In the past 14 months, the U.S. women’s hockey team won a labour dispute, a world championship and Olympic gold.
Those accomplishments have created the biggest spotlight yet for women’s hockey, giving the players more leverage than ever this off-season.
Veterans on the national team want to use their influence to achieve another long-sought goal: creating a single North American women’s professional league.
“Winning a gold medal, there’s a greater purpose behind that,” said Meghan Duggan, the U.S. captain. “It’s for us to change the landscape of women’s hockey in this country. That’s what we’ve wanted our entire careers. This is going to help us do it.”
Several obstacles will test the players’ sway, including a standoff among other influencers around women’s hockey.
USA Hockey, the national governing body, and the NHL have remained on the sidelines as professional women’s hockey matured in recent years. And, instead of coming together, the two North American professional leagues — the National Women’s Hockey League and the Canadian Women’s Hockey League — seem to be stockpiling assets for a battle of attrition.
On Tuesday, the four-team NWHL, which was founded in 2015, added its first expansion team: the Minnesota Whitecaps, a longtime independent franchise that has featured many of the top U.S. players. Last year the CWHL, which began in 2007, added two franchises from China to make it a seven-team league.
With the 2018-19 season set to begin in five months, the U.S. Olympians have not committed to either league, hoping instead that they can work quickly to get women’s hockey in harmony. It is not a simple task: Even the U.S. women’s national soccer team, which used its popularity to create the blueprint for gaining more equitable support, had difficulty translating international success into professional stability.
Several leaders of the U.S. team said they would seek to collaborate with their rivals from Canada, who largely share the belief that one league is best for women’s hockey.
“Our core group leadership in the U.S. needs to meet with the Canadian core group leadership, put our heads together and see what the future of women’s hockey looks like in North America,” said U.S. forward Hilary Knight, who has played in both professional leagues. “There’s definitely conversations happening behind the scenes, and I definitely see movement.”
Brianne Jenner and Mélodie Daoust of the Canadian national team said they would be open to working with U.S. players.
Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, who scored the decisive overtime shootout goal against Canada in the Olympic gold medal game, said: “If North America can get on the same page and get one league, I also think we can get top European players to play, and that’s when I think you see a huge stride in women’s hockey internationally.”
NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan said in March that she was available to “anyone who wants to collaborate on positive steps for the good of the game.” Rylan added that the CWHL and its commissioner, Brenda Andress, “are not our competition but admired colleagues who join us in the mission to build the game.”
But outside of a 2015 outdoor exhibition, the two leagues have shown little inclination to work together. That leaves the world’s best players divided between the CWHL and NWHL. (Both leagues are part of the SheIS initiative, a new coalition of women’s sports leagues that was spearheaded by Andress.)
“We want all the best hockey players in the world in one league and want to be challenged every day,” Jenner said.
The NHL has long been considered a potential game-changing force in the future of women’s professional hockey. It has the funding, marketing and networking avenues similar to what the NBA used to mould women’s professional basketball.
But the NHL has not forced the issue of a merger. After the Olympics, the U.S. team was invited to meet with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who said he discussed his interest in seeing one professional league with the players and said that the time was right to collaborate to raise the profile of the sport.
As long as the CWHL and NWHL continue to choose to operate separately, Bettman said, the NHL would not interfere, even though that leaves “two leagues where neither is perhaps as strong as it should or could be.”
“It would be nice to see a little bit more of an active approach than a passive approach from some higher-up people,” Lamoureux-Davidson said. “The NHL has resources; they have venues already established with practice rinks. If people are passive on it, it will be slower, and I think an opportunity will be missed.”
Both leagues made notable strides on their own last season. The CWHL started paying players, two years after the NWHL did, and two NHL teams invested in NWHL franchises.
Individual NHL teams have also provided support for CWHL teams in the past. Daoust said she would like to see more single-admission doubleheaders in cities that have professional men’s and women’s teams, “and not do that just once a year,” as has occasionally happened.
“We need money invested in our league,” said Daoust, who also would like more-engaged sponsors. “We need money to allow our players to only be athletes. Media has a big responsibility. TSN never talks about the CWHL, saying they’re playing this weekend at 7, come watch them.”
Knight said USA Hockey, which pays the national team’s salaries, needed to play an active role in the sport’s future for women and girls. The national team’s March 2017 boycott led to the creation of a Women’s High Performance Advisory Group within USA Hockey. But because of the team’s Olympic commitments, the group was officially formed only recently.
Each of the national team’s notable victories on and off the ice over the past year came against significant odds. As those past conquests showed, talk alone will not create results. Despite no signs of one league forming any time soon, the players remain confident they can once again reshape their sport.
“We just proved if we have the right resources and right support, we’re able to accomplish great things,” Knight said. “We just have to steer them to what we need as players.”