits with the people who’ve invested years and time and money into the current leagues. “It’s hard with no guarantees there,” Hefford admits. “If we shut down, what does that mean? If [the NWHL] doesn’t, that doesn’t solve the problem. I think it’s got to be more cooperative than that… but I understand where they’re coming from.”
Rylan finds many of Bettman’s comments on the women’s game insulting, and said so in a statement released earlier this year: “Only as the NWHL has grown have people started talking about the need for one league and for the NHL to take charge. We’re proud to have ignited that conversation. But it’s been just four years for us, and now a pair of existing organizations built by women to empower and spotlight women need to get out of the way? To be blunt, it feels absolutely terrible to hear that in 2019. We can make huge strides together without suggestions being made about dissolving our businesses. It’s time we worked together, and I’m available at all times for constructive conversations that lead to building a league across North America that the players and fans deserve.”
A good next step might be assembling in the same room. Hefford says that she, Bettman and Rylan have never had a face-to-face meeting.
Andress was involved in conversations with the NHL for more than a decade and not even she saw an NHL business plan for a women’s league, though she believes one exists. “Everybody yammers all the time, ‘Well, you were just going to hand the keys over to the NHL.’ No, we were never going to just say, ‘OK, here,’” she says. “We were always waiting to see what the NHL, with one league, how they would operate it.”
Cohig won’t say whether the NHL has a plan for how it would structure a women’s league. “You’re pre-supposing that we have a league, and right now there are two leagues operating,” she says. “You’re dealing in hypotheticals.” Cohig will say this, though: If the NHL did run a women’s pro league, “I think it could be really great.”
It’s easy to see why players would agree with that sentiment. The resources alone would provide a massive boost. Ask Toronto Furies star Natalie Spooner what she’d like to see if the NHL got more involved and the first words out of her mouth aren’t “more money,” they’re “more ice time.”
Both the CWHL’s Furies and Inferno have been partnered with NHL clubs since 2012. The NWHL won’t disclose the financial deals between their teams and NHL partners, but in the CWHL, the Calgary Flames give some $25,000 annually to the Inferno. The team also plugs the Inferno on social media and its website and designed and paid for the Inferno’s jerseys, but their financial contribution amounts to less than half a percent of Johnny Gaudreau’s yearly contract, and might be what they spend on tape in a year. Knight, a star player for Les Canadiennes de Montreal, says of the $25,000 contribution: “I think it’s a good start.” Read: it’s better than nothing.
“But what kind of opportunities are they presenting? What kind of resources are they allocating?” Knight adds. “How are they helping the women’s players? For many years it was, ‘How do we get in the same room as our male counterparts?’ And now we’re in the room and we’ve got a seat at the table and you have to understand how much you’re worth.”
“Now we’re in the room and we’ve got a seat at the table and you have to understand how much you’re worth.”
The team with more than a seat at the table is the Buffalo Beauts. They actually own part of that table, and have since last season, when the franchise became the only team in the NWHL with private ownership. Szabados is one of the Beauts’ goalies, and she’s a big fan of her owners, the Pegula family. “They own pretty much everything in Buffalo,” she points out, including the Sabres, the Bills and a country music label, for starters. After a couple years in the Southern Professional Hockey League, the 32-year-old from Edmonton chose to play her first pro women’s season in Buffalo since it’s the closest commute from Lorain, Ohio, where she lives with her fiancé. Szabados considers herself “very lucky” to play there.
When she comes in for practices and games, the team puts Szabados up in a Marriott in the Harborcenter, the Sabres’ practice facility, which is also Pegula-owned and operated. She and her teammates also have nearly full-time access to the ice and extra time for work with skills coaches, while most teams in either women’s league are limited to two practices per week. Some, like the Furies in the CWHL, don’t get off the ice until 11 p.m on Tuesday nights. The Beauts PR and marketing staff is the same one that handles the Sabres, Jeff Skinner has more than once donned a Beauts toque while giving post-game interviews, the Sabres and Beauts played a double-header at KeyBank Centre in December, and the last Beauts game was a sellout of 1,800 at Harborcenter. “I would say we have the best-run organization in all of women’s professional hockey,” Szabados says during a recent three-and-a-half hour commute for a Friday practice and a Saturday game (she’ll crush a bunch of episodes of Up and Vanished, her latest podcast, to help pass the time on the road.) “I hope one day that every team can be run the way we are. Ideally, if we were in one league and every team had a similar setup with their ownership or NHL clubs, that would be a perfect world.”
