With no paying professional women’s hockey league in North America, players have limited options after college.
by Betsy Helfand
Arguably the best women’s goaltender in the world announced her conditional retirement Feb. 15, shortly after her Finnish women’s hockey team fell out of Olympic medal contention.
Former University of Minnesota netminder Noora Räty is 24, and possibly hasn’t even hit her prime.
But with no North American professional league that pays, Räty posted a letter on Twitter announcing that she would hang up her skates for good if she couldn’t find a competitive league to play in.
“Asking players to work full time and then [train] like a pro athlete at the same time is just too much and unfair,” Räty wrote.
Her problem is one many women’s hockey players face after their college careers end.
In turn, players, coaches and fans are increasingly calling for a paid, professional North American league for women, but others still question its viability.
Surviving on a stipend
The best hope for a paying women’s league right now is the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. But the CWHL currently doesn’t pay its players.
“Everybody says we need to start a professional women’s hockey league,” CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress said. “We already have — it’s called the CWHL.
“What we need to do now is take the next steps in our professional league that starts to put the money into the players’ pockets.”
When the Olympics end, the top men’s hockey players return to the National Hockey League to compete for their respective teams.
The league minimum in the NHL is $550,000, and top players — like many of those competing in the Olympics — make millions each year.
That’s a far cry from the top female competitors, who make nothing beyond the stipend that some players receive from their national organizations, like USA Hockey.
“You can live on it, definitely, but it’s tough,” U.S. Olympian Anne Schleper said.
Schleper, a University of Minnesota alumna, spent a year after college with the Boston Blades, the only U.S.-based team currently competing in the CWHL.
“I hope that someday, a women’s league would be able to grow into something where that could be our full-time job,” Schleper said.
That’s still at least a few years away.
Many players in the league have other occupations, from coaching to attending graduate school or other jobs.
“I think it’s coming. I don’t think it’s coming fast enough for me,” Blades head coach Digit Murphy said. “I wanted it to come yesterday, but I’ll continue to lead the charge to push to get these women paid.”
Räty, meanwhile, has instead turned to men’s hockey. She recently inked a deal to play for a second-tier Finnish men’s league next season, an opportunity she’s excited about.
“It’s going to be really good hockey — a big challenge,” Räty said. “As a girl, you can’t complain if your teammates are 20 guys.”
Unlike USA Hockey, Finland and many others countries don’t provide a stipend, which magnified Räty’s problem.
“We’re on our own, so you better have a job if you want to pay your rent and be able to buy food,” Räty said.
Leading up to the Olympics, a typical weekday had Räty waking up at 4:30 a.m. to give private lessons, training and coaching throughout the day, and then sleeping for four or five hours before repeating the process.
It was grueling.
At some point, players have to decide whether to stay in the game. Women’s players often bow out before men do — the average age of the 2014 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team was 27.3, whereas the women’s average age was 23.9.
Natalie Darwitz, the University of Minnesota’s all-time leading scorer and a three-time Olympian, had to decide whether to continue pursuing an elusive gold medal after the 2010 Olympics or move on with her life.
“Looking around at my friends outside hockey, they have full-time jobs, and they’re making good money, whereas I’m living off a stipend,” Darwitz recalled.
Her boyfriend, who is now her husband, had to work extra hours to help support them while Darwitz played.
“Those two and a half weeks are worth it, but it’s those other three and a half years that are really tough,” Darwitz said about the Olympics.
Gophers head coach Brad Frost, who has coached Darwitz and coached with her, said she probably could have “trained for two months” and made the Olympic team.
“I look at Natalie and she’s somebody that retired way too early, in my opinion,” Frost said. “But it’s hard.”
Darwitz is now 30, and she most likely could have competed in Sochi.
But for elite women’s hockey players, financial concerns have forced players to quit their careers early.
“It was a really tough decision, but financially, it would have been really hard to make ends meet,” Darwitz said.
Creating a viable league
Aside from the Olympics and national team tournaments, opportunities to continue playing competitive hockey after college are sparse.
Hannah Brandt, a sophomore forward on the Gophers women’s hockey team, was second in the NCAA in points this season and stressed the importance of her education.
“I’m realistic. I’m a women’s hockey player,” Brandt said. “I’m not going to go anywhere with it, so I know that I need to do well in school [and] get good experience outside of school.”
There are other leagues around the world, but some question their level of competition. Räty wrote that she didn’t think the Russian women’s league would challenge her enough.
Because of this, the CWHL has become a hotspot for many of the top American and Canadian hockey players.
Founded in 2007, the league currently has five teams. This year, 24 CWHL players competed in the Olympics, including nine members of Team USA’s roster.
Players aren’t paid, but ice time, travel, officials, uniforms and more are covered. In the next five years, Commissioner Andress hopes to be able to pay players.
“I think you’re going to see us grow in ways that most people never thought,” she said. “I think … people are going to be quite surprised at how successful we’re going to be.”
While the CWHL is relatively new, the Women’s National Basketball Association, the most prominent women’s sports league in North America, was founded in 1996.
Historically, National Basketball Association franchises have owned WNBA teams, though the leagues are starting to move apart.
This isn’t a model the CWHL and NHL plan to follow.
“The NBA has lost a ton of money in the WNBA,” said CWHL board member Caitlin Cahow, a former Boston Blades player and U.S. Olympian. “They lose it because they give a lot of money to the WNBA which … allows them to pay their players. [That’s] awesome, but it’s not sustainable for the teams.”
Instead, the CWHL is growing through a parity model in which the league owns the teams and disburses money equally. This ensures quality competition and helps each team grow individually.
