More than 200 of the world’s top women’s hockey players announced the formation of a players association Monday, the latest turn in a bid to get the National Hockey League to back a pro women’s league that would provide adequate funding and support.
The news release about the creation of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) didn’t mention the NHL by name, but the move to unionize comes after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League announced it would shutter operations in March and players said they would boycott the five-team National Women’s Hockey League.
Team USA standouts Hilary Knight and Meghan Duggan have previously advocated that the NHL take on a bigger role in supporting a women’s professional league.
“We are fortunate to be ambassadors of this beautiful game, and it is our responsibility to make sure the next generation of players have more opportunities than we had,” Kendall Coyne, a key player in last year’s gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team, said in a statement. “It’s time to stand together and work to create a viable league that will allow us to enjoy the benefits of our hard work.”
Ballard Spahr, the same law firm behind the negotiations for better pay and other resources for the U.S. women’s team two years ago, is working pro bono on behalf of the PWHPA to help create a league that has the financial resources to pay a fair wage, provide insurance and support training programs for younger female players.
Dee Spagnuolo, a partner at Ballard Spahr, pointed out on multiple occasions during a phone interview with USA TODAY Sports that the purpose of the formation of the PWHPA isn’t to bargain with the NHL to fund a women’s hockey league.
“We can’t speak for the NHL,” Spahr said. “The singular focus of the PWHPA is to create a sustainable league for professional women’s hockey in North America. It’s the NHL’s decision (whether to back the effort) and we don’t speak for them.”
Spagnuolo acknowledged that the NBA’s backing of the WNBA – the most successful women’s league in the history of North American sports – is a “successful model” and starting a North American women’s league would “benefit from the economy of scale” that an existing professional league can provide.
“We’re trying to build what our male counterparts have in the NHL,” Knight told Sports Illustrated in April. “So to be in a constant working relationship with the NHL is something that all of us are greatly interested in. The NHL has obviously valued women’s hockey for so long and has been generous with their support so far.”
The NHL has given women’s hockey players a platform, including Coyne’s fastest-skater entry at the NHL All-Star Skills competition in January. Team USA’s Brianna Decker also had the unofficial best score in the Premier Passer competition as she demonstrated the event, which led to a $25,000 payday from hockey equipment manufacturer CCM.
The statement released Monday also reiterated that top players are unified in their stance on not playing in the NWHL or anywhere else next season. The NWHL announced plans to push forward next season despite the player boycott.
The NHL said in a statement last month that it would “consider starting a women’s league if there were no alternatives for women to play professionally in North America.”
“We are prepared to stop playing for a year — which is crushing to even think about — because we know how important a sustainable league will be to the future of women’s sports,” Shannon Szabados, a two-time Olympic gold medalist from Team Canada, said in a statement. “We know we can make this work, and we want the chance to try.”
Spagnuolo said work is already underway to plan for a 2019-20 season if PWHPA members don’t play in a professional hockey league, including setting up training events and exhibitions.
A statement from the players earlier this month said the NWHL provides no health insurance and players were paid “as low as” $2,000 per season.
“We might play for different teams, and come from different countries, but we’re united in our goals,” Finnish goalie Noora Räty said in a statement. “This is about protecting ourselves, protecting our future and making hockey a better place for women and girls.”