Zoë Hayden

Drawing Lines: The Latest Labor Fight in Women's Hockey

In a social media campaign using the hashtag #ForTheGame, hundreds of women's hockey players announced on Thursday that they will not play in any professional league in North America this upcoming season.  While this may have been expected from the legion of former CWHL players and Canadian national team players, the adoption of #ForTheGame by Americans, Europeans, and a huge amount of NWHL players showed that the unified vision for "one league" is stronger than perhaps anyone previously realized.

This collective labor action comes at a moment when the NWHL has been insisting that they are going to expand with at least two more teams in Montreal and Toronto, which no longer seems likely.  Currently, nearly all the members of the Buffalo Beauts and Boston Pride franchises have expressed support for #ForTheGame, with significant support from all of the other players as well.  To date, only two players (Kaleigh Fratkin and NWHLPA director Anya Battaglino) have publicly supported the NWHL and opposed #ForTheGame.

The full #ForTheGame statement reads:

We are fortunate to be ambassadors of this game that we revere so deeply and yet, more than ever, we understand the responsibility that comes with that ambassadorship: To leave this game in better shape than when we entered it. That is why we come together, over 200 players strong, to say it is time to create a sustainable professional league for Women's Hockey.

While we have all accomplished so much, there is no greater accomplishment than what we have the potential to do right here and right now -- not just for this generation of players, but for generations to come. With that purpose, we are coming together, not as individual players, but as one collective voice to help navigate the future and protect the players needs. We cannot make a sustainable living playing in the current state of the professional game. Having no health insurance and making as low as two thousand dollars a season means that players can't adequately train and prepare to play at the highest level.

Because of that, together as players, we will not play in ANY professional leagues in North America this season until we get the resources that professional hockey demands and deserves.

We may have represented different teams, leagues, and countries -- but this sport is one family. And the time is now for this family to unite. This is the moment we've been waiting for -- our moment to come together and say we deserve more. It's time for a long-term viable professional league that will showcase the greatest product of women's professional hockey in the world.

If announcing a boycott via a coordinated social media campaign to demand better labor conditions and compensation sounds familiar, it's because the US Women's National Hockey Team did this in 2017.  Not only that, but the same law firm helped the players with both of these boycotts – as well as the labor action by the US Women's National Soccer team in 2014.  The Philadelphia-based Ballard Spahr and their attorneys John Langel and Dee Spagnuolo are working with the players on this action and have represented the American women's hockey team since 2015.

Spagnuolo told the Victory Press when asked about this action and the other actions that Ballard Spahr has worked on with women's teams: "At its core, it's about the same goal, and that is about supporting a group of women who are passionate about their sport, are dedicated to their sport, who are willing to sacrifice their own careers and their own opportunity to play by looking at the longer-term goals, looking at the bigger picture, and looking at the opportunity to really raise the profile of their sport and to grow the sport for future generations."  She continued, "So that theme of equality and opportunity and sacrifice. And whether it is soccer, or ice hockey, or any other sport, those are the common themes. At the base of it, we have had clients who were willing to make that sacrifice for the longer-term benefit of the sport."

The NWHL had made moves in recent weeks to increase the benefits that players in the league receive.  In a statement released to the media on May 2, the NWHL said that this season would feature increased salaries and a 50-50 revenue split with players from sponsorships and media deals.  This seems to have had little effect on the opinion of the players who have thrown their names behind #ForTheGame.  Part of that is purely mathematical. At the very least, the increased salary cap per team from $100,000 to $150,000 US simply cannot provide a living wage for 17 to 25 adults, and the gains from the revenue splits would not necessarily be guaranteed, sustainable income for those players, either.

Anya Battaglino elaborated on her opinions to Sportsnet's Kristina Rutherford, emphasizing that the NWHLPA and its lawyers had a hand in contract language this time around:

The NWHL is taking our verbiage, which is huge, because we control the narrative. And now they're [the #ForTheGame group] screaming something else? It's nonsense... If all that energy and support was thrown into creating the best platform in the NWHL, regardless if they like the NWHL or not, that same attraction and revenue would come to women's hockey in a positive light. But here we are.

But the only person to publicly come on board with her is Fratkin, which could put the NWHL in a tough spot simply in terms of having enough players to dress for competitive games.

Sources involved in #ForTheGame indicated to the Victory Press that working conditions in particular are a major priority in shaping professional women's hockey going forward. It does not seem to be a matter of "liking" the NWHL as much as a growing concern for player compensation and working conditions in general, and a need to have true leverage in those discussions, beyond what Battaglino thinks is sufficient.  This difference of opinion is clearly at its tipping point, and every person involved in the sport is ultimately choosing a side, whether they tweeted the statement or not.

With essentially the entire Buffalo Beauts roster becoming part of #ForTheGame, the NWHL may have lost an entire team overnight. Notably, the Buffalo Beauts are privately owned by Pegula Sports and Entertainment, so the future of the team is really in the hands of PSE rather than the NWHL itself. There is no indication that players have any issue with PSE or the Beauts franchise – just with the NWHL.

Of course, much has been made of this in the media.  The speculation that this could force the NWHL to shut down and therefore force the NHL's hand to create a women's league is just that: speculation. Gary Bettman and Bill Daly have no interest in moving forward with a plan for women's hockey unless they have no competition and can exert the most possible influence on the product.  That seems to give active players two short-term choices: unite with #ForTheGame in the hopes that you can exert the influence of women athletes and ensure that rich men don't get to make all the decisions, or unite with the NWHL. The NWHL and Battaglino's stance of "Join Or Die" doesn't seem to have a lot of traction with a side who has looked at death and said, "Not today."

This isn't being done merely for publicity, it's an organized labor negotiation – made all the more remarkable, perhaps, by the fact that it's fighting on multiple fronts.  Not only is #ForTheGame pushing back against the established model of compensation, where players are paid as if for a part-time job or side gig, but the players involved have the opportunity to create a business model that does not yet exist in hockey. It's a high risk move, as all labor action is, but it's the only way to get the negotiating power that workers need when they have been denied it over and over again. Doing it at this exact moment, when women's hockey players in North America have unprecedented visibility and popularity, is strategic and meaningful. The real work is coming down the road, and step one is maintaining that visibility and negotiating power while not playing in an organized, official pro league.  The players know this, and have accepted the challenge.

Kirsten Whelan contributed reporting to this article.

(Photo: Tim Foster/Unsplash)

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