It has been eight months since the best professional women’s hockey players in the world have played a meaningful game. And it will likely be at least two months before they play another one and who knows the next time they’ll be able to play in front of paying customers. The Women’s World Championship was scratched in 2020 and, while the International Ice Hockey Federation still has it scheduled for 2021 in Nova Scotia, it has already cancelled the World Women’s Under-18 Championship and there are no guarantees the senior tournament will go ahead.
Yes, it has been a trying time for women’s hockey, but that doesn’t mean there is not support for it. The great divide still exists with the National Women’s Hockey League on one side and the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association on the other. And the NHL doesn’t appear to be anywhere near on board when it comes to funding one league. But after months of uncertainty, we’re beginning to see some tangible initiatives from both to provide women with at least something resembling a hockey season.
Let’s start with the NWHL, which announced Wednesday that it will hold its season and Isobel Cup playoffs in a two-week bubble in Lake Placid from Jan. 23 through Feb. 5. Each of the league’s six teams – the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters, Minnesota Whitecaps and the expansion Toronto Six – will play a round-robin schedule for a total of 15 games. There will then be a playoff round to determine the four semifinalists, with the winners of the semifinals advancing to the Isobel Cup championship game Feb. 5.
This is not an insignificant endeavor. The NWHL announced that it will pay its players their full salaries, whether or not they opt to play in the bubble. With an average of $150,000 in salary per team, that’s $900,000 right there. It’s estimated that hosting the players will cost about $2 million, salaries included. Two of the teams, Boston and Toronto, are privately owned, and the league has about 20 outside investors.
The league is in the second year of a three-year deal to have all its games live streamed on Twitch. Last season, the league generated more than eight million views. But with the schedule being compacted into just two weeks, it seems like a made-for-TV event. Undoubtedly, the league will be trying to add an over-the-air partner for the tournament.
“The continued challenges brought by the pandemic resulted in a mandate for our league, players and partners to collaborate on creating a controlled environment protecting the health of everyone involved,” NWHL interim commissioner Tyler Tumminia, who recently took over from league founder Dani Rylan, said in a news release. “At a time of hyper-growth for girls’ and women’s hockey, we see this season as a celebration of the sport. This will be a historic moment as the hallowed arena that was the site of the ‘Miracle on Ice’ in 1980 hosts its first women’s professional championship. It is a proud moment for the NWHL, the players and all hockey fans.”
The PWHPA, meanwhile, with a $1 million commitment from Secret Deodorant, is intent on holding its Dream Gap Tour again this season. Its five teams – from Toronto, Calgary, Montreal, Minnesota and New Hampshire – will also compete for the Secret Cup, with roughly one-third of the $1 million commitment going toward prize money for the event. The association has yet to announce dates or venues or whether or not there will fans in the buildings, but it has plans to play six showcase events, featuring 125 players, including 38 Olympians. The same day the NWHL announced its plans, the Toronto team announced a sponsorship deal with Sonnet, a Canadian digital auto and home insurance company. The team will be known as Team Sonnet.
Until that time, teams for both organizations will continue working out and practicing as local medical protocols allow. The NWHL started voluntary workouts in September and full practices in October. Those practices will continue until the teams travel to Lake Placid. The PWHPA is providing players with three training sessions per week, but COVID-19 restrictions have made that set-up less than ideal.
As far as having one unified pro league that allows women players to pursue hockey careers full-time, well, it doesn’t look as though we’re any closer to that happening now than before. In fact, with the uncertainty created by the pandemic, that goal might even be more elusive than ever. The NHL, while supportive of women’s hockey, the league has never displayed a firm commitment to funding a league. And with revenues plummeting badly last season and almost certainly even worse in 2020-21, you have to wonder about the league’s appetite to financially back women’s hockey anytime in the immediate future.
But the women’s game forges on. And in 2020-21 at least, a little bit of women’s hockey is better than no women’s hockey.