Last week, the New York-based National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) made a big announcement. No, its players weren't heading back to the rinks. Not yet anyway. But when they do, they'll have a new team to play against.
In the 2020-21 season, the five-team league will be expanding to Toronto!
BREAKING: The NWHL is officially coming to Canada at the start of Season 6 ??
— NWHL (@NWHL) April 22, 2020
This will mark the first Canadian team in the league, alongside these American clubs: Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riverters, and Minnesota Whitecaps.
Though the Toronto team is not yet named, it has a solid ownership group (led by former Harvard captain Johanna Boynton), an experienced head coach (former Brown University coach Margaret "Digit" Murphy), and several players already signed.
Looking forward to being in city with the most female registered hockey players in the World! @cityoftoronto Growing the game is imperative and our leadership team of all women is a game changer! Thanks @NWHL for the opportunity #grateful #womensleadership https://t.co/Gw3nV2DC3C
— Digit Murphy (@digitmurphy) April 23, 2020
For a sport in need of growth and good news, this announcement seems like a happy-dance-making slam dunk. And for many, it is — a brand new team in one of the biggest hockey markets in the world for a group — female athletes — that have very few options.
But the truth is a bit more complicated than that.
CWHL folds, boycott begins
Almost exactly a year ago, professional women's hockey in Canada was dealt a heavy blow.
After 12 seasons, the Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL) folded, or stopped operations. Despite a passionate fanbase and some of the best players in the world, the six-team league simply couldn't continue to pay its bills.
In response, a large group of top players — including Olympians from both Canada and the United States — said enough was enough. Even though the NWHL (which started in 2015) was still in existence and looking to expand, these players boycotted the current leagues in protest. Their reason?
What would work then?
The current leagues simply weren't good enough. The CWHL didn't pay players a wage, and though the NWHL did, it wasn't anywhere close to something a player could live off of.
As a result, these players — now called the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) — were going to hold out until a "sustainable professional women's hockey league" was created. In particular, they wanted the NHL to get involved and back a new league. And it's not as though their demands are unusual.
From the WNBA to the FA Women's Super League in England, lots of men's pro leagues and teams across many sports are backing women's pro leagues. They are making sure the women are paid properly and invest in the leagues to help them build audiences and get seen on TV.
So if the NBA and the Premier League can do it, why not the NHL?
This brings us to the present, and people's reaction to the NWHL's Toronto club. Many NWHL players were quick to praise the move.
Mallory Rushton of the Riveters spoke as a proud Canadian, saying, "AMAZING! I was so thrilled to find out the NWHL will be adding a team in my home country."
Meanwhile, McKenna Brand from the Pride pointed out that their league is working to help women's hockey, "I think it’s really awesome that the NWHL has expanded to Toronto! It’s a true testament to the hard work that our league has put into growing the game."
But for players in the PWHPA, many of whom are seasoned veterans, they feel like they've seen this before and that the NWHL isn't much different to the CWHL before it. It's not that the NWHL is the enemy — it's just not a model that they think can work.
?PWHPA statement on NWHL expansion pic.twitter.com/uCvuZYBc9h
— PWHPA (@PWHPA) April 22, 2020
In the end, PWHPA members like Canadian Olympian and former CWHL scoring champ Marie-Philip Poulin just want to finally be able to play their sport as pros and with dignity.
"We're not asking for millions like the NHL guys, just something [where] we can wake up every day and go to work. Just having that dream job," Poulin told CBC. "We work as hard [as the men]."
Will the NWHL one day grow into the league that these players dream of? Will it even get off the ground given how COVID-19 has stalled sports worldwide? We look forward to seeing what unfolds.