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Over 200 Professional Women's Hockey Players Won't Play In North America This Year

May 3, 2019
Originally published on May 3, 2019 7:34 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Women's professional hockey in North America is in chaos. The Canadian Women's Hockey League shut down this week, meaning the only national women's hockey league left standing in North America is in the U.S. And yesterday, more than 200 players rocked women's hockey further by banding together and demanding a stable and sustainable professional league. These players, including some of the world's best, say they will not play in any North American league this year until that happens.

For more on all of this, we turn now to Katie Strang of The Athletic. Welcome.

KATIE STRANG: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.

CHANG: So how dire is the financial situation for a typical pro women's hockey player these days?

STRANG: Yeah, it's tough. And I think the important thing to remember is that, you know, this is not the primary gig for most of these players. These players are putting a tremendous amount of time and energy and heart into training and really competing at a very high level for their teams, but also maintaining regular day jobs as well...

CHANG: Because they can't afford to play hockey full time.

STRANG: Absolutely. Absolutely.

CHANG: What does an average women's hockey player - a professional women's hockey player - make these days?

STRANG: Well, it varies. And that's important to keep in mind. However, if you take the NWHL, for example, which is the sole professional women's league remaining in North America, each team has a salary cap of $100,000 that has to be split amongst that roster and allocated. And there's generally roughly 20 players per team.

CHANG: Wow.

STRANG: The lowest paid player in NWHL makes around $2,000.

CHANG: For an entire season.

STRANG: Correct.

CHANG: Wow. You know, like, in basketball, the NBA and WNBA have a really tight relationship. Why don't we see this same kind of relationship between the NHL and women's hockey?

STRANG: You might see that. It probably will not be next season, but that is a big reason why we saw these players come together in solidarity on Thursday is because their desire, even though it was not stated explicitly, is to have a league - one unified league - with NHL backing because they do believe that that would provide them the best financial support, infrastructure and platform in terms of exposure.

CHANG: Well, why has the NHL, in the first place, been hesitant to forge a better connection with women's hockey?

STRANG: The NHL is extremely wary of seeming paternalistic, or they don't want to give the impression that they are bigfooting any current leagues in existence. So what Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the NHL, has said repeatedly is that they will not get involved unless there is no viable option for players to play post-collegiately in a professional sense.

CHANG: Is women's professional hockey, though - is it ultimately financially sustainable in North America? I mean, are there enough fans out there to keep it going?

STRANG: I think that's a really good question and one that people are asking. We know that the quality of the product on the ice is very exciting. We've seen that in international play and competition. But in terms of attendance, you know, the top two teams in the NWHL last year, I think, had average attendance rates of between 1,000 and 1,200 people per game.

CHANG: How does that compare to an NHL game?

STRANG: Ten thousand to anywhere upwards of, you know, almost 20,000. So that's why a lot of people feel like there would have to be NHL backing to provide it some sort of stability - at least in the early going - and then also to commit resources and develop it at a grassroots level and generate interest among, you know, youth hockey players to get this thing really rolling to the point where it can sustain itself.

CHANG: Katie Strang is a senior writer for The Athletic. She joined us via Skype. Thank you very much for joining us today.

STRANG: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.