Last month, The Hockey News reported CWHL and NWHL players association leaders would schedule calls to determine their next steps. As of yesterday, a reported 200 women’s hockey players led by Hilary Knight and others announced they will not sign contracts to play women’s hockey in North America. CWHLPA co-chair Liz Knox, who planned to retire after last season, is on the list. NWHLPA director Anya Battaglino is not.
The latest stand for a better future for women’s hockey is akin to #BeBoldForChange, the push by American players to improve investment in the USA Hockey women’s national team. They took on USA Hockey for more funding, resources, and visibility. “At that time, we were like, ‘Wow, aren't we lucky to have this opportunity that sometimes doesn't even come to people once in a lifetime',” Knight told The Hockey News on Thursday. “To have a second opportunity, it's like, oh, my goodness, I don't know if I should be upset that we're just so far behind in the sport or excited about it.”
She is choosing the latter, yet the former serves as the spark for many who’ve joined her. Metropolitan Riveters goalie Kimberly Sass is joining Knight because she is tired of paying to play professional women’s hockey. “After (preparing my taxes) last month, I figured out I paid more to play professional hockey than I made in 2018,” Sass said.
In the inaugural 2015-16 NWHL season, Sass made the league minimum of $10,000 for the Buffalo Beauts. That year, the league provided head-to-toe equipment of her choice. By the time Sass joined the Riveters in 2017-18, she needed to update several pieces of gear. However, in the wake of NWHL salary cuts and issues with vendors in 2016, the league equipment policy changed since Sass was in Buffalo. No longer, she says, could players choose the gear of their choice, nor was everything covered by the league or even eligible for reimbursement.
“Nothing was presented to me in the contract or any written rulebook of what we were able to purchase or get reimbursed for,” Sass said.
Her total cost for gear since joining the Riveters totaled $3,900 of her own money (a portion of her new helmet and paint job was offset by a fan-created GoFundMe account). The league, because of new policies, informed Sass she could only be reimbursed for half of any visible equipment, excluding custom helmet paint jobs. That came out to $1,568 in her case.
“The language and rules on equipment and brands were never directly expressed to all of the goaltenders,” Sass said.
NWHLPA director Anya Battaglino is aware equipment and other finance-related logistics need to change and has worked to make improvements this off-season. However, the conversations that led to yesterday’s announcement, from her perspective, gave little room to discuss such changes to league policy.
On Tuesday, the NWHL held a conference call for players and prospects to address some of these forthcoming changes. Going into the call, Battaglino's goal was to inform players of the deal in the works.
“We’re still in heavy contract negotiations,” she told The Hockey News on Wednesday night. “The league lawyers are drafting the contract and will be resending it hopefully soon.”
The new contract is set to include an increase to per diem and funds to ensure goaltender equipment matches team colors.
“I think that once that contract is done…that will help turn tide,” said Battaglino, who is expecting the contract by today.
Battaglino also shared, and the league office announced Thursday, a 50-50 revenue share from league-level sponsorships and media-rights deals. A player making the $4,000 league minimum would make roughly 4 percent of the market share under the new deal. If the league pulls in $2 million, that is an additional $5,600 per player, bringing the total compensation package to nearly $10,000, the same league minimum salary Sass made in Buffalo. As a comparison, the 22-year WNBA often referenced as the model for an NHL-run women's hockey league, currently offers players less than 25% in revenue shares.
However, the details are of no interest to Knight. When asked if the road to a better women’s hockey future could ever lead to back to the NWHL, the gold medalist replied, “No.”
“There's a reason why I moved up to Canada and left all my friends behind in Boston and left that league,” Knight said. “I think those same issues are represented similarly among the people who are like, ‘You know, what, I'm not doing anymore! I'm not perpetuating this cycle that is not going anywhere. Why are we pretending this is a professional league? I think it's one thing to say, professional league, I think it's another thing to actually have one. That's what we're interested in creating. What that future looks like specifically, I'm not sure. But I know right now, it doesn’t exist.”
Sass agreed, “I want to create a better future, and this is how I'm doing it. I'm not sure what that will look like or when that will happen. I personally plan on continuing to train to keep the doors open to future possibilities. If I am not a part of it but it's viable, sustainable and professional, then I succeeded. If I am a part of it, that's even better.”
Both Knight and Sass alluded players not signing pro contracts in North America will be visible through camps or even competitive games against each other.
“We're going to figure it out,” Knight said. “We don't necessarily know specifically what next year is going to look like, but we're all in it together to pull different resources and make sure that we will have places to play.”
She is optimistic, even as the structure, funding, and the existence of a salary down this new road is questionable for the immediate future: “The possibilities are endless, and I think it's going to provide a unique opportunity for a lot of fans this upcoming year to not be dispersed between two leagues and really have a lot of the top talent in the same position.”