When considering the formation of a sports league, a major factor that has to be considered is how sustainable it is. The sustainability of a league will draw in both players and fans alike as they want the guarantee that the league will still be operational in the future.
In the discussion of women’s hockey, this is something that has come up often.
The Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA) was formed after the collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) because players wanted to fight for a sustainable league that they could play in.
However, a big problem in that is that they have no concrete plans on how to create one or even what they truly want in their perfect, sustainable league.
When considering what a sustainable league should look like, one could turn to the NHL. But, despite the NHL’s 103 year long history, they are not a perfect model.
The players within the NHL are represented by the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA), a labor union formed to represent the players and give them the ability to negotiate fair working conditions. The main responsibility of the NHLPA is the formation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) which outlines the terms of employment for all NHL players.
The CBA is something that is important to have because it allows for the players to have leverage in their own league and in deciding how important issues are dealt with.
However, the formation of a CBA within the NHL is not something that has ever come easily in recent history.
In the past two decades, a lockout was necessary due to a lack of agreement reached with the NHLPA and the NHL twice. A lockout stipulates that no games are played and no players receive their salaries.
The first of these lockouts occurred in the 2004-05 season and resulted in the cancellation of the entire season and the first time the Stanley Cup was not awarded since the year 1919.
The second and most recent on occurred during the 2012-13 season and lasted for about half of the season. That lockout resulted in the formation of the current CBA the NHL is operating under which expires after the 2021-22 season. There is no guarantee what will happen after it expires, but considering the past track record, the outlook is not very good.
A league that cannot negotiate a labor contract without having to cancel games and shorten seasons certainly does not present a picture of sustainability.
When compared to the other major North American sports leagues, the NHL is also heavily lacking in many different ways.
The NFL, NBA, and MLB represent the other major sports leagues within North America and for them, people who are not even fans can probably name some of the biggest players within. The same does not hold true for the NHL.
The NHL struggles to market their players effectively. Despite the fact that players like Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Alex Ovechkin are some of the most notable within the league, they are far from household names. Winning the Stanley Cup also comes along with great notoriety in hockey spheres and yet most people can’t name the last team who won the cup.
With all of that in mind, the PWHPA still want their ideal league to be formed by and similar to the NHL. However, that is something that will never develop anywhere past a dream with the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) still in operation.
The question then becomes why don’t the players work with the NWHL to create their ideal sustainable league as they are already an established league?
The NWHL is currently in their fifth season of operation and have shown no signs of slowing down. In the past year they have done more to show that they are working towards becoming a sustainable league. With this season bringing increased wages for all players, health insurance for all players, a longer season, and a new streaming deal for their games, the NWHL is showing that they are taking big steps towards becoming more established.
However, for the players within the PWHPA, that isn’t enough. The biggest thing they want is living wages as most women’s hockey players have to work a day job alongside their hockey career to be able to survive.
Boys are able to grow up watching the NHL and seeing their favorite players doing what they love and getting paid millions to do it and dream of doing that themselves one day. Girls don’t have that option.
Playing for a living wage is a key aspect of a lot of professional sports leagues because it allows players to devote all their time to bettering themselves and their play. However, that is not something that comes out of nowhere and when the question becomes some pay or no pay the answer is simple.
The NWHL is a young league. Along the way they are doing all they can to learn and to grow and that of course comes with making some mistakes, but ultimately what they are doing works.
Building a sustainable league is no easy task, but a league like the NHL does not have to be the only model for one. Growth in women’s hockey is and might always be different than men’s, and that’s okay. Different models for leagues are just a natural conclusion of that.
The NHL already exists, we don’t have to fight just to recreate it.