Why is Professional Women’s Hockey Dying in Canada?

By: Brian Berry

The Human Side of Losing A Job You Love

Cassandra Poudrier spends her days in a Montréal high school working as a high school teacher, aiding students who need help learning French or getting adjusted to life in Québec.

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Poudrier must delicately balance personal, work, and professional life when playing women’s hockey professionally. Photo courtesy of CBC.

In her off time Poudrier also played for les Canadiennes de Montréal (Montreal Canadiens). You may have never heard of the team, but it’s one of the best teams in women’s hockey. Poudrier and her colleagues played 30 games, six against each of the five teams. Practicing after a full-time job Monday through Friday was normal for most players before the Canadian Women’s Hockey League ceased business on May 1. Poudrier won two gold medals representing Canada; one in the 2015 Nations Cup in Germany, and the other at the 2010 IIHF U18 World Championships in the United States.

The CWHL also had some of the most influential and talented players within it. Marie-Philip Poulin, the captain of Team Canada, and Team USA superstars Brianna Decker and Hilary Knight all played in the CWHL.

Poudrier is just one of many without a job though as of May 1. Around 150 of the best women hockey players in the world are out of a job.

The brutal reality for most professional women’s hockey players, and Poudrier’s teammates in Montréal, playing hockey isn’t sustainable $2,000 to $10,000 in salary from the CWHL, therefore most women must take up part-time and full-time jobs to play hockey, pay for healthcare, living accommodations, and a multitude of other things. Players take up a range of jobs, from real estate agent, financial advisor, police officer, to inspirational speaker.

Melanie Desrochers, also playing for the Canadiennes, is now looking for another team to join, hopefully in the United States National Women’s Hockey League. Desrochers is also a neuroscientist in Montréal, a career that takes numerous years at university

Caroline Ouellette, a former player for the Canadiennes, worked part-time at the Royal Bank of Canada while practicing Monday through Friday night and busing to games on the weekends. Juggling a job while being on the road the night prior is an almost impossible task for most of these women and isn’t sustainable.

One of the more tragic stories comes from Finland, where one of the greatest female goaltenders of all time, Noora Räty, retired at age 24 while in top form due to being unable to pay for a stable living situation. Räty had 43 career shutouts to her name and an undefeated season in NCAA division I play. “As much as I would love to just play the game I love and that has given me so much, I have to choose a work career. Why? Because who would then pay my rent, car loan and insurance, and other bills? The answer is no one,” posted Räty in a statement on Twitter.

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Noora Räty has since begun playing again, for both the Finnish national team and Kunlun Red Star, one of the teams affected by the CWHL closing.

“Today’s announcement of the CWHL comes with a heavy heart, but we know that heaviness isn’t just felt by the women who have represented the league on the ice,” wrote Katia Heydra, a player for the Canadiennes. Many other players echoed this same sentiment on twitter. “We are thankful and grateful for everyone who has made this league go and grow over the last 12 years – the countless volunteers, staff, coaches and mostly, our incredible fans.” Now most of these women will need to go back to a normalized life – one that they had before taking up hockey.

“It sucks, but if I’m being honest I didn’t watch at all,” said Lauren Kapisky, a former women’s bantam player in Surrey, British Columbia. “It’s hard to watch something that isn’t the best product. Would you rather watch five-year-olds play flag football or watch an NFL team play? It’s not a fair fight between the CWHL and the NHL with differences in competitiveness.”

What Went Wrong?

Many issues plagued the CWHL. One of them being the fact that women are hindered by pay and not allowed to get the most exclusive training like NHL players get. Not getting the best training can mean a flawed-on ice product that doesn’t relate well to the high level of talent we see in the NHL and even in the Canadian men’s junior leagues. The best trainers and gyms belong to the NHL while finding ice time while balancing a job and family life can be hard for women in the league.

Each team is given a salary cap of $100,000, although most teams couldn’t sustain that due to costs of maintenance at arenas as well as advertising costs. The CWHL finals between the Calgary Inferno and Les Canadiennes de Montréal garnered 175,000 viewers, which was broadcast all across Canada and the United States. Before this game, the most watched CWHL game was between Montreal and Toronto, with 136,400 viewers tuning in. The average viewer count for an NHL game on NBC is roughly 300,000, a decaying number since 2012. A financial statement said that the CWHL made just over $200,000 per year.

A lack of media attention from popular Canadian outlets like Sportsnet and TSN also contributed to the downfall. The stories of John Tavares joining his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs and possibly the greatest player of our generation, Connor McDavid in Edmonton, outshine the storylines that come out of the CWHL.

