The international profile of women’s ice hockey is steadily rising thanks to a few choice national teams that have dedicated capital, time and energy to their players.
The international profile of the women’s game has taken off over the past two decades. Following close behind were the professional leagues; two currently exist in North America, having survived where others have failed. Much like the NHL is a draw for the top European players, both the NWHL and CWHL have put resources towards attracting top non-North American players. While they may not be able to pay the millions the NHL readily hands over to its top players, the two leagues do provide strong competition and an opportunity for players to learn and train for more than half the year.
And yet, despite two separate pro women’s leagues existing on the North American continent, one paid and one unpaid—through which over 200 positions were created for women’s hockey players—international players are not flocking to either the CWHL or NWHL in great numbers. The 2015-2016 season saw an unusual influx of international players in both leagues. The two leagues combined sported eight total non-North American players: five from Japan, two from Russia, one from Austria.
Those international players who joined in the last season spoke highly of the competitive level of play and nearly all expressed a desire to raise their game up a level or two, some even hoping to transfer that success and improved skill to their own national teams.
“I came here to get better,” Whale forward and Russian national Katia Smolentseva said in a January interview through translator and erstwhile practice player Katia Pashkevich. “I came to learn from the best and improve my hockey.”
Nana Fujimoto, first-string goaltender on both the NWHL’s New York Riveters and Team Japan, echoed those statements, telling VICE Sports, “When I feel like I can’t improve anymore, I will quit.”
Fujimoto most likely had the most difficult time out of any international athlete playing in the NWHL and CWHL. As a goaltender, she was forced to re-learn her position due to the changes in rink size and net placement on the ice and consequently suffered injuries throughout the season. Despite that, Fujimoto continues to train throughout the offseason, demonstrating a drive to return to a league with a high level of play. That, however, is not the only reason international players traveled from Japan or Russia to join the North American leagues.
Across the border, Team Japan defenseman Sena Suzuki told the Globe and Mail that she specifically joined the Toronto Furies of the CWHL in order to help Team Japan find a spot on the Olympic podium.
“My coaches in Japan are happy that I’m playing here; they say it’s very good,” Suzuki told the interviewer. “When we come back to Japan, we hope we can help other Japanese players.”
It should surprise none who follow women’s ice hockey on an international level these women see training with their North American counterparts and rivals as the way forward for their own national teams, perhaps even the way to beat the U.S. and Canada in international competition.
While it would be a mistake to say that any national team doesn’t have a shot at the podium, the Olympic gold medal is the U.S. or Canada’s to lose.
Since the sport was introduced in the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games, the two North American teams have faced each other in four of the five gold-medal matches, with the U.S. getting knocked out of the final round in 2006 by Sweden in an upset victory that took everyone by surprise. In international competition there are no teams and no programs as strong or as deep as the U.S. and Canada national teams.
In short, there are two tiers in Olympic hockey: the U.S. and Canada, and everyone else.
A large part of their programs’ continued domination of Olympic and IIHF tournaments is due to availability of regular, high-quality competition and training. In order to improve their own programs it is essential that players train with the best. However, Team Japan or Team Russia players don’t have the freedom to simply attend Team USA or Team Canada trainings. The next best option is to join the NWHL or CWHL and learn from and alongside them in between Olympic years.
So why have so few international players joined the leagues?
Even should they be unable to join the CWHL due to financial or visa concerns, the NWHL offers both assistance in attaining the proper visa as well as a—small, very small—salary and helped international players find housing last season.
Part of the reason why the women’s leagues don’t experience the same influx of international players, and in fact see more East Asian players than European, may actually be commentary on the state of women’s hockey throughout the international community.
“I think a lot of the girls in GB are aware of the league,” Louise Adams, defender for Team Great Britain, said, “But because there’s such a huge difference in skill and—well, not skill, but league levels—they kind of don’t compare themselves to that.”
Adams’s story emphasizes the truth in that statement.
Adams put her name forward in tryouts for the NWHL this upcoming season and will attend a training camp or two in the U.S. She is not alone; another U.K. player, Dani Summers, living nearby in New Jersey, also put her name forth for a training camp spot. Upon learning Adams was the other U.K. player attending the training camp, Summers laughed. “Louise is quite good. Her life is hockey.”
Indeed, her life is hockey. Now in college at Essex, only recently returned from Canada, Adams trains with two club teams and Team Great Britain. While she was in Canada, Adams was at Scanlon Creek Hockey Academy, training and playing in hopes of landing a scholarship offer from a college or university. She earned one from the University of Minnesota, although she chose to attend Essex instead.
And Adams, one of the biggest names in U.K. hockey, explained that she would not have put her name forth for the NWHL tryouts if a friend familiar with the league hadn’t pushed her to do so. She explained it was not just because of the jump between Team Great Britain hockey and the level of hockey played in the U.S. and Canada—Team Great Britain occupies Division II of IIHF hockey while both the U.S. and Canada sit two divisions higher, along with Russia, Sweden, Switzerland and occasionally Japan—but also because she was simply tired from all the traveling.
While Adams has no real doubts about her skill level, she doubts that any of her Team Great Britain teammates will try out, either this year or over the next few years. The difference in divisions and national support is simply too great.
“We have a lot of skillful players but I think we just don’t have much funding,” Adams said. “So when other teams who have more funding can go and train all the time because they get paid, or spend a prolonged period of time as a team…for me it’s a three-hour trip once every two weeks to train with my team.
“We only ice together once every two weeks,” Adams added. “And that’s only when we’re building up to Worlds; everything else is once a month. I think that’s what mainly lets us down, as well as the fact that we have to juggle full-time jobs.”
While many on Team USA and Team Canada also hold full-time jobs, players are also paid a stipend to defray the cost of training. That stipend goes up in an Olympic year to compensate for requiring players to move to a centralized location several months before the Olympic games, training together and oftentimes living together.
Such is not the case for many other national teams.
“Before [IIHF Women’s World Championships] this year we had three trainings in the month leading up to that,” Adams said. “But because where we train is also a stadium it hosts concerts, or the X-Factor tour. Stuff like that. If they run over or put an extra date in, our ice time gets pulled. So in the month, month and a half we had leading up to Worlds we had one training as a team.”
Team Great Britain finished solidly in the middle of the pack of Division II’s Group A, pulling a third place at the 2016 IIHF Worlds.
As backwards as it may seem, the NWHL and CWHL will likely not see influxes of international players akin to the NHL until their home countries are able to put more money and resources into their women’s teams.