A saying came to Liz Knox’s mind the day the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association announced its Dream Gap Tour: “A dream without a destination is just a fantasy.” And if the PWHPA’s goal is to turn fantasy into reality, the fledgling women’s organization taking the show on the road was an all-important first step.
To be sure, the announcement of the tour, a late-August surprise that captured the attention of the hockey world, was no overnight decision. Rather, it was some five months in the making. Following the sudden, shocking shutdown of the CWHL, to the creation of the #ForTheGame campaign and later the formation of the PWHPA, the Dream Gap Tour had been a long time coming and was the collective effort of some of the best women’s players in the world, from Olympians and all-stars to college standouts on the cusp of their professional careers.
It didn’t come together without difficulty. “This summer has really shown me how much work goes into organizing any sort of format, whether it’s a tournament or a league,” said Knox, a former CWHL netminder and players’ association co-chair turned Dream Gap Tour GM and PWHPA player representative.
“A lot of it was balancing ideas and working with the board. We all come from different backgrounds. Some of the girls are with the national team, others have played pro the last few years, so it’s working out what makes sense and what encapsulates what we want this year and how we want to showcase our talent.”
Ultimately, what was decided upon was a three-city tour featuring a rotating cast of some of the top players in the women’s game, including superstars such as Hilary Knight, Marie-Philip Poulin, Brianna Decker and Kendall Coyne Schofield. Kicking off across the Sept. 21 weekend in Toronto – and flanked by additional exhibition events in San Jose and Boston – the tour carried on through Hudson, N.H., in early October ahead of its final announced stop in Chicago.
In one sense, the tour’s goal is to keep many of the world’s top women’s players visible and front of mind in the midst of their pursuit of a single, viable women’s league, which is and has been the PWHPA’s mission statement since its establishment. But there’s far more to the showcase than the four-game mini-tournaments taking place in each city. “We want to really connect with the fans, connect with the minor girls organizations and hopefully give them a chance to meet the athletes up close and personal,” Knox said. “A lot of these girls are their idols, their dream players, so give them the chance to meet them and get on the ice with them and interact with them off the ice.”
As evidenced by the packed house at Toronto’s Westwood Arena, there’s a desire to meet with and watch these gifted players ply their trade. Fan support is one thing, though, and what has been arguably more encouraging is that the fans’ fervor has been matched by something long missing from the women’s game: enthusiastic sponsors who provide more than just dollars.
Noted among the myriad reasons the CWHL was deemed “unsustainable” by its board was a lack of sponsorship and true strategic partnerships. But still in a relative embryonic stage, the Dream Gap Tour already has a list of sponsors that has seemingly grown by the day. “Because of the situation, there being no (CWHL), people want to step up and support,” said Chelsea Purcell, former Markham Thunder GM and the PWHPA’s Canadian corporate sponsorship consultant. “They know there’s an opportunity right now to be seen in women’s hockey, and women’s hockey fans are very committed to those that step up.”
It’s not just the CWHL’s closure and resulting spotlight that shone on the women’s game that have helped garner that backing. Interestingly, Purcell explained that some momentum came not on the ice and not in North America, but rather on a pitch halfway around the world. As a result of the mainstream media attention the U.S. women’s national soccer team garnered throughout its journey to victory at the 2019 World Cup in France, the Canadian counterparts of American brands that had seen success sponsoring and partnering with the soccer team jumped at a similar opportunity with their on-ice equivalents.
That’s what we want. a true sponsorship, not just people giving us money
– Chelsea Purcell
These aren’t local sponsors, either. These are big brands. For instance, the Toronto showcase was sponsored by Budweiser, who also stepped up to provide live-streaming of each of the four weekend contests, as well as Adidas, Bauer, the Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL Players’ Association and – true to Canadian form – Tim Hortons. American coffee chain Dunkin’ is the event sponsor in Hudson, as well, while Magellan Corporation has stepped up to help put on the Chicago showcase.
And there’s more to these partnerships than financial support, Purcell said, adding the PWHPA isn’t actively turning away those who’ve shown interest but that it seeks more than the backing that appears on a balance sheet. “We want those that actually want to support,” Purcell said. “They don’t want to just give us money but give us money and want to market, push people into games, drive the awareness of what’s happening in women’s hockey. That’s what we want. A true sponsorship, not just people giving us money.”
To Purcell, the PWHPA’s development of those partnerships is a step in the right direction. And while she acknowledges there’s “still a long way to go,” her hope is the increase in sponsorship will equate to an increase in marketing dollars, which will in turn create room for greater promotion of the women’s game. “Then hopefully we just keep making more of a dent and more of a dent and people start realizing what’s happening,” Purcell said.
And what the PWHPA hopes will happen, as the tour name suggests, is that the chasm between the on-ice dream that young boys chase, and that young girls don’t yet have, will close.
“When we were all young kids, we all wanted to play in the NHL, and we’re female,” Knox said. “That’s all we had to look to. That’s all young girls still have to look to. Yes, they have the Olympics, and that’s kind of become the pinnacle of women’s hockey, but why isn’t there that dream for them to play in a professional league? And the answer is that we just have never had a professional league, a league that offers a living wage, the comfort of being able to train every day, and I think that’s what it is really all about.”