This season, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) turns 10 years old. Like any notable birthday, the league is celebrating—and it has plenty to feel good about. This Saturday, for the first time in the history of Canadian women’s hockey, CWHL’s teams will have the chance to compete in the eminent Bell Center in Montreal, where only men’s teams have played, when Montreal face off against Calgary in game three of the league’s Heritage Games series.
Earlier this fall, the CWHL also debuted a new modern, more minimalistic logo that emphasizes the league’s branding more clearly. More significantly, though, three of the CWHL’s five teams—Toronto, Montreal and Calgary—have become sister squads to men’s National Hockey League (NHL) teams the Maple Leafs, Canadiens and Flames, respectively; the league also has a new partnership with the NHL’s Ottawa Senators. All in all, leveraging the NHL’s marketing, popularity and resources will only help increase the CWHL’s visibility and help it grow.
But the biggest step the CWHL can take to help grow is one that it has yet to do: Pay its players.
Unlike athletes part of the U.S.’s National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), who begin collecting a paycheck the moment they take ice, CWHL players are not paid at all. Instead, most have to juggle full-time jobs while training in the evenings, traveling and competing on weekends and playing two games in two days’ time to cut down on travel costs.
“It’s like the 1940s, trying to play sports as a woman,” former Boston Blades player Caitlin Cahow told a special women’s issue of The Hockey News in 2012. “We’re doing it because we absolutely love the game of hockey and want to play it at the highest level.”
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Today, though, the CWHL, which is a non-profit unlike the NHL, says it hopes to begin to pay its players by next year. “The CWHL is on track to start paying players for the 2017-18 season,” said Sasky Stewart, the league’s director of communication and marketing. “The payment structure is not yet confirmed, however, and we are working on determining what this will look like.”
According to the league, the CWHL has been cautious in the past to start paying players because it wants to make sure it can sustain any salary offerings it makes.This kind of sustainable thinking wasn’t there in the instance of the NWHL, which recently announced it would have to slash players’ salaries in half in order to keep the league operating due to a decrease in game attendance.
But while the league has remained cautious, some advocates of women’s hockey argue that pay of any sort is essential to increase the league’s visibility, popularity, game attendance and, ultimately, its legitimacy. “[Paying players] is the only way to be seen as legitimate as a professional athlete in this day and age,” said Courtney Szto, editor of Hockey in Society. “It would go a long way in creating better hockey players who could dedicate themselves to their sport without working full-time while having to practice and go to games.”
While the CWHL works on a salary structure for next year, it continues to enjoy increased ticket sales. According to Stewart, game sales have ticked up this season. “We have seen an increase per game compared to last season,” she said. “We just had 3,200 attend over two games in Beauce [Quebec] for Les Canadiennes. And we’ve seen increases in attendance year on year per the past several seasons.”
Having more big-name players like Les Canadiennes’ forward Marie-Philip Poulin has helped the CWHL increase ticket sales and attract new attention. Poulin became a household name after her four overall game-winning goals helped Team Canada bring home gold from the 2010 and 2014 Olympic Games. “When [people] realize who I am and what team I play for, they always tell me where they were when they watched the game,” she told The National Post of the final game at the Sochi Olympics.
Today, Poulin recognizes that the CWHL is taking steps to increase its visibility not only by changing its marketing tactics, but also by becoming more competitive. “It was a good eye-opener,” the Boston University alum told Excelle Sports of a Nov. 20 game when Les Canadiennes lost to the Toronto Furies. “It makes us realize that the level of competition in the league is improving. And we have to get ready.”
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Raising the competitive bar is a priority for the CWHL, too, says Stewart. “Each season, the CWHL actively recruits through NCAA and [Canadian Interuniversity Sport],” she said. “We work to introduce ourselves to players, many who have no grown up watching the league, and in their senior seasons, actively approach them for the CWHL draft.”
The CWHL has also started to invite community youth teams to attend league games to meet the players and even stand on ice during the national anthems—a practice that doesn’t only benefit young girls, Szto says. “I think saying that women’s hockey only seeks to inspire girls is selling itself short because then men continue to stand in as role models for everyone while women can inspire just other girls,” she said.
An old cartoon by Canadian artist Gary Clement illustrates Szto’s point, literally: The work shows a men’s national coach telling his team to “Play like girls,” affirming the perception that women’s hockey is just as tough, if not more so than the men’s game.
While equality (if not superiority) in tenacity exists between the sexes, that’s where, it would seem, parity ends in ice hockey. Until there’s financial equality on the rink, women’s hockey will always be outside the sweet spot to take a shot at success.