BY Dominic de Meester & Elizabeth Spinozzi

Emily Clark’s advocacy for a sustainable women’s hockey league is making strides. The Montreal Bauer forward recognizes recent endorsements by the NHL, Secret Deodorant, Sonnet Insurance, Bauer, and Sportsnet as laying the foundation for equity in professional hockey.

“I can assure you that people are working tirelessly all the time to try to get anything for us and to get us playing games out there,” says Clark. “I think it was super special for all of us getting to watch the PWHPA play at Madison Square Garden and in the United Center recently. I got chills watching it knowing how good that is for our sport. So, I’m looking forward to when it’s our turn to play up here.”

A woman skating up the ice with the puck during a women's hockey game

Emily Clark, skating up the ice with the puck during a PWHPA Secret® Showcase held in Toronto last year. Photo courtesy, by Heather Pollock/PWHPA.

With COVID-19 continuing to limit cross-border play, Montreal’s Team Bauer is one of five regional training hubs recently added to the PWHPA mix. It will serve as their respective rosters’ home base for the duration of the 2020-21 season. Meanwhile, U.S. hubs are continuously adding new events and creating awareness.

Alexandra Labelle is finding creative ways to train during the pandemic, trying to stay in game-ready shape at all costs. Video by Elizabeth Spinozzi.

PWHPA Operations Consultant, Jayna Hefford explains the next steps are already underway.

“We believe the NHL should play a role in the next version of professional women’s hockey – the infrastructure, the resources, and the long-term investment will allow the league to grow,” says Hefford.

“We’ve seen a lot of NHL clubs that want to be involved with the PWHPA, who have the same vision for professional women’s hockey as us, and that are aligned in what it takes to be professional. To be able to partner with those organizations gets us a step closer to that end goal – and, I think we’ve all seen that without those elements, it’s really hard to operate on a professional level that allows the athletes to make a full-time career out of hockey.”

The not-for-profit Professional Women’s Hockey League Players Association (PWHPA) is advocating for the promotion of professional women’s hockey and a sustainable North American hockey league. While the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) does provide a platform, sponsorship fragmentation with the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) has created uncertainty, leaving players with difficult decisions.

“I got a call from one of the hockey coordinators out in Notre Dame, and they offered me a coaching job out there. So, it took me a while to kind of decide what I wanted to do but ultimately, I thought job security was kind of the way I had to go,” said Moose Jaw Warriors coaching assistant Olivia Howe. “The women’s game, there’s not that many opportunities to make a career out of it. So, I took the job and pulled myself from the draft and kind of gave up my playing career at that point—which wasn’t easy, but I figured that going forward with hockey in some sort of form and getting some income was the way to go.”

An infographic showing that women drop out of sports at higher rates than men.

The graph above illustrates a drop off in weekly sport activity. The gap is widest during the prime years of a professional athlete. Media by Dominic de Meester.

Nevertheless, Secret’s recent $1 million commitment to the PWHPA affirmed the possibility still exists – leaving other organizations such as Sonnet Insurance to follow suit.

“This wasn’t about dollars and cents in the door for Sonnet, as much as it was for ‘all ships need to rise together,’” says Sonnet Insurance director of marketing Ashley Ritchey. “If we don’t get behind it, how is it ever going to happen? From a reputation perspective from a brand equity perspective, there was a lot we could contribute to the PWHPA, and vice versa. I don’t necessarily think we needed to put those same associated metrics against this as we would from a different sports property in the past. This is more than just supporting women in hockey. This is supporting the greater good for access and inclusivity in sport in general.”

There is a sense of optimism shared by industry leaders who believe the NWHL and PWHPA can coexist.

“I think there are good arguments for both approaches,” says president of Cosmos Sports and Entertainment Cary Kaplan. “I think what the PWHPA are doing trying to work with the NHL and have women represented at a higher level is good. I also think what the NWHL is doing is good and I don’t think they compete. I think some people look at them and say well these are two competing groups and I think both of them existing is a good thing for women’s hockey.”

Two important factors driving the PWHPA movement are the ability to earn an equitable living wage and health insurance. NWHL players voiced their concerns to then-commissioner Dani Rylan and were frustrated by the lack of action the league was taking—leading the NWHL to appoint interim commissioner Tyler Tumminia.

“Tyler, who is the current commissioner of the NWHL, has a really impressive background in baseball, minor league baseball and I think there’s a lot of comparisons between the success in the U.S. of minor league baseball, and where minor league hockey or women’s hockey can be,” said Kaplan. “So, I think some good things are happening with the leadership there and again I think the key is to make sure it’s run as a business, not just as a hockey team—but also focus on marketing and ticket sales and community relations and those kinds of things.”

With new leadership, the NWHL is making changes.

“We aim to focus on building our sponsors while building the organization along the same lines as the other major professional sports, NHL, MLB, the NFL, and so forth,” explains NWHL marketing director Katie Gardner. “Our sponsorship revenue stream is growing and we’re dividing half of those streams back to the players. With Dunkin Donuts, Discover Card, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and having NBC broadcast the first-ever championship league final game in women’s hockey history—we believe we’re heading in the right direction.”

Emily Clark celebrates a goal with her teammates during a women's hockey game

Teammates surround Emily Clark after scoring a goal. Photo courtesy, by Heather Pollock/PWHPA.

The path remains familiar for both men and women towards professional hockey—as is the intensity and will to succeed. Yet those efforts don’t result in equitable outcomes along gender lines.

“I think when I was 12, 13 years old when I asked my mom for a gym membership for my birthday. I knew I wanted to get to the highest level. And at that time, I knew that you had to work out. And so, I got one, which was pretty young,” says Clark. “My mom, she woke up every single morning with me. I owe her everything. She was getting up at 6:00 a.m. with me four or five times a week to drive me. I also had a shooting set up in my backyard. I would always do sit-ups, push-ups, run sprints in my hallway. Anything that I saw on TV or I saw hockey players doing, I was doing”.

In 2019, the average player salary in the NWHL was $18,794, compared to $3.78 million in the NHL.

Alexandra Labelle jogs.

PHWPA player Alexandra Labelle running outside in LaSalle, QC at the break of dawn. Photo by Elizabeth Spinozzi.

The salary gap is just one of the battles the PWHPA has taken on. Even with obstacles in their way, the message to younger female hockey athletes is clear.

“If hockey is your real passion I think there is a bright future ahead and there’s a great leadership group of girls right now that are pushing so hard to make it a possibility – to make it a career for women,” says Howe.

Alexandra Labelle trains outside an arena.

Labelle training outside as gym and arena availability remain unpredictable. Photo by Elizabeth Spinozzi.

Main photo by Alexandra Labelle.
Published May 12, 2021.