Last Thursday, the more than 200 of the top women’s hockey players announced they would not play in any professional leagues in North America until in the upcoming season until their demands for a single, financially stable league are met. That came a day after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League officially ceased operations, leaving only the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League as a pro option in North America.
Star Tribune staff writer Rachel Blount is a veteran in covering hockey at all levels, including the Olympic Games and the NWHL. Puck Drop editor Randy Johnson asked Rachel about the players’ boycott and what we might see going forward.
Q: The CWHL on March 31 announced it was folding, setting off the series of events last week. Did this come as a surprise to those connected to the game?
A: It did catch people off-guard, since the league had not indicated it was in distress. On the other hand, the CWHL didn’t have strong financial support, so it isn’t really surprising that it decided its business model was “economically unsustainable.’’ The CWHL operated as a nonprofit and didn’t pay players until 2017, when it began giving what it called “stipends’’ rather than salaries.
Q: Since the CWHL eventually had to fold in a hockey-crazed country like Canada, do you feel a single professional league in North America can do well financially?
A: It certainly has a better shot if all the top talent is in one league, as the players have always said. But with players demanding higher salaries — and hockey being an expensive sport to begin with -- a league is going to have to generate significant revenue just to cover its costs. Like any fledgling pro sport, it will take time to grow the fan base, get a TV deal and convince fans to pay the ticket prices necessary to keep it afloat. It’s likely league backers will lose a lot of money before they have a chance to turn a profit.
The Whitecaps made a profit in their first year in the NWHL, so they’ve shown that a championship team in an established hockey market can do well. For an entire league to thrive, they’re going to have to choose the right markets and find some folks with deep pockets to sustain it while it finds its footing.
Q: It appears the players are hoping that the NHL steps in with increased financial backing, maybe even to establish its own women’s league. Do you feel that the NHL would do this?
A: The NHL treaded very carefully with financial support for the CWHL and NWHL. It always said it didn’t want to choose sides while there were two leagues, so it gave a small amount of money (reportedly $50,000 each) to both. Individual NHL teams in NWHL/CWHL markets have mostly lent support by helping out with things like marketing and PR, instead of writing checks. And the only NHL owners to buy an NWHL team — the Pegulas, of Buffalo — just ceded control of the Beauts back to the NWHL.
NHL officials have said the league would “consider helping to create alternatives’’ if options for women to play professionally were unavailable. In other words: if the NWHL also folds, maybe the NHL would get involved. ESPN, citing unnamed sources, reported the NHL “would be interested in helping run a women’s league’’ if no other leagues exist. But as long as the NWHL is still alive, it’s doubtful the NHL would underwrite it or start its own league.
Q: The NWHL has been a success in Minnesota, with the Whitecaps winning the league title in their inaugural season and selling out all 10 of its games at 1,200-seat TRIA Rink. How big of a blow would it be to them and women’s hockey in Minnesota if a season is lost?
A: I think it would be less of a blow in this market than in other NWHL markets. The Whitecaps will survive. Jack Brodt, who has given his heart and soul to the women’s game, kept them going as an independent after their previous league fell apart. If the current players sit out the coming season, it’s possible he could pull together another group under the former model: as a team that doesn’t pay salaries and plays against college teams. Jack has said no deal was ever signed to turn over control of the Whitecaps to the NWHL, so it feels like the door could be open for something like that. It wouldn’t be the same as having a team with Olympians playing at Tria, but the Whitecaps have a loyal following that wouldn’t evaporate. And even if an NWHL season is lost, Minnesota still has top-flight women’s college hockey, ensuring the women’s game has a strong presence here.
Q: What do you expect to happen next, and do you see the players’ boycott succeeding?
A: I enjoy the women’s game and want to see a pro league succeed. But I think the players have less leverage here than they did in their boycott of USA Hockey in 2017. In that case, the women’s national team said it would sit out the world championships if USA Hockey didn’t give players more money and better benefits. And they were genuinely owed something; USA Hockey wasn’t giving them the same financial support as the men, even though the women routinely outperformed the guys in senior-level international play. They wanted, deserved and got a larger slice of an existing pie from the national governing body of an Olympic sport.
Now, though, they are boycotting a pro league that does not appear to have the money to pay them what they want. (The NWHL doesn’t make its finances public, but there’s nothing to indicate it is sitting on a big pile of money that it isn’t sharing.) The league cannot give players what it doesn’t have. If the boycott kills the NWHL, perhaps the players eventually will get a new league backed by the NHL. But that is far from certain. This feels like a much riskier move than the USA Hockey boycott.