Women’s Pro Hockey Players To Sit-Out 2019-20 Season In Solidarity

After four weeks of negotiations between both executives and players from both leagues, the decision was decided on Thursday May 2nd to sit out the 2019-2020 season. The news came just a day after the CWHL officially ceased all operations.

Back on the 30th of April, it was reported by Hailey Salvian and Katie Strang that Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne-Schofield were jointly spearheading an effort to get all players on the same page and galvanize the group as well.

Since the two key figures for the women’s game were assigned with the leadership roles for the initiative, sources indicated that an all-players call took place the previous week to continue discussing all viable options.

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With Knight a former member of the Boston Pride of the NWHL, the Montreal defensemen and Schofield gathered both CWHL and NWHL players to reconvene and round up the latest group of ideas with regards to the options left at their disposal.

Of course since the CWHL announced that they would shut down at the end of March, a boycott has been a prominent topic of discussion atop the list of potential outcomes. Further to that regard after many conversations throughout the month, that is exactly what the players agreed upon, sitting out of all North American professional hockey leagues.

As Salvian and Strang reported for The Athletic on April 30th, an announcement about their playing future was expected to be made as soon as this week with conversation picking up significantly on the best course of action for professional women’s hockey.

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Since the players announced their decision around 11:00amET on the second of May, several of the CWHL players have been more vocal than others in a partnership that was launched with Bauer. To that extent with the hope that this helps to form a single unified league, the appeal of an NHL backed league continues to sit on the sidelines behind the NWHL.

Speaking of which, a short time after the release was made public, commissioner Dani Rylan released a statement saying as of now, the NWHL plans to have a fifth season begin in October. However, this goes without saying that they remain open to hearing ideas from players and understand the objective and therefore will give players time to weigh all their options.

For the time being, the NWHL is the only professional women’s hockey league left standing, however, with the league based on a for-profit model, like the CWHL, it might not be economically sustainable in the long term. That is essentially where the National Hockey League would then find their footing.

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As Gary Bettman told Dani Rylan after the league’s board of directors approved an expansion, “if she is successful, we (the NHL) will not interfere”, though they remain hesitant to assume all controls. However, Bettman and fans alike remain confident that an NHL-backed league is the best course of action.

When speaking recently on Sportsnet 590 amidst negotiations between players and staff, Bettman said, “What we have said is that if there’s no opportunity for women to play professional hockey we would explore what makes sense or might be appropriate but by the same token I didn’t want to be presumptuous or even bully-like by saying we’re going to start a league and put them out of business. I didn’t think that’s appropriate.”

It’s surely an idea that has gained traction between fans, players, media members and staff while a number of executives have commented as well, including Markham Thunder general manager Chelsea Purcell. To that extent, she said with regards to the matter, “You know if the NHL says its willing to do something, they will do it right. The worst-case scenario for me is, you do it, it fails, OK we tried, let’s go back to a different model. I think when you have the opportunity like this, if this is what the players want, and it seems some of them do, as long as we stand together, and speak as one, we will push for whatever the players want and will support them. Really, we want what is best for the players and in my own opinion, an NHL league is the best option right now.”

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What is interesting to note from the combined release as pointed out by Katie Strang is that neither the NHL or the NWHL are explicitly mentioned in the steps moving forward with just under six months left to go until puck drop.

As Strang goes on to make mention, the NHL has repeatedly stated that it won’t get involved with professional women’s hockey while the NWHL is still in operation. The NHL held a similar stance prior to the closure of the CWHL while Bettman noted that he did not believe in the business models of either organization.

In a statement from Bill Daly, Deputy Commissioner, on Thursday morning, he said, “We have not been involved at all in this most recent development and we will need some time to better understand what the full picture and implications look like.”

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As Daly went on to say, “We certainly support the objective of both the NWHL and the elite Women’s Players of allowing for the opportunity of women hockey players to play the sport at the professional level. And, yes, we have frequently been in communication with all of the relevant stakeholders regarding ways to grow the sport as a whole, and particularly as it relates to Women’s Hockey.”

While over 200 professional athletes plan to stand in solidarity with the CWHL, Katie Strang notes that the no use of the word boycott in the release from the players was done intentionally. Further to that regard, players don’t want this gap year to be seen as a year of waiting around or simply sitting out, but rather a year driven by purpose to bring the game together in the best way they know how.

Another interesting factor to consider would be the fact that the player release did not mention the National Hockey League while they did not mention the NWHL either, though it is believed the NHL is in the mix. 