While most think that women’s hockey is inferior in terms of talent to the NHL and other men’s leagues, there is a group that does think that women’s hockey is a better spectacle to watch. “We live in a society where people do not value women’s sport,” said Inferno general manager Kristen Hagg in a statement to city council. “Most of us have been socialized to accept men’s sport as dominant and somehow automatically more interesting. The problem is that once society internalizes falsehood, it’s not easy to correct it.”

Most of the thought that women’s hockey is inferior comes from the rules and speed of the CWHL. The league doesn’t allow hitting, something that is a core piece of hockey. Imagine football without hitting, but instead tagging the person to go down. Viewership numbers would plummet dramatically, as have numbers for the CWHL. The game is also generally slower and sloppier, something that may not be appeasing to fans after watching the likes of Connor McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, and Patrick Kane.

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Members of the Canadiennes with the Clarkson Cup, the trophy given to the championship winning team in the CWHL. Two years after this photo was taken in 2017, their trophy and league was taken away. Photo courtesy of CBC.

Couple the low revenue with the decaying value of the Canadian dollar and the league was never meant to succeed. $10,000 Canadian is translated to $7,465.55 U.S. For any American players playing in Canada, it’s unrealistic to lose money when one could play in the NWHL, based in the United States where players are paid in U.S. dollars. Some of the most prestigious training facilities are also located in the U.S., further complicating matters when looking for offseason training. One thing that puts the NWHL ahead of the CWHL is also salary. The minimum salary for a player is $10,000, as well as players earning 15% of profits from any jersey with their name on it. The higher population of cities also plays a part in team popularity.

This wasn’t always the issue though. The CWHL didn’t pay their players for quite some time, working as a nonprofit league, where women could come and play the game they love for no payment at all. However, the CWHL had to start covering travel and equipment costs, along with salaries, due to growth in popularity.

To try at recovering, the CWHL expanded to China, a relatively untapped market with an extremely large population where NHL games are held every season. The CWHL formed the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays although the team would only see one year in the CWHL before the closing of the league. The team only had one other team in China, Kunlun Red Star, for competition and North American fans were unwilling to watch the games at weird hours of the day/night.

“If you look at China and the magnitude of their business and the magnitude of the population there, it’s the perfect opportunity to grow our game,” said Brenda Andress, the CWHL’s former commissioner, in a press conference.

The addition of the Chinese teams would have hopefully helped start paying players with a budget of $3.7 million in 2017-18. However, the investment quickly turned into a loss as viewership numbers were down and the league lost the financial backing from Roustan Capital, an investor in the CWHL.

What’s Next?

The NWHL, mainly based in the U.S., currently has plans to expand into Toronto and Montreal due to the CWHL closing, hopefully grabbing the attention of former CWHL fans.

Players from the NWHL have begun to boycott playing this upcoming season in hope of the NWHL stepping in and adding more teams for players from the CWHL to play for. Over 200 women’s hockey players have committed to boycotting all sorts of pro leagues.

Hilary Knight, forward for team USA and one of the best in the world, is one of the supporters of the boycott.

“We are fortunate to be ambassadors of this game that we revere so deeply and yet, more than ever, we understand the responsibility that comes with that ambassadorship: To leave this game in better shape than when we entered it,” said Hilary Knight over a statement from her personal Twitter account. “That is why we come together, over 200 players strong, to say it is time to create a sustainable professional league for Women’s Hockey.”

It won’t be that simple though. After the CWHL folded, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman raised the NHL’s contributions to the NWHL from $50,000 to $100,000. The reasoning behind the increase was to hopefully prevent the same thing happening to the NWHL. It helps but won’t be nearly enough to keep the NWHL afloat with the introduction of hundreds of new players from the CWHL.

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Gary Bettman has been the commissioner of the NHL since the positions conception in 1993 after working for the NBA where he developed the system of a soft cap. Photo courtesy of CBC.

Hypothetically, if the NHL were to step up into a much larger role, women’s hockey would have to deal with Bettman, a notoriously ruthless businessmen that doesn’t flinch in negotiations (see 2012-2013 player lockout, one that went on for months before an agreement was finally reached). He won’t do anything that won’t benefit his league immediately. Bettman could be an enemy than a friend of women’s hockey. If the NWHL also closes due to financial struggles, Bettman would be the spearhead for a league that follows, one that he has complete control of.

There’s a lot of things in the way of women’s hockey being popular in both Canada and the United States. A league that doesn’t allow hitting will never appeal to a mass audience. Even looking at women’s basketball, the WNBA is a league that runs at a deficit even though it has a heavy influx of cash from the NBA.

The CWHL is currently auctioning off gear and trophies to anyone interested.

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