Behind the Game: Former Players Detail Life in the NWHL

Behind the Game: Former Players Detail Life in the NWHL

The Victory Press spoke to several former NWHL players about the working conditions they experienced during their time in the league. Their combined experiences paint a picture of a league that struggled to meet its workers' basic needs.

Behind the Game: Former Players Detail Life in the NWHL by Victory Press Staff, Melissa Burgess, Kirsten Whelan, Zoë Hayden

The National Women's Hockey League has said that it "became the first professional women’s hockey league in North America" when the puck dropped on its inaugural season in 2015. This was despite the fact that there was another league operating at the time (the Canadian Women's Hockey League). When the CWHL folded unceremoniously in 2019, the NWHL became the last North American league standing. From its launch, the NWHL has publicly buoyed itself with lofty promises, encompassing everything from steadily rising player salaries to world-class facilities and league-issued health insurance.

The new Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association that formed in the wake of the CWHL's dissolution, meanwhile, said they would not play in any North American women's hockey league until they were provided with a single, professional women's hockey league that provided the resources they felt were commensurate with professionalism ― implying that the NWHL is not the "professional league" they have in mind.

The Victory Press spoke to several former NWHL players representing four of the league's teams about the working conditions they experienced during their time in the league through the 2018-19 season. Their combined experiences paint a picture of a league that struggled to meet its workers' basic needs. We are preserving these players' anonymity, and we have also been purposefully vague about details of certain incidents (such as when and where they occurred, and other specificities) in order to aid in that goal.

"It's important for people to just learn exactly what everyone kind of lived through. I know that a lot of the national team players get backlash that they're just complaining, or they have really high standards or they're high-maintenance. But there's kind of two parts to it," said a former Boston Pride player. "I think it's great that there is a way for women to play hockey after college, but I think there needs to be a longer, greater objective here of having the right resources, infrastructure, support, and just overall treatment and transparency ― communication, everything."

A common issue for the athletes we spoke to was facilities and access to amenities. A former Connecticut Whale player said that the locker room at Terry Conners Rink in Stamford was not large enough to accommodate their team, so they were split between multiple locker rooms for games. Though their practice rink had a permanent locker room, the bathrooms were shared with a youth boys’ team. Multiple former Minnesota Whitecaps who visited the Connecticut rink on an away trip said that the locker room the visiting team was assigned was dirty, with food and trash on the ground from a children's party. Of the same trip, one player said: "Only one shower barely spewed out water, so no one was able to shower after the game because we had a flight to catch and we were all going to miss it. So I think a couple girls were able to body shower, but the rest of us literally had to just get on the bus and go to the airport… We went right to the plane with our sweaty selves."

Ice time, for both practice and games, was in short supply. Games sometimes took place after public skates, leaving suboptimal ice conditions. The Whale's practice facility had a gym upstairs that players could use, but one former player said she felt that their access to such training resources was only provided in exchange for their services: "We still had an insanely late practice slot. And because they were, quote unquote, giving us some sort of amenities, they wanted stuff in return, like girls doing lessons with their youth girls' teams there… So it was like a give and take."

The Connecticut Whale also sometimes found themselves relegated to a miniature ice surface for practices, even as they prepared for the postseason. "You have 25 professional athletes that are gathering at 9:00 PM on a Wednesday after work, and some are traveling one or two hours,” one former player said. “They love it so much that they still do it, but it's right before the playoffs and you're practicing on half of a rink."

"I had taken four years away from competitive hockey, never anticipated going back to it. So having that again, being coached, all that was super fun ― practicing, like the actual doing the thing," said another player. "But everything around it just felt like a glorified rec league in a way. I mean, the quality of play was pretty good. It's probably the best beer league hockey I'll ever play."

Two players who were both with the Pride during the 2018-19 season said that they had no access to bathrooms, locker rooms, or any sort of private place to change when they were practicing. Players had little choice but to undress in the area around the ice surface, with no privacy or space of their own to utilize.

The lack of access to bathrooms meant that players had to urinate in a garbage can near the bench if they needed to relieve themselves.

