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Renata Fast, of the Professional Women's Hockey Player's Association, at the Carmen Corbasson Community Centre in Mississauga, Ont., on Sept. 17, 2019.Tijana Martin

Some of the biggest names in women’s hockey packed into a small dressing room in a suburban Mississauga arena for a late-evening practice this week, including Canadian Olympians Natalie Spooner, Renata Fast and Sarah Nurse.

They excitedly tried on new equipment and jerseys, yet these stars of the sport won’t play in any league this year. After the Canadian Women’s Hockey League shut down in March, some 200 of the world’s top female hockey players pledged en masse not to play in any professional league in North America this season until there is a single sustainable pro league that will pay its players a livable wage.

So these holdouts gathered in groups at various rinks across the continent this week – such as the one in Mississauga – and laced up their skates to prepare for something else.

They have formed the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association and they will take their hockey to audiences in different ways. In lieu of playing in a league, the women will compete against one another in a series of showcase events in multiple North American cities. Regardless of which country or city she has represented before, each woman will wear the same PWHPA logo on her jersey.

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In lieu of playing in a league, the women of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association will compete against one another in a series of showcase events in multiple North American cities.Tijana Martin

They are calling it the Dream Gap Tour, and its first event is a four-game exhibition tournament in Toronto this weekend. The tour aims to highlight the gap between what boys and girls can aspire to achieve as professional hockey players. It provides the women opportunities to compete this year, puts their struggle before the public and keeps women’s hockey from vanishing from the public eye until the next Olympics or world championship.

The players describe this as “a season of action” and “a bridge year.” They are seeking the advice of Billie Jean King and the women who pioneered pay equity in pro tennis four decades ago. Where this bridge actually leads remains foggy, especially because there are still pro players outside this galvanized group, getting ready to suit up in the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League.

So will these female hockey players sit out from league play for just a single season, or could it be longer? What exactly do they want to achieve this year?

“If it was just me coming out and demanding a better pro league, no one would listen to one person. But when we all stand together and share our collective goal, that is really powerful,” Spooner said. “Hopefully we have lots of young girls out watching the tour, seeing that even though we don’t have the CWHL any more, we’re fighting for a pro league that they can play in when they’re older. It’s a scary time for women’s hockey, but it’s also a really exciting time.”

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'It’s a scary time for women’s hockey, but it’s also a really exciting time,' says Canadian Olympian Natalie Spooner.Tijana Martin

Great success, then upheaval

Women’s hockey has made huge news in the past two years:

  • The U.S. women’s team’s fight against USA Hockey for a pay raise.
  • At the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, the United States ended Canada’s streak of four successive Olympic gold medals.
  • U.S. star Kendall Coyne Schofield skated a blazing-fast lap on live TV at the NHL all-star skills competition.
  • A new U.S.-Canada rivalry series was born – a collaboration between the NHL, Hockey Canada and USA Hockey that provided three intense games in three cities last winter.
  • Finland had a Cinderella run to the gold-medal final at the 2019 women’s world hockey championships, serving notice it is ready to push the sport’s two long-standing North American powers.
  • A record TV audience of 175,000 watched the Calgary Inferno topple Les Canadiennes de Montréal to win the Clarkson Cup as CWHL champs.
  • The Minnesota Whitecaps downed the Buffalo Beauts before a sold-out crowd in Minneapolis to hoist the Isobel Cup in the NWHL.

It seemed as though women’s hockey was on the upswing.

But abruptly, one week after awarding its Clarkson Cup, the CWHL sent shock waves through the sport by announcing its closing, citing poor revenues and an unsustainable operational model. Over 12 seasons of existence, the CWHL paid its players for just the final two and, even then, it wasn’t much – between $2,000 and $10,000 a year.

That left its 150 players without a league, including Canadian Olympic luminaries such as Spooner, Fast and Marie-Philip Poulin, and Americans Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker. There was speculation many of the best would flock to the NWHL, where other standouts such as Schofield and Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados played last year. Within days, the NWHL announced its desire to grow beyond its five U.S. franchises by adding expansion teams in Toronto and Montreal.

In May, some 200 players from both leagues pledged publicly not to play professionally anywhere in North America and to stand together as one. The NWHL put off expansion plans and pressed on with its five teams toward a season scheduled to open on Oct. 5, despite many of its marquee women intending to sit the year.

