By Randy Uens
As a father of a dedicated young, female athlete, I have become acutely aware of issues in women’s sports and the trials and tribulations that these sports must endure as they mature and morph into professional sports.
It’s not that I wasn’t aware before I became a father but I am definitely more empathetic as I see the daily dedication and passion my daughter and her teammates put into their sport. For my daughter, hockey is what drives her everyday to get better and to pursue the highest levels she can achieve. The question is, what will those levels be?
I am blessed to have two kids that have developed incredible work ethics and have a burning desire to succeed. Each one has set goals and worked hard to achieve those goals. When my son was drafted to the NHL in this past draft I was obviously excited for him and pleased that this milestone validated the work he had put in up to this point. At the same time, I felt a little sad for my daughter. In our gym at our house (our garage) we have a number of inspirational quotes on the walls. One of them is “Why not Me“ Great quote, but may have more pertinence to my daughter than my son in many ways.
When she was eight or nine she asked me if she could one day play professional hockey. It pained me that I didn’t really have an answer for her and all I could say was “I hope so”.
Women’s hockey is at a crossroads. Although professional leagues have been established, neither league has proven to be sustainable. The CWHL (Canadian Women’s Hockey League) operated for a number of years in a manner that was more akin to amateur hockey than professional hockey.
Lack of funding and support forced the number one elite league in women’s hockey worldwide to toil in relative obscurity for 51 weeks of the year only to be highlighted on TSN for the final one game championship. This lack of support and instability led the league to cease operations in 2018.
The NWHL (National Women’s Hockey League) was and is the U.S. based women’s professional league that competed with the CWHL. Founded and operated by former NCAA player Dani Rylan, the league has struggled. Initially, as the weaker of the two leagues and secondly, Ms. Rylan has been a polarizing figure in the sport. You have to admire her pit bull type determination but the business model traditionally lacked collaboration with the players and had major sustainability issues.
When the CWHL ceased operations the door was left open for the NWHL to take the lead towards solidifying itself as the penultimate women’s league in the world. Unfortunately, the league has not been able to develop consensus from the elite players and despite a recent resurgence in publicity has failed to fully capitalize on the opportunity or gather significant support.
The PWHPA (Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association) was created when the CWHL shut down. Most of the top women’s players in the world are playing inside this touring event driven association. Recent success in attracting significant sponsorship money as well as having three NHL teams align themselves with the PWHPA shows that there is hope to unify and solidify the women’s game. It will take the NHL to step in and help create a WNBA type scenario for this all to workout. Recent events leave me optimistic for this outcome.
This struggle in elite women’s hockey illustrates the ongoing issues of women’s sports, especially women’s team sports. Individual women’s sports such as tennis and golf have allowed women to develop very lucrative and rewarding professional careers. Despite this fact, these tour events in tennis and golf are still less funded than men’s events and the lack of “junior” tours to allow for expanded player development beyond the elite players is limited therefore reducing opportunities for advancement to the professional ranks.
For professional women’s team sports it has been even more dire, however there are signs of improvement. The WNBA is by far the most progressive women’s league in the world allowing its players to make a living off their sport and to be truly professional. Through support by elite professional male clubs, women’s soccer is seeing growth and success globally and looks to be approaching a point where many of the players can be considered true professionals relying solely on their soccer incomes while being paid at a rate of pay that is sustainable.
Women’s hockey is not there yet. Most if not all of these professional women players rely on part-time jobs or carry on full-time positions while trying to maintain their professional hockey aspirations. It will take the NHL to step in and turn this into a truly professional league at some point.
The challenges for professional women’s sports are clearly based on finance. Lack of sponsorship and limited support from mainstream broadcasting will continue to hamper growth until someone steps up and markets the leagues appropriately and works to develop the women’s game.
Recent events brought on by the pandemic illustrate this issue of finance colliding with development of women’s sports. The World Junior Hockey tournament has become a staple at Christmas time for hockey fans across the globe. This global juggernaut was a blip on the hockey radar thirty plus years ago, but TSN and Hockey Canada helped propel it to become a money making machine.
The men’s World juniors is an under 20 (U20) event as it corresponds with the NHL and junior age groups. For women there is no U20 championship. Their World Juniors is the U18 event. Next to the women’s World championships, it is the biggest opportunity for women hockey players to not only play for their countries but to play the best in the world.
During the pandemic it was decided to move the men’s U20 tournament to play in a “bubble” in Edmonton and Red Deer and go ahead with the tournament. The women’s U18 was slated for early January in Sweden and was cancelled due to concerns surrounding travel and the pandemic. The real concern was cost. The men’s tournament is a moneymaker. With no fans, the women’s tournament would have definitely lost money.
This was a missed opportunity. If you want to promote the women’s game you must support it. The perfect scenario would have been to play the women’s tournament inside the same bubble and televise the games, leveraging the TSN infrastructure already in place. This would have promoted the women’s game as well as demonstrated that the IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) and all of the other global regulatory bodies were truly supportive of the women’s game. It was a real failure by all involved.
With International Women’s Day was March 8 and March being National Women’s History Month, I think it’s important for us to reflect on how we can help improve the opportunities for women’s sports. The greatest thing a sports fan can do is to watch women’s sports, support them at every opportunity and ultimately appreciate the level of athleticism. Don’t compare them to male sports because they are different.
Once you watch the female game in any sport, basketball, rugby, soccer or hockey, you begin to appreciate the nuances of the sport and truly appreciate the athleticism of these athletes. Give women’s sports a chance and tune in when it is on TV, or go catch a game when they are playing. This support will grow their game and expand the opportunities for young women everywhere. Once we do that these young athletes can stop asking “Why Not Me” for the wrong reasons and focus on “Why Not Me “ the way the motivational quote was intended.