"There was no bathroom. Once you had your skates and equipment on, you couldn't access the lobby bathrooms. So a lot of players, including myself, we had to pee in a trashcan before practice, once you had your equipment on, because there was just no way you could get to a toilet. Obviously no showers, either," one player recalled. This was corroborated by a teammate: "One of our players, of course, usually would have to go before practice started. And she would have to pee in a trashcan, along the side [of the rink] by this half-wall." The players believed that their access to bathrooms and the locker room was restricted due to a boys' junior varsity hockey team that used the building at the same time.

Players from around the league noted that there was no real space to warm up prior to games at Terry Conners Rink in Connecticut, so they would have to do so outside, even when the weather was poor or extremely cold.

Whale players also described multiple incidents where a game was held during inclement weather and they felt unsafe traveling to the venue. In one case during the 2016-17 season, extreme winter weather conditions pushed a group of players to purchase a hotel room to stay overnight at their own expense, since they were unable to drive home. "At what point is risking your life, or your health, to get to a game worth it?" one player said. "There was a lot of pushback from our team, and our staff."

Players from multiple teams described having to pay for their own parking access at practice facilities, sometimes at a discounted rate. Pride players said they paid $5 or $10 per practice depending on which lot they had to use at the facility. Whitecaps players said the cost to park was $4 or $10 at TRIA depending on whether they had a discounted rate at that time, or $2 to $10 at Ridder Arena. While they were occasionally offered parking coupons, those weren’t a guarantee.

Many players recounted that team travel to away games was also a stressful process. Buses were sometimes scheduled inconveniently for players who had jobs during the regular workweek. If players were unable to make the scheduled team travel, they had to pay for their own transit, and there was no reimbursement. "Basically, if you missed team travel because of like, having to hold a job to be able to live life, there was no forgiveness for that," said a former Whale player. A former Pride player had the same experience: "They'd offer a bus at, say, 12:00 PM on Friday to get to our game on Saturday. Well, if your other job didn't allow you to take the bus, they basically said, you're on your own."

This same Pride player paid for her own airfare between Buffalo and Boston on at least one occasion when the bus was actually cancelled by the team. Receipts provided to The Victory Press show that a one-way ticket purchased for one of these trips cost $111.30. Players also had to pay for baggage at an added cost when they arrived at the airport. While a carry-on was free, the first checked bag cost $30, and a second cost $40. The extra bags were necessary to transport equipment. These costs were not reimbursed by the team or league. After having to pay their own way, another Pride player said she stopped traveling to games when the team didn't provide transit. "I decided not to go on one of the trips because I just didn't think that it was fair to not really give us that choice [between taking a team bus or paying for airfare]. That's kind of the standard ― at least to ask the players," she said.

The player noted that her pay was not affected by the games she missed due to instances like this, or refusing to pay for airfare. "But it's not about the money, because I wasn't even making enough for that pay to even remotely affect anything," she said. "It was such a small number. It was just the principle of not putting your players first ― that was concerning." According to two players, the Pride's coach, Paul Mara, was not sympathetic to their issues with the arrangement. "It was very few of us that brought it up, just because I think people didn't want to be known for complaining," one player said. "We had a team meeting about it, and our coach said ― literally, direct quote ― NHL players wouldn't complain about something like this, about having to pay for their own flights and their own travel. They would just want what was best for the team, unquote."

The Pride also offered only $100 towards airfare to and from Buffalo during the Isobel Cup Playoffs. "A couple of us put our foot down at that point, because we were sick of paying for our travel. And they [the team] eventually provided a van, after weeks of pushback," one player said.

"Most people did pay their way, because they chose to fly. But they [the team] got a 10-person sprinter van for the people who said that they didn't want to pay for flights, and our equipment manager drove us," said a teammate. "There were about five of us who ended up going [by van]."

As it turned out, a lack of planning meant this last-minute van actually helped the team in the long run that weekend; transportation to and from the rink was not provided otherwise. "We transported everyone to and from the rink for our games," the teammate added. "I don't think they [the rest of the team] would've had a way to go. I think a lot of them Ubered from the airport to the hotel when they landed, but to get to and from the game, we took the van that we used from Boston."

