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'It's a platform for us to unite': Women's players form players association in search of 'viable' professional league

The 200-plus athletes involved with the #ForTheGame movement have announced the formation of the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association, and the hope is that the unification of the group can help drive them towards their goal of a "single, viable professional league in North America."

It was a natural problem for the 200-plus athletes involved with the #ForTheGame movement to run into. With so many players on board and so many questions about the next steps from those who were either a part or outside observers of the campaign, it at times became difficult to communicate, maintain a consistent message and provide accurate information to all those who inquired. As U.S. Olympian Kendall Coyne-Schofield put it, if you can relate to the issues that come along with wrangling a dozen people into one room to have a conversation at your place of work, imagine the challenges that come along with doing the same with a couple-hundred athletes spread across North America and Europe.

But late last week, the 200-plus women’s hockey players who banded together with #ForTheGame took a step towards addressing the issue of communication, organization and consistency: with the help of Philadelphia-based law firm Ballard Spahr, articles of incorporation were filed to establish the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA).

“Right now, it’s a platform for us to unite,” Canadian Olympian Shannon Szabados told The Hockey News. “We have over 200 players, so it’s a way for us to unite those voices and advance our mission, which is to advocate for a single, viable professional league. At the same time, it will help us be organized, our website has a link for support from sponsors, which includes training needs and opportunities and resources and facilities, so keeping that all under one umbrella.”

The formation of the PWHPA was, in a sense, the natural progression for the group. Said Liz Knox, former co-chair of the Players Association for the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League, it was an organic process led by Ballard Spahr that helps add legitimacy to the desires of the 200-plus players. It also helps put one overarching body behind the campaign instead of a wide array of individuals.

“The fact of the matter is that a lot of players aren’t confident in speaking about it,” Knox said. “So we’ve identified nine speakers that we want to make sure are well informed before we start putting anything in the press to avoid confusion and misconstrued stories that might come out of it. Like anything, it’s hard to keep your story (consistent), and that’s our angle: to tackle it with fewer voices but with consistent messaging.”

Knox could not yet confirm the names of the nine speakers – it will become public “very shortly,” she said – but it seems a safe bet that she, along with Szabados, Coyne and Finnish Olympian Noora Raty, each of whom were quoted in the PWHPA’s initial press release, will be among the group.

One of the issues the PWPHA will hope to deliver consistency on is the matter of their play next season. Though it has been made clear the athletes involved will not skate in any professional circuit next season until there is such a league that can “provide financial and infrastructure resources to players; protect and support their rights and talents; provide health insurance; and work with companies, business leaders, and sports professionals worldwide who already have voiced support for women’s hockey,” some questioned whether that meant the players would sit out the entire 2019-20 season regardless of what option is presented, be it from the NHL or otherwise. That does indeed appear to be the case.

“Essentially, yes,” Szabados said. “And the main reason being that I don’t think anyone, even the NHL, could put together a league that quickly and have it be the league that is needed. So, essentially, regardless of who it is, it will likely be the 2020 season that we’re back in a full, organized capacity.”

That doesn’t mean the players involved in the #ForTheGame movement will be nowhere to be found. The goal of the players is continue to stay relevant and remain in the public eye. It’s what Coyne referred to as a “hybrid” year during which the players can continue to develop and grow, while Knox noted that players will be looking to stay in game shape and find ice time either in or close to the regions in which they played during the 2018-19 season.

“We won’t be sitting out,” Szabados said. “We’ll be training as hard, if not harder. But it may not look in your typical way. We’re looking to keep players on the ice as much as possible with practices and skill sessions, and then we’ll see what the game form looks like, whether it’s inter-squad games or exhibitions or mini-tournaments. We have a lot in the works right now, but we’re in that information gathering stage.”

In order to host these events, though, there will likely be the matter of funding, which Knox couldn’t “confidently say” is available right now. She did add, however, that part of the reasoning behind the formation of the PWHPA was that it will aid in the funnelling of resources to the correct places in the future.

If or when that funding comes through, one question that will remain despite whatever events, exhibitions or showcases the PWHPA puts forth over the next year is what happens to those who are still without a place to play once a league that meets the group’s desires presents itself. Those of Olympic caliber will be virtual shoo-ins to make the rosters of professional clubs, but if the landscape shrinks the women who backed the #ForTheGame movement and are now members of the PWHPA will be without roster spots. For instance, there are those who believe that if one league is established, it will host anywhere from six to eight teams. Prior to the closure of the CWHL, there were 11 professional women's teams between it and the NWHL.

“I had to have the conversation, right? ‘This might mean you’ve just played your last professional hockey game. Are you going to be OK with that?’” Knox said. “And the resounding answer, and I get goosebumps when I say it, was ‘Yes.’ Our players understand. They have careers. They’ve been at this grind through college and after college, and it’s the idea that this is our responsibility to leave the game better.”

Szabados echoed that. “All the players that are on board with this movement, selflessly, are trying to do it for the future generations. Unfortunately, I might be retired by that time. I’m 32, I’ll be 33 this summer. It’s not for the near future, to say the least. The players are on board for the long haul and not looking for a quick fix or something that will benefit us right away. It’s a long-term goal to grow the game.”

And for those involved, the hope is that the formation of the PWHPA – which will provide them with support as they chase their goal – puts them one step closer to that brighter future. No one involved believes it will be smooth sailing the rest of the way, either, and each of Coyle, Szabados and Knox acknowledged that there’s risk involved, incredibly difficult work ahead and will undoubtedly be times of worry.

“It is scary. It’s a scary thing,” Knox said. “But changing history is not going to be easy.”

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