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One week after awarding its Clarkson Cup, the CWHL sent shock waves through the sport by announcing its closing, citing poor revenues and an unsustainable operational model.Tijana Martin

The players sitting out paid a membership fee to be part of the PWHPA (they declined to say how much). To prepare for these showcases and to help the players keep improving, the PWHPA has organized a network of regional training sites for its members in Mississauga, Markham, Ont., Calgary, Montreal, Boston, Buffalo, Minnesota and one called Tri-State for players living in New York, New Hampshire and Connecticut.

Each region offers two to three practices a week, and PWHPA members can pop into any of them if they’re travelling. There are no league standings to climb and no trophy to win, so each woman must look elsewhere for motivation.

“It’s unfortunate what happened in the past, but we’re looking only straight ahead now, and we have a unique chance to go interact with fans in different cities in North America this year,” said Fast, dripping with sweat after a late-evening practice in Mississauga that featured 17 Toronto-area women, many of whom had been her teammates on the CWHL’s Toronto Furies. “It’s on all of us to push each other really hard to keep the competitive level high in these training sessions while we’re not playing in any league games.”

The Dream Gap Tour has announced just five events so far – all in September and October – but hopes for more if they are well attended and make revenue. They all include added community events with youth, too. In Toronto, some 80 players will split into four rosters and play a four-game exhibition tournament at a suburban rink called Westwood Arena, where tickets run $15 a game, with discounted daily and weekly passes also available. It will feature some U.S. stars such as Knight and Decker, but will be heavy on Canadian Olympians such as Poulin, Spooner, Brianne Jenner, Nurse and Fast.

The next showcase will be in Hudson, N.H., and the rosters will be robust with U.S. superstars. Then one in Chicago with a Team USA vs. the World theme, featuring 35 Olympians including Finnish star goalie Noora Raty. They have also announced an exhibition game against San Jose Sharks alumni.

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The Dream Gap Tour has announced just five events so far – all in September and October – but hopes for more if they are well attended and make revenue.Tijana Martin

Many of the coaches and other staff who used to have paid jobs with the CWHL and its teams are now volunteering their time to manage the training spaces. They’re also tasked with trying to put on polished-looking showcases to win over fans and supporters who might want to be involved in a future pro women’s league.

Loren Gabel will be among the players competing in the Toronto showcase. The Kitchener, Ont., native just graduated from Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., where she won the Patty Kazmaier Award as the top player in NCAA Division I women’s hockey. She also made her debut with Canada’s senior national team last fall.

“I think what we are doing here will be for the better, we’re working for something better for future generations,” said 22-year-old Gabel, also part of the group training regularly in Mississauga. “I think this women’s pro hockey should look more like what we experienced in university. You’re on the ice every day, everyone is situated in the same area and you can really get to know one another as a team, games on weekends, maybe one or two during the week. You get access to great facilities. The reality started to hit me when I graduated that I won’t have access to that kind of environment any more.”

The PWHPA is getting pro bono support and advice from Billie Jean King Enterprises, a consultancy founded by the legendary tennis star who spearheaded the equity crusade for women in pro tennis in 1973. The company agreed to help when Coyne Schofield called them this summer.

King’s company landed the title sponsor for the Chicago showcase – Magellan Corporation – and will run that event for the PWHPA, which King herself will attend. Adidas brought a small group of the female hockey players it sponsors to the U.S. Open in New York, where they were able to meet King in person.

“These hockey players are very smart and passionate, and what impressed us most is that while these players might see some benefit in what they’re trying to do, they’re really doing this for the next generation,” said Ilana Kloss, the principal partner at Billie Jean King Enterprises, also a former pro tennis player and commissioner of World Team Tennis.

“Women’s tennis started this, then the WNBA, then women’s soccer, and women’s hockey is way behind. But at the same time, their timing in history is great because people and businesses are really paying attention to all the conversation about women in sports right now.”

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The PWHPA is getting pro bono support and advice from Billie Jean King Enterprises, a consultancy founded by the legendary tennis star.Tijana Martin

The PWHPA also convinced Jayna Hefford to be an operations consultant. Hefford is a five-time Canadian Olympic medalist and Hockey Hall of Famer who was the CWHL commissioner when it decided to shut down. She said she thought long and hard about whether she wanted to jump back into the fray, but she couldn’t say no to the players.