The first Pride player recalled the surreal nature of the situation: "If we hadn't put our foot down and asked for our travel to be paid for with the van, we would've had to find our own way to the rink for our game in Buffalo, which I thought was kind of ass-backwards, so to speak."

That lack of foresight was not unique. The Minnesota Whitecaps, for their part, found a low-cost solution to a similar predicament: with no team bus on certain road trips, they relied on hotel shuttles to get them to the rink.

A Connecticut Whale player detailed a six-hour bus ride to an away game where she said the team had not built a dinner stop into their itinerary. Once players and their coach, Ryan Equale, realized this, Equale called ahead to a restaurant so that they could pick up something to eat. The player believes the coach paid for the food out of his own pocket. "That stands out in my mind as just kind of like a how do you miss this?," she said. "Definitely my entire experience, [I] felt that we got better treatment in college… I probably take care of my kids in high school better than the NWHL. There was just a lot of oversight, I think, as far as the player experience went."

One former Beauts player remembered the bus making last-minute pit stops at McDonald’s for meals during road trips when the team was league-operated. A Whitecaps player recounted that players received a $20 per diem for meals on the road, but that wasn’t enough. "A lot of times we'd only have one meal provided ― you were kind of on your own for the other two meals," she said. "If we were lucky, they'd provide us with pizza after the game. So I'd say they claimed that all the expenses were covered on traveling ― which, they did cover bags and hotel rooms and stuff like that for us. But I needed more food than what was provided and the $20 didn't cover it."

After Pegula Sports & Entertainment took over control of the Beauts, players began receiving meals (at no cost), but this was not the case around the league. "I remember teams being amazed that we had pre- and post-game and practice meals offered to us," one former Beauts player said. "That's something all teams should be offered, at least pre- and post-game."

Transport was also an issue when staying in other cities for away games, and players often had to take Uber to get to rinks or have meals. "When we played in Boston we would stay in Billerica, and I wasn't familiar with any of this at the time, but there was nothing walkable. So we had to actually Uber if we wanted to get food, so that in itself cost the $20 we were able to spend on our pregame meal," the same Whitecaps player said.

In other instances, players were faced with shuttles or vans that were not large enough to accommodate their team, necessitating many trips back and forth from hotels and airports. Whitecaps players said that their only option to get to their hotel from the airport on some trips was a shuttle bus: "We were sitting at the airport at 1:00 AM waiting for our hotel shuttle, and then we had to take turns because we could only fit like six girls in the hotel shuttle at a time," one recalled. "So that wasn't too fun."

Beauts players regularly faced long commutes that stretched late into the night. "It was definitely hard being in Buffalo and having every away game be an eight-hour drive, and coming back Monday mornings at 5:00 AM," one player said. "Sometimes, we’d drive that far to just play one game, which seemed so ridiculous. And then we’d have to make another trip out to play the second away game against the same team."

Players we spoke to also reported issues with the quality of league-provided equipment. Multiple players singled out the sticks they got from Warrior as being low-end, and one former member of the Connecticut Whale said that their requests for their preferred sticks were not honored. "If we put in a certain flex and pattern we wanted, we never got it. So I was working with sticks that I could barely flex, not wanting to go buy a $200 stick myself." The quality issue was corroborated by a US National Team player who was sponsored by Warrior: "I was personally a Warrior athlete at the time, and I can tell you that [what the NWHL provided was] not the top of the line equipment, if that makes sense. It's like, I don't know, a couple tiers below that. Which is fine, it's just, I was able to tell the difference for sure. So I was able to order some different equipment for myself, but I know the rest of my teammates weren't."

A former Whitecaps player who was with the team both before and after it joined the NWHL said the experience was very different in terms of what was provided for them, as the NWHL was not even providing tape. "When we were independent, we almost had it a little bit better because we were hosted by college teams and they provide tape, they provide towels, they provide laundry, they let you keep your equipment in the locker room overnight. And that was stuff that really was not provided in the NWHL. Unfortunately, in most cases, we had to bring our own towels to away trips, and your laundry wasn't done. And those are the things that sound super little, but it kind of makes it a big deal. It's stuff that you have to think about."