Shanna Martin/CWHL

If the NWHL goes ahead with a fifth season of play, the question will be how another league goes about the separation of players for those who need the financial support as opposed to those supported by Hockey Canada or USA Hockey. This is of course would be the case unless the NWHL decides to fold as there has been preliminary discussion in recent weeks of new leagues popping up in the CWHL’s interim. The NHL has also begun minimal talks with a person with knowledge of the situation saying, “There is a plan.” 

In a statement from Hilary Knight following the formal agreement on Thursday May 2nd, she said, “It’s more about the generations to come. … We want the best professional players on the ice at all times and we want to showcase the best product and we want the fans to always look up to us and see the best form of women’s hockey they can. And right now we don’t have a platform to provide that.”

Knight was not alone in offering an opinion on Thursday’s developments as Kendall Coyne Schofield then added her two cents when she said from the NWHL point of view, “It didn’t provide the business model, the resources that the game needs and the players deserve.”

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When asked for explanation as to why the NWHL is not viable either, she said from personal experience that she couldn’t even afford to move to Minnesota full time last year. When asked for her take on the joint statement with regards to the so-called sit-out, Coyne-Schofield said, “Because this is not a boycott. This is a year that people committed to not playing in any pro league in North America. It’s not a boycott. You can use the term gap year.”

While these two spearhead the NWHL movement to stand side by side with the CWHL, they are not alone as NWHLPA player’s association director Anya Battaglino added her two sense as well. To that regard, the former Whale defensemen said, “Women’s hockey deserves a singular platform for growth and development. This year, there is the ability to have all of the best talent globally on one stage. It pains me to see another segmentation, as it is counterintuitive for the betterment of our game.”

There is a passion and drive that these women share when it comes to hitting the ice like the pro’s they are and in speaking about the considerations to evaluate to make the NWHL both sustainable and viable, Battaglino would close in saying, “Year over year, we have powered forward in our offseason negotiations to continuously improve our players’ wages and benefits, and I am excited for the negotiations this year as the contract on the table is another huge step forward for the NWHL players. I believe in the opportunities the NWHL has created, and the fans it has reached. We have a momentous opportunity here, and I hope the power of one league brings us together as opposed to driving this segmentation. This is the time for women’s hockey to rise, and become the premier destination for player development, and after a successful season completely unified, who knows what doors will open.”

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With more than 200 players sitting out for a bright future to come, the NWHL plans to roll on with their fifth season beginning in October. That is less than six months away with the next step forward beginning on Wednesday. That would be the start of the free agent signing period on the 15th in an effort to revamp the rosters and give players the chance to weigh all their options. Of course that is a familiar theme as the future of women’s hockey continues to loom.

That being said, however, the NWHLPA has since stepped in to speak with its players and conversations are said to have been productive, though, they are ongoing at this time. Legal representatives have been involved throughout the process as discussions continue to take place to ensure a viable future for all those involved.

While of course not all players are on board with the plan to boycott the upcoming season, it brings another interesting aspect to this case as Hockey Canada and USA Hockey join the National Hockey League to discuss alternate plans. This of course becomes the case following significant displeasure from a number of players who’s careers now lie in question given they are not financially secure with international sponsorships.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

With this issue being just one of many uncertainties at the forefront, it raises much more concern than just financial struggle to players. It also leaves many without professional teams to provide them with the necessary training, competition and resources. This includes national team members as well as those who are now out of a job. That being said, given the limited discussions they have had during their involvement, it could very well lead to the turning point where USA Hockey or Hockey Canada steps in to assist.

With no confirmation of any ongoing conversations that may be at the helm, it is worth mentioning that a source of knowledge has indicated to The Athletic that Hockey Canada has some contingency plans in place. This of course would take further action should all NWHL players agree to sit out the season which would provide that reassurance that they are able to continue both playing and training. With this sparking curiosity as to whether or not it may actually happen, Hockey Canada received a request, however, could not be immediately reached for comment.

While every precaution is being taken to ensure that these talented athletes are left with a future, it appears as if USA Hockey is taking a slower approach to maintain the women’s game. With that in mind, the organization has not yet indicated what its plans might be to lend a helping hand, however, that didn’t stop them from providing comment as executive director Pat Kelleher said, “While we’re certainly an interested party in the happenings on the professional side of the game, our priority is on continuing to grow the game at the grassroots level and enhancing and supporting our national team program. We’re excited about the programming we have planned for the upcoming season with our women’s national team and we’ll have more to share on that in the months ahead.”

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