She’d add more games to the schedule, too; Szabados just barely broke into double-digit regular season starts with the Beauts this season, compared to the 22 she logged her last full pro season, with the SPHL’s Columbus Cottonmouths. According to an industry source, the NWHL schedule will expand next season, but Szabados imagines a world in which she can play against the best players in the game a couple times a week — like she did with Team Canada for the Rivalry Series last month. “That would just do amazing things for the women’s game,” she says. “The level is better than it’s ever been, and it would only improve.”
Szabados doesn’t think she’ll still be playing when her perfect-world scenario actually happens. “Five years ago, this league didn’t even exist,” she says of the NWHL, “so, baby steps. But I am jealous of my children and their future children, because I think they’re going to have a great setup.”
Florida Panthers fan Ariana Grande nails the biggest problem facing the women’s game in her recent hit, Seven Rings, when she sings, “Whoever said money can’t solve your problems must not have had enough money to solve ‘em.” There is plenty of evidence in pro women’s hockey that dysfunction and moves that’ll make you scratch your head are almost always traceable to a lack of funds.
The NWHL was home to the biggest gaffe of all, which came in Year 2, when Rylan made a decision that will forever be a black mark on the founder and her league. In November 2016, she slashed player salaries by 38 per cent with zero prior consultation with the players’ association. Many involved in the NWHL believed the $275,000 initial team salary caps in a league backed by unnamed investors wasn’t sustainable, but nearly everyone was blindsided by the market correction.
Players found out on a Tuesday, Anya Battaglino remembers. Her Connecticut Whale had a practice that night, and she was the team’s players’ association rep, charged with delivering the news. “I cried,” says Battaglino, who’s now retired and serving as the director of the NWHLPA. “I had to look at Kelli Stack — one of my really good friends, one of the best players in the world — I had to look at a room of peers, friends, co-workers and say, ‘Hey, this is the situation.’ Every single person was completely deflated. It was honestly probably the worst day I’ve had in the hockey community.” Whale captain Molly Engstrom was one of three players to leave the NWHL in the wake of the announcement, opting to play in Sweden, not because of the salary cuts, but because of the lack of transparency with the whole situation.
The NWHL’s publicized disasters — which also included a lawsuit filed by a former investor who claimed he had a 40-per cent stake in any profits generated by the league, and a Connecticut team that had four general managers in a single season — are in the past. That’s not to say the league is without problems today. One player says many of her peers are scared to speak their minds, but wonders whether “exposing these insulated issues that have never come out” would help move the needle towards one league. Asked what those issues are, she laughs. She’s not saying.
“It’s easy to see some of the major problems we’ve had in our league and instantly discredit it and say it’s soap opera-ish,” Battaglino says. “When you look at who’s the easiest person to blame when things go south, it’s obviously our commissioner. But honestly, our game is in such a great place right now, better than it’s ever been.”
You won’t hear much different from players in the CWHL, despite the fact that coaches have been dropping like flies of late, and not because of poor performance. Digit Murphy led her Chinese expansion team to the Clarkson Cup final last season, where it lost in overtime, and instead of winning the coach of the year award like Gerard Gallant did with the Vegas Golden Knights, she was moved to a board position and told her coaching services were no longer needed. Her replacement was fired recently. Then there’s Calgary: In December, Shannon Miller, a former Team Canada coach who won five NCAA championships in Minnesota, stepped down from her head coaching job with the league-leading Inferno. Her team was 10-1-1 and she walked away. So did Tomas Pacina, who resigned as Inferno head coach after winning the CWHL’s coach of the year award at the end of last season. Pacina and Miller are not alone: Dany Brunet resigned as Montreal’s head coach this season, and Les Canadiennes are among the favourites to win the Clarkson Cup. It can be hard to keep up with the news.
The CWHL’s board just went through a bunch of changes, too. Former Team Canada captain Cassie Campbell-Pascall resigned for personal reasons and also because she wants one league run by the NHL — the WNHL. The Sportsnet rinkside reporter and colour commentator declined to be interviewed for this article: She’s said all she needs to say. Brian Burke, MLSE executive director Michael Bartlett and businesswoman Arlene Dickenson are also no longer part of the league’s board, which last November lost its longest-serving member, and one of the CWHL’s key financial contributors, venture capitalist W. Graeme Roustan, who pulled his support after league finances weren’t provided to him upon request. In his resignation letter, Roustan wrote that Andress told him he was the “single biggest financial and other contributor to the CWHL since its formation.” Hefford won’t reveal any of the league’s financial details, citing confidentiality, but one industry source says that last year, the Inferno struggled so badly that the team couldn’t cover the evening practice ice, a debt eventually paid by an investor and through league funds after the season ended. Now the Inferno practice from 7 to 8 a.m.