One international player we spoke to was living and working in the U.S. on an H1B visa when she attended try-outs for the NWHL's inaugural season. She was offered a contract, but her status complicated things: in order to play, she would've had to drop her H1B visa for the league to sponsor her on a P1. With her employment, livelihood, and healthcare attached to that H1B, she had no choice but to decline.

When a friend contacted her a few seasons later asking if she'd be interested in filling a roster spot, she politely refused. Though she missed competitive hockey, she'd gone through this before and it didn't work out. In the intervening years, though, the league had found a work-around. "I guess you're kind of taking a small risk because you're responsible if something happens, but the idea is you sign as a volunteer," the player explained. "So you kind of sign away a contract that says I'm a volunteer so therefore I'm not getting paid by the NWHL, and therefore I'm staying on my H1B status and I can play for this team just as a volunteer."

Though some individuals around the team offered to informally help with her travel expenses, she received no pay for her time as a professional athlete. It was an agreement she entered into voluntarily, she emphasized, and under the circumstances the league had no legal capacity to pay her. But it also came with hazards. When her season was cut short due to injury, her volunteer status meant she had no recourse to the NWHL's worker compensation plan. While she was fortunate to be well-covered by her employer's health insurance, she'd heard from others that the compensation program was complicated and difficult to access.

Player experience with medical care was a mixed bag. Prior to joining a team, each player was required to provide proof that they had personal health insurance. Support resources varied: the Minnesota Whitecaps' team partnership with TRIA meant that physical therapy was provided for their players' in-game injuries. When the volunteer athlete we spoke to got hurt playing for a different team, there were two doctors on site to immediately check her out. She also had the option of attending a team doctor's private practice for treatment, though the location was somewhat inconvenient.

Not all partnerships were created equal, though. In order to play in the league, athletes were required to undergo a mandatory physical exam. Up until the 2019-20 season, Connecticut Whale players were made to travel to NYU Langone in New York City for their pre-season testing and had to arrange their own transport, with only one available day for appointments. "Basically, we're lab rats for NYU," one former player said of her experience. "It was one of those kind of back-scratching things where they had us fill out surveys about like, any hip issues we've had or head issues we had. Clearly we were just going into some study that they're doing… I had to miss a day of work to do that."

On top of all of this were issues with payment. Several players described having to repeatedly follow up with the league in order to receive promised bonuses, including money that was to be given to players for their participation in an All-Star Game. "We had to send an email threatening to go public about them withholding money from us. This was definitely the straw that broke the camel’s back for me," one athlete said. "I realized a professional player should never have to beg for money that is rightfully theirs."

While the Pride player who refused to travel to Buffalo for games at her own expense in 2018-19 said she still got paid, that wasn’t always the case. After the league slashed salaries mid-way through the 2016-17 season, they reverted players from employee status to independent contractors the next year. Within the 2017-18 scheme athletes were not paid for any of the work they’d performed unless they featured in that week’s game line-up, even though roster limits restricted the number of players who could dress. "You didn't get paid for practices you didn't go to," one player explained. "And then on top of that, if you didn't dress in the game, then you didn't get paid for the practices you went to. Even if you traveled to go to the game, you don't get paid ― basically, you had to be playing." She mentioned that this changed the next year, when players were once again classified as employees.

Those who have stuck with the NWHL are working to address its shortcomings. One player praised the NWHLPA for pushing to implement a more equitable contract, as she recalls the 2018-19 version was somewhat disconcerting. "The year I signed, the contract was really one-way, so you felt like you were giving a lot away," she explained. "It felt like it was very much an employer-controlled contract that didn't have a lot of leeway, and in the States it's important to have a contract that's really protecting both sides if you're going to enter into the agreement. So I think that's one thing that I am hoping that they've improved, but that was definitely… just the legal aspect of signing a contract that would seem to be not favorable at all for the players." Among other concerns, previous player contracts contained a non-disparagement clause.