The CWHL is not the first women’s hockey league. The National Women’s Hockey League lasted from 1999 to 2007, and the Western Women’s Hockey League had an even shorter lifespan.
Andress said both leagues had a model in which individuals owned teams, creating equity issues.
“If those owners had more money, then the players would all go to the same team, so there’s always one strong team,” Andress said, adding that the CWHL’s model will help avoid similar problems.
In the league’s most recent playoffs, almost every game was decided by one goal, a sign that the parity model is working as planned.
Though the eventual goal is to franchise the teams out, Cahow said they need to create teams that are sustainable on their own before that happens.
“Our league would absolutely fail if we didn’t grow solid grassroots sponsorship efforts in each local community around the teams,” Cahow said.
Currently, the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames have developed partnerships with the respective CWHL teams in their cities. But CWHL teams aren’t subsidized like WNBA teams.
“In order to have a meaningful partnership with an NHL program, we need to demonstrate that we can bring them something, too,” Cahow said. “We need to demonstrate that a professional women’s ice hockey team is going to contribute to their bottom line.
“I think what the NHL teams are starting to realize is that we really can.”
The NHL commissioned Val Ackerman, the first WNBA president and current Big East commissioner, to look at the state of women’s hockey in January 2011. The results have not been made public.
In February, however, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman spoke on women’s hockey during the Olympics.
“The overall development of women’s hockey at the grassroots level through the college level isn’t at a point where a professional league is viable, but we very much believe in the importance of the women’s game,” Bettman told NBC Sports Network. “It’s going to take some more time, more development. And, you know, we’re still trying to grow men’s hockey.”
A young sport, growing interest
Women’s hockey is relatively new compared to the men’s side. It became an Olympic sport in 1998.
Brown University created a college team in 1964, but the NCAA didn’t adopt an official women’s ice hockey championship until the 2000-01 season.
“Women’s hockey is still a fairly young sport, and unfortunately, as you look around the country in the college teams, the attendance isn’t where it needs to be,” Gophers head coach Frost said.
Frost said both the fans and the media need to be on board for a professional league to be sustainable. That’s something the CWHL is well aware of.
“There’s not one NHL team that would exist right now if the fans didn’t go to the arena,” Andress said. “What matters is if the fan is coming to watch.”
The CWHL’s attendance has been relatively low, with usually only 100 to 200 fans per game. Televising games would be a crucial step for the league’s development.
“I think that what we need to do is, honestly, get television contracts,” Boston Blades head coach Murphy said. “There’s more than enough TV channels. The CWHL needs to invest in maybe more opportunities in the States and in the markets for television.”
Still, there’s some indication that interest in women’s hockey is growing, as attendance in NCAA Division I women’s hockey is on the rise.
This season, five programs averaged more than 1,000 fans per game, and two schools — Minnesota and Wisconsin — surpassed 2,000 fans on average.
Wisconsin also set an NCAA women’s hockey attendance record this season with 13,573 fans in its Fill the Bowl game, which was played at the Kohl Center against Minnesota.
The CWHL saw record attendance with an announced crowd of 5,000 at the Air Canada Centre in 2012. And this year’s Olympic gold-medal game between the U.S. and Canada had millions of viewers, reinforcing the interest in high-level women’s hockey.
The CWHL can also tap into a niche fan market, including mothers and daughters.
James Slagle, assistant director of marketing for University of Minnesota athletics and marketing manager for Gophers women’s hockey, said the school markets to a growing segment of girls’ youth hockey players in Minnesota.
That target audience includes girls’ youth hockey teams, but it also includes people that just like the sport and the competition, Slagle said.
USA Hockey Director of Women’s Hockey Reagan Carey said the number of registered female players has grown 10 percent in the past five years, while the number of youth players is up 20 percent.
Over the past decade, the growth is even more striking. In 2002-03, there were 45,971 registered female players in the U.S. In 2012-13, there were 65,700.
“We’ve got a lot of great progress to grow the sport, and that’s what is important,” Carey said. “If we saw any plateaus … I think it would be a hard thing to sell, but in general, the more people we have participating, the more fans we’re going to have.”
The NHL, too, has tried to lend its support to women’s hockey.
“As part of our broader support of the women’s games, we look for ways to utilize our platforms … to positively influence the growth of the women’s game and engage these tremendous athletes with our fans,” Susan Cohig, NHL senior vice president of integrated marketing, said in an email statement.
The CWHL has five teams, and Andress said expansion in the U.S. will come very soon.
The organization might also change its name to be more representative of all of North America. Andress said the league is looking into new names but has yet to officially decide on one.
If the league expands, the “State of Hockey” may be a logical place to do it.
Many elite players hail from the state, and Gophers women’s hockey attendance is on the rise.
This year, Minnesota led NCAA Division I programs with 2,487 fans per game.
There is some precedent for a professional team, too, as the Minnesota Whitecaps played in the Western Women’s Hockey League.
Still, with the CWHL’s existing parity model, adding a team could drain other teams’ funds.
With that model, Murphy said it would make more sense to add a team in New England or in upstate New York because of the travel costs that come with having a team in the Midwest.
So while Minnesota might not be the next place for a team, elite Minnesotans still have the chance to continue their playing careers.
And someday, in the relatively near future, they might even be able to do it as a full-time job.
“[We’re] ready for an explosion,” CWHL board member Cahow said, “and I think it’s going to happen soon.”
Visuals sources: Sochi 2014, Canadian Women's Hockey League, National Hockey League, National Hockey League Players' Association, gophersports.com