The creation of the NWHL could be a threat to the CWHL. And women's hockey as a whole.
Photo via Flickr user Masha
Annie Guay works at a goldmine in Northern Quebec, a well-paying gig that's worlds away from her first love.
"If you ask me if I'm as passionate about my job as I was about hockey, it's no contest," she says. "I'd go back to hockey any day."
Guay played for more than a third of her life. A childhood on the ice brought on a full scholarship to play for the prestigious St-Lawrence University Saints, in New York. After college, she played professionally for the Montreal Stars of the Canadian Women's Hockey League before joining Canada's national women's team.
But unlike most men who achieve the same heights of hockey success, Guay had to leave the sport in order to make a decent living. "All the girls I played with, even Olympian girls, ended up having to pay to play," she says.
In North America, professional women's hockey is typically not a sustainable occupation.
Until now. Well, kind of.
A new American organization, the National Women's Hockey League, stepped onto the scene last spring with a promise to offer its players a (modest) income.
"The minimum salary is $10,000 and the average is $15,000," says NWHL founder Dani Rylan, adding that top players will be able to earn up to $25,000. Not quite enough for most to live off the sport (and a far cry from the millions that men rake in) but a salary, nonetheless.
While this may seem like a great development for women's hockey, the launch of this new league is also quite contentious.
That's because the NWHL will exist in complete isolation from North America's existing women's league, the CWHL, which has teams in both Canada and the U.S. and has spent nearly a decade building its fan base. The CWHL, however, has yet to pay its players actual wages.
Essentially, the arrival of this second league means that a sport that has spent years struggling to gain a following will now be pulling its fans, its sponsors and its players in two different directions. Guay says that while the prospect of a decent wage is promising, the separation seems counterproductive. "I would have preferred to see a partnership," she says. "Now, they're going to work in silos, the sport will progress in silos, and it's going to increase the tensions between Americans and Canadians."
Rylan, a former player for the Northeastern University Huskies, had initially considered creating a New York team within the CWHL umbrella, but opted to create her own league instead. VICE met with her in a Montreal arena, during a Canadian recruitment trip in early July.
"I was looking at different options and I thought women's hockey was really at a crossroads," the 27-year-old explains. "I thought this was a good option to take it to the next level and pay the players for being the best at what they do."
In fact, she feels the shakeup was overdue. "In all honesty, the best time for the change would have been after the 2014 Olympics, when the women's gold medal game was the most watched event on NBC," she says. Frustrated with the lack of movement, Rylan felt compelled to rise to the challenge. "Someone had to step up and kind of force the hand to make women's hockey take that next step."
The NWHL's money will come from both sponsors and donors, which will provide each of the league's four founding teams with a $270,000 salary cap, split between a maximum of 18 players. "We're a hybrid model so it's the NWHL & the NWHL foundation, a cross-border non-profit," she says.
It's an ambitious project, but it begs the question: If this is a viable business model, why didn't the CWHL think of it first?
Representatives from the Canadian league have been sparse in their public reaction to the new organization. On the league's official website, the only mention is a less-than-enthusiastic news release written last March.
CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress told VICE that while the two leagues share a passion, her organization's focus has been on sustainability. "We share the passion of this new group, and we're committed to any group that's committed to growing the game," Andress says. "For us, it's about growing the game in the right way."
She maintains this doesn't imply the NWHL model is the wrong way. "We've done our research," she says. "For us, it's about sound operational and financial foundations first because we want to ensure the viability of the long term.
"You can't have more teams than what the fan base is, you can't pay players all this amount of money and recoup the money, or we'd have done it."
Andress says the Canadian league has in fact started paying its players, though "not enough to make a living." VICE later confirmed these earnings are mainly prize money given to tournament champions and outstanding athletes. The women can also receive government stipends as well as money from Hockey Canada and USA Hockey, and some have sponsors.
Beefing up these often-meager amounts has been the CWHL's goal for years, but Andress says getting the right funding is still a huge challenge. "If you think there's some wonderful sponsor or owner out there that's in to grow the game, truly grow the game... We've asked, we've gone to them!"
Andress says her group reached out to Rylan to discuss joining forces, but that she hadn't heard back. Rylan told VICE she has yet to be contacted. "If they have some ideas we'd love to hear from them, for sure," she says.
For now, Rylan and the NWHL are moving ahead without the Canadians' input. "We look to co-exist with the CWHL," she says repeatedly. In early July, the NWHL hosted training camps in four Canadian cities to recruit players, attracting dozens of women from both the U.S. and Canada. The cross-border scouting hints at bigger plans that could further shake up the Canadian league, which had been working on developing its own international presence with a second american team.
"We definitely have an emphasis on making year one as successful as possible with our founding four cities and then we'd love to expand across the border eventually," Rylan says. As of now, the league has teams in Buffalo, Connecticut, New York and in Boston, where the CWHL also has a franchise.
Andress confirms that about five of the CWHL's American players have now asked to break their contracts, presumably to join the NWHL. Nevertheless, she says the new competition will not impact her league's U.S. presence. "We are still very much going to have a Boston team."
Guay says that if the opportunities offered by the NWHL had been available during her hockey heyday, she would have considered moving to the U.S. for the sport. She believes the Canadians will now have to do more to attract and retain players. "If the best women go to the U.S., in a few years, you probably won't have to choose between both leagues," she says.
"Makes me really sad, considering all the progress we've made in Canada, and then bang, we're just tossed aside."
When the season launches in October, both leagues will play within themselves.