Like the contract, many of the most glaring issues described by players we spoke to have since been corrected. The Boston Pride, under private ownership, have moved practice facilities and are no longer left to change in public or pee in buckets; the Connecticut Whale have relocated from Stamford to a venue with somewhat better amenities; players aren't systematically denied pay for work they've already performed. But many other problems, and their root causes, remain. Six years on, the NWHL still does not offer many of the advantages it advertised at its launch, such as permanent locker rooms, the provision of full equipment, health insurance, and "world class" off-ice strength and conditioning facilities. At $5,000, the newly-increased minimum salary remains just half of what it was in 2015.

"It wasn't really changing, it wasn't getting better, and we were expected to, in a sense, just be quiet and play and just be thankful for everything we had," one player said. "And I mean, we are thankful for the opportunity to play professionally in whatever way it is. But I think that the name professional should come with some, some standards, and I just don't feel like that league was able to meet those standards with some of the things that we did. I think going forward, we need to set our sights so much higher than that, and I think we definitely can."

Though the NWHL is striving to improve, players we spoke to were skeptical of its potential to achieve, in any reasonable timeframe, the standard of professionalism they want for the sport. That's not to say they don't see any value in its offering. Multiple players expressed that while they don't believe the league is particularly close to providing the resources and platform they feel are necessary at the game's highest level, it could still have a place in the landscape. Two non-national team athletes noted that many players like themselves may not make a roster in the fully professional league they'd like to see, or be able to commit to full-time hockey after having already progressed their off-ice careers. Those athletes may be well-served by a part-time structure offering a higher level of competition than beer leagues. One player pointed to the NWHL's success in maintaining a passionate community of fans, even without the sport's biggest names, as a sign of its potential to fill that gap.

Where the league sees itself in the broader picture is more contentious. For many, the contrast between the NWHL's self-presentation and the reality behind the scenes remains a key source of frustration. Players saw their lived experience misrepresented in an effort to promote the league and market the NWHL as a great success, and the pressure to maintain the illusion of professionalism was seemingly more important than their well-being. A former Whale player put it this way: "I get annoyed by the way they sell things, but I guess they have to do it, right? That's the uphill battle, the way that they sell things on social media and things like that… It's all just smoke and mirrors."

"Don't call it professional if you're not willing to treat your players professionally or have the best product out on the ice, which means they're given the best resources to train at their best, so they can be their best as well," said a former Pride player. "It doesn't matter the caliber of player. They should be treated like professionals if you're going to call it a professional league."

Though the notion of what constitutes "professionalism" remains at the forefront of conversations around the future of the game, that question only scratches the surface, and does little to illuminate the need for material support. Some of these players' accounts refer to circumstances commonplace in the world of women's hockey, which existed long before the NWHL came onto the scene. For years, inadequate facilities and near-absent resources were largely written off or laughed away as the inevitable reality of the sport; athletes are now choosing more often to speak up rather than hide the harsh state of affairs. In that sense, plenty of systemic issues are not unique to the league. But many of the situations detailed by players we spoke with do not simply fail to achieve a basic level of professionalism: they are plainly unacceptable, at any level. "I would say that was the biggest shortfall… just treatment of the players," one athlete said.

All factual claims in this story have been independently corroborated. We provided a list of claims made in this piece to the NWHL prior to publication. The NWHL provided the following statement:

This is part of a continuous smear campaign by the PWHPA, which for more than a year has tried to eliminate the NWHL because they have told players that if our league folds, others would start a league for them. In a wide array of forums, including in direct discussions with PWHPA leadership, we have regularly discussed and responded to these allegations.

Although our work continues, we are proud of the progress of a league started just five years ago. We are proud of the ongoing positive experiences of our players, the daily signing of high-level and accomplished new and returning players, expansion to Minnesota and Toronto, the significant investment in player salaries and player development, and the major business strides the NWHL made last season as everyone worked constructively and collaboratively. These steps forward serve as our statements in response to this destructive and false narrative.

In addition, Anya Battaglino provided the following statement via Twitter as director of the NWHLPA:

Zoë has also written an editor's note regarding reactions to this piece, which was originally published on Medium and is now also available locally on the Victory Press website.

(Photo: Troy Parla/HHOF)