The players remain tight-lipped and protective and thankful in the face of all this because, as dysfunctional as it may seem at times, none of these opportunities existed when they were kids. Coyne Schofield says her first season in the NWHL has been “great” and points out that a lot of elite American players would’ve otherwise had to quit the sport, with no other place to play post-college. Now they’re playing in full rinks in most markets.
Both leagues have also provided players overlooked by national teams with a platform to prove themselves. Recently, Beauts forward Hayley Scamurra made Team USA and Montreal’s Ann-Sophie Bettez made Team Canada. In the NWHL, the players’ association now has a couple of high-end lawyers working pro bono to help out with contracts. In Montreal, a local coffee shop opens early to make sure Les Canadiennes get their morning cups, for free. Volunteers do the bulk of the work at the arena, too.
“I think for the most part people are really happy with the leagues they’re playing in,” says Fast. “Every team has things that are a little disorganized, but at the end of the day it’s the same problem with a professional women’s league altogether: There’s not enough staff to make things run super smoothly. People work so hard, but there’s only so much one person can do when they don’t have enough hands to help out.”
Again, if you’re looking for the quickest solution to these problems, turn to Ariana Grande.
The Isobel Cup semi-final game on March 10 in Minnesota sold out in an NWHL-record 25 hours. In the Whitecaps’ first year in the NWHL, it has proven Minneapolis–Saint Paul is a perfect site for a women’s pro team: It’s the first-ever NWHL-owned organization to record a profit in a season.
Coyne Schofield calls herself “a guest in Minnesota” since she doesn’t live there, but she’s been blown away by the support. “Seeing that, it’s amazing,” she says, of the full building each night. “Minnesotans are so passionate about their hockey, and I’m honoured to be part of an organization that has done so much to grow the women’s game, and continues to do so.”
Minnesota operates a little differently than most teams — they’re alone in the Midwest and often fly to games and play double-headers most weekends. In a presentation Rylan gave last year at the Sands Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, the commissioner said she has her eye on expansion in the Midwest to give Minnesota a nearby rival. She calls that plan “Phase 3 and beyond.”
A merger between the CWHL and NWHL could happen first, of course. That a single league could be close makes Coyne Schofield optimistic, but cautiously so. She’s heard it all before. “That’s great, then they need to do it,” she says. “It’s been all talk and that’s what’s frustrating for the players. It’s incredibly frustrating. We need to continue to move with the times, and we need to put aside the business plans and the payouts and we need to do what’s right for the game, and that is for both leagues to come together and say, ‘We want to operate with the NHL, let’s do this together.’” While the NHL has been clear it won’t operate a women’s league unless one doesn’t already exist, it’s anyone’s guess whether Bettman and Co. would play ball if the CWHL and NWHL merged and a working scenario for a single league was proposed.
Coyne Schofield isn’t in those board rooms, all she knows is what she can see, what she’s seen in 20 years on the ice. Having recently added NHL Network studio analyst to her resume, she’s still in the spotlight, still one provided by the NHL. This month’s Isobel Cup and Clarkson Cup and April’s world championships are ways to keep the momentum going for the sport. Reflecting on what the last couple of months have been like since that blazing skate in San Jose, Coyne Schofield laughs and says “amazing” twice. That thousands of Canadians cheered for her while watching the highlight of her NHL All-Star Game debut during the Rivalry Series in Toronto still blows her mind.
“I felt like my whole childhood I was just one girl, or ‘Oh, we have to make room for the girl,’ or ‘Oh, we don’t have a girls’ team.’ It always felt like I was getting in the way as a kid, and now that’s not the case,” she says. “The amount of growth that we’ve seen in the girls’ game is incredible. Honestly, it makes me speechless because I walk into a rink and I see girls’ teams, girls’ leagues, young girls reffing, women coaching. When I think of the momentum of the girls in our sport across the world, I think it’s time.
“It’s about time, and we deserve it.”
BY KRISTINA RUTHERFORD IN TORONTO AND LONDON, ONT.
Header design by Drew Lesiuczok
Story editing and layout by Evan Rosser
Canadian Press Images; Getty Images; Courtesy of CWHL; Ezra Shaw/Getty Images; Chris Tanouye/CWHL; Gregory Shamus/Getty Images; LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images; Courtesy NWHL; Michelle Jay/NWHL; Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images; Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images; Michael Hetzel/NWHL.