“As challenging and disappointing as the discontinuation of the CWHL was, the positive that came out of it was that it changed the conversation around women’s hockey in our country. We’re seeing a really positive response from sponsors,” Hefford said. “I think it was a wake-up call in some ways. Players were still earning as little as $2,000 a year to play hockey, and that wasn’t a truly professional league. I don’t think people on the outside really understood that, because the hockey was still great. It was so shocking and disappointing for Canadians to see it close down.”

Marquee players with their own sponsorship deals asked those companies to pitch in to help the larger cause, too.

The PWHPA has drawn an impressive group of big-name corporate sponsors, and many of them are helping foot the bill for the showcases and training, such as Unifor (the largest private-sector union in Canada), the Toronto Maple Leafs, U.S.-based coffee-and-doughnut chain Dunkin and the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association.

Bauer is supplying equipment, Adidas is supplying everything from jerseys to sports bras and shower sandals. Budweiser Canada will operate a beer garden at the Toronto event and sponsor livestreaming of its games on the PWHPA’s website.

Hefford hopes the corporate sponsorship muscle will lend legitimacy to the idea that women’s pro hockey would be supported. Of course, proof will also come from how well attended the showcase events are.

The PWHPA says it has 175 on-ice members playing or training and approximately 35 who won’t play this season but are helping as support staff. The members hail from seven countries, 59 of them have played on national teams and 42 are Olympians.

“I played in the CWHL and the NWHL, and both leagues struggled to let athletes support themselves with hockey,” said Alyssa Gagliardi, an American who most recently played for the NWHL’s Boston Pride and is now helping organize the training centre for the players in the New England region. “The infrastructure they were initially built on didn’t work. It’s inspiring to see it’s being done in other women’s sports, like tennis. We’re not looking for a $3-million prize here like tennis players make; we’re just looking for a living wage.”

Not everyone sees the PWHPA’s tactic of sitting out this year as the way to accomplish that one viable league. As of Friday, the NWHL had 91 players signed for this season and expects to sign more before its regular season begins on Oct. 5. Some of those players initially posted the same pledge on social media with the PWHPA not to play this season, but then changed their minds. Others never had doubts they would play.

“I love hockey so much and I didn’t sit out this year because I thought the NWHL provides structure and I’ve seen growth playing here since the league began,” said Madison Packer of the New Jersey-based NWHL team, the Metropolitan Riveters, who says her base salary this season will be US$12,000. “We have lots of fans and we a recognizable brand. I think there was a real opportunity to collaborate and work together when the CWHL folded, and I don’t think that was seized as well as it could have been.”

The NWHL has had recent ups and downs. Pegula Sports and Entertainment (owners of the Buffalo Sabres and NFL’s Bills) relinquished ownership of the Buffalo Beauts back to the NWHL. The New Jersey Devils ended their marketing partnership with the Riveters. Yet the league had many sellout games last year and said it has increased salaries 26 per cent this year. The players will also now get a 50-50 revenue split from league-level sponsorship and media-rights deals, such as the NWHL’s new three-year deal with streaming site Twitch.

Some can’t help but sense that the PWHPA wants the NWHL to fail so that the NHL can start a women’s league fresh.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in an interview on Sportsnet’s Prime Time Sports in April after the CWHL was shuttered that, “I’ve been pretty clear publicly and in discussions I’ve had with both leagues, and I didn’t believe and don’t believe that the current models are sustainable in the long-term – either one of them. … What we have said is, if there’s no opportunity for women to play professional hockey, then we would explore what would make sense or might be appropriate. … I didn’t want to be presumptuous or be even bully-like and say, ‘We’re going to start a league and put them out of business.’ ”

“That is a misguided idea that our future success is rooted in the failure of the NWHL. That’s not something we’re targeting,” said Liz Knox, a goalie for the CWHL’s Markham team, who co-chaired its players association and now plays a support role with the PWHPA. “Do we have to have support of the NHL to succeed? Some say yes, some say no. We believe we need the support of somebody who has success at helping a hockey product grow.”

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