On January 4, the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association had its first game of 2020: a 2-0 contest in front of 3,401 fans at the Leon's Centre in Kingston, Ontario. On January 12, many of the same athletes suited up at the Mattamy Athletic Centre before a crowd of over 1,100. And in between, more than 100 of the world's top women's hockey players gathered in community rinks around Toronto, a juxtaposition that highlights the PWHPA's struggle and mission as well as anything.
The Secret Women's Hockey Showcase, which took place in Toronto on January 11-12, was the PWHPA's largest event to date, with six teams competing in as many games across two days. It marked a return to the host of the inaugural showcase in September, which came just weeks into Jayna Hefford's tenure as Operations Consultant and, like any first, was full of unknowns.
"I think we felt much more comfortable going into this event," Hefford said, comparing the two. "This is our fourth one now. Not to say that everything's smooth, because anytime you run an event, there's a lot of stuff that has to come together, but I think we felt much more comfortable with it. With that, there's a higher expectation probably on this one. Toronto version one was hugely successful: the attendance was great, the media coverage was great. So now the challenge for us is how do we do it again? How do we keep engaging people's interests? And so that expectation is higher for this one. But you know, we're up for that challenge. We believe in what we're doing. And we believe that we're creating really positive opportunities for our athletes and for all the young girls and fans that come out to watch."
Attendance totaled over 4,300 throughout the weekend, despite logistical challenges and uncooperative weather. For starters, it was pouring rain in January, surpassing the city's single-day record and causing flooding in some areas. The venues for five of six games were not readily accessible without a vehicle, and two of the match-ups (plus the outdoor skills competition that was postponed and ultimately cancelled due to weather conditions) overlapped in an already-less-than-ideal Sunday morning timeslot. Much of that was due to the PWHPA's late entry onto the scene and the difficulty of finding adequate ice time on relatively short notice; the Sunday schedule was also made inevitable by the reality of women's hockey, as many players had to fly home before the afternoon game even began in order to make it back for work on Monday.
"Even though we're dealing with some of that stuff this year, we expect it this year because it was kind of thrown together last-minute," said Renata Fast. "It's actually kind of impressive, what we've been able to come up with in such little time, and we can't thank [enough] all those volunteers and the people that are working so hard behind the scenes to make it as seamless as possible."
Players made clear from the jump that this year was going to be a sacrifice, and no one is pretending that anything's perfect. The PWHPA is not a league. It isn't the ultimate solution that players want, but they remain steadfast that it's the best way for them to get where they want to be.
In terms of the biggest differences between her experience with the PWHPA compared to past seasons, two things stand out for Haley Skarupa. "I think first it's the competition. That's kind of what in previous years I've seen lacking is the competition; here, it's always really high and elite," said the winger, who spent three years in the NWHL. "And then just day-to-day at these events, you can just tell that the people who are supporting us and who are helping us, they want what's best for the players. They're putting their best foot forward for us and we appreciate them ― we know what they're doing and where it's coming from. That means a lot to us as players."
Anyone who's spent time in professional women's hockey has a horror story. Maybe they laughed it off at the time, or maybe it prompted them to step away. Maybe they didn't even register how ridiculous it was until years later, with the benefit of hindsight. In any case, they almost definitely kept it out of public view.
"I think we all wanted, in the past, our professional leagues to look professional to the outsiders. But the truth is, it wasn't really," said Fast, explaining that without the pressure to protect a league's reputation, players can finally acknowledge just how dire the situation of post-collegiate women's hockey is. "Behind the surface, we dealt with a lot of things that we were just like, Okay, this is just normal. Like, we've got to make it look like this is okay. You couldn't have any structure when you played or any type of routine heading into a game because you'd never know what was going to happen. And I think that's a big part of why we made this statement, is because we were sick and tired of faking it, that we were a professional league, because it truly wasn't."
For years, in their efforts to help their leagues succeed, players were shortchanging themselves. More often than not, what was best for the image of the league was certainly not in the best interests of the athletes. Pretending things were fine was largely an attempt to be taken seriously as elite competitors, but it also enabled others to take for granted that the status quo was acceptable. As a player-run organization that puts its members at the forefront, the PWHPA offers a platform where they can continue to train, to play hockey, to demonstrate their ability and to inspire young kids, all while stating outright that even when it's good, this isn't even close to good enough. Regardless of where other potential stakeholders stand, they're committed to ensuring that their next league is free from the limitations that have plagued the game to date.
"We have very little control over what anyone else may do, be it Hockey Canada, be it USA Hockey, be it the NHL," said Hefford. "Certainly we have to be sort of patient in that way. But I think we're all invested in this and we want it to be right. We don't want it to happen just to happen: it's got to be done right."
In the interim, the PWHPA is focusing on building relationships with partners who see the value in the sport and in their mission. Multiple people spoke of Secret Canada's help not just in putting on the showcase itself, but in providing opportunities to increase the PA's visibility in the media. And while the NHL itself may be remaining mum on a timeline for establishing a women's league, more than half of the NHL's teams have reached out to the PWHPA to offer support and inquire about hosting opportunities.
"Obviously we want to see a sustainable, viable league and we want that as soon as possible," said Brianne Jenner. "We recognize that we're in it for the long haul, whatever it may be; if it's next year, if it's further down the line. As hockey players, we'd like to see it as soon as possible, but we want to make it happen no matter what. And we're sticking with this until that time comes."
As demand has increased in recent months, a major struggle has been simply finding available weekends. The association has had to turn down some opportunities because they were already booked. Though momentum picked up a little late for this season, the influx of support bodes well for the PWHPA's ability to improve its offering going forward while continuing to fight for something better.
"We want more. We want people coming and watching us even more and having that momentum," said Marie-Philip Poulin. "If we have a little bit more time and having the chance to rent an arena and having ice time at the appropriate time, having people come in, I think it's going to happen."
As a younger player who has stepped into the spotlight and become one of the PWHPA's most prominent spokespeople, Sarah Nurse said she initially wasn't sure why anyone would care what she had to say. But in growing into the role, "I realized that I do have a platform and I do have a voice," she explained. She's constantly aware that she's representing far more than just herself, and wants to do justice to the 200 women standing beside her as well as all those who came before. Members of the national team may have the most name recognition to the general public, but that shouldn't obscure the PWHPA's depth.
"Without those girls sacrificing and doing what they're doing, we don't have a movement," Nurse said of her colleagues who can't currently make a living playing hockey. "The Canada and USA girls, we can sit out, we can do all we want, but we need all of the best players in the world. And they are the best players in the world."
Perhaps nothing proves that as well as the showcase's marquee game, an 8-0 victory for the Daoust Wildcats on the back of a four-point night from Kim Deschênes and two goals by Tracy-Ann Lavigne. They're among the players who are rarely the focus of attention, but who show up every practice because they love the game, because they're fighting for something they believe in, and because they're as important to achieving it as anyone else.
"We need the support of everyone," explained defender Marie-Joëlle Allard, who was playing in her first showcase. "And everyone needs to stay together and fight for each other."
News & Notes:
- Jayna Hefford revealed on Saturday that the PWHPA is finalizing plans to send a group of players to Japan to work with and play exhibitions against their national team, reportedly at the request of the Japan Ice Hockey Federation. More details are expected in the coming weeks.
- According to Haley Skarupa, who works full-time as a Hockey Ambassador for the Washington Capitals, the Caps ― who provide her with resources to support her individual training ― are preparing to host an event with the PWHPA. Finding common availability has been the toughest part, particularly with the World Championships taking priority come mid-March, but Washington has been looking to get involved for some time.
- Two new sponsors were introduced this weekend: Boston Pizza supplied food for players, staff, and volunteers and had an ad on the rink boards, while Kipling Group presented the PWHPA with a $50,000 check.
Team Larocque 5-4 Kessel Wolves (OT)
Daoust Wildcats 6-3 Bellamy Hornets
Spooner Sharks 3-6 Team Coyne
Bellamy Hornets 1-0 Kessel Wolves
Team Coyne 5-2 Team Larocque
Daoust Wildcats 8-0 Spooner Sharks
Photo credit: Heather Pollock