Many Canadians might be surprised to learn that women have a hockey league of their own right here at home.
The Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL) has been growing and developing for seven seasons now. There are just five teams in the league but the rosters are filled with women we've rooted for in the 2014 Winter Olympics, as well as top NCAA Division I athletes and other high-caliber players. They are some of the best hockey players in the world, yet none are paid. Salaries for women playing at the top: $1,000 per year. If they win.
It's easy to see why salaries are non-existent: The CWHL's annual budget is a mere $1.8 million dollars (up from $1.7 million the previous season). To put it in terms hockey fans can appreciate: "One salary of a base NHL player runs my league," says CWHL founder and commissioner Brenda Andress.
The one financial bright spot is the promise of $500 to each player on the teams that win the Clarkson Cup (recognizing the top women's hockey team in the CWHL) and the Chairman's trophy (awarded to the team with the most points at the end of the season). "It might not seem like a lot, but for our players, there's the possibility to earn up to $1,000, which they've never had an opportunity to get," says Andress.
Many women in the league receive a stipend for top-ranked amateur athletes from the Canadian or U.S. government. But it's not enough to live on. Part-time jobs are the norm, and those who don't qualify for a stipend work full-time, training and practicing in the evenings after a full day at work and travelling all weekend for games.
Montreal Stars forward and four-time Olympian Caroline Ouellette is one of the lucky ones. She receives a government stipend and works part-time for Royal Bank of Canada as part of the Olympian program; her work is planned around her training, practice and game schedule. Still, it's not exactly easy. "It's always our challenge as athletes—whether we do speeches or we teach or we coach—we're always trying to find ways to make an income so that we can have some revenue because what we make from the government is not enough by itself."
The pay penalty box: Juggling a full-time job on the side
Ouellette is quick to point out many of her teammates face greater obstacles. "I admire even more my teammates that have full-time jobs," she says, noting that the team was on the road until after midnight the previous day. "Those girls get up today to go back to work."
Andress also admires the players who juggle a full-time job and the CWHL's schedule. "I always say, 'You should follow them around for a week; it would blow your socks off to see what these guys do to play a game they love and not be paid for it,'" she says. "
This conflict between earing a living and staying in the game has been reverberating through women's hockey for some time. In February 2014, following the Sochi Olympics, Finnish goalie Noora Räty—arguably the best women's goalie in the world, with 43 career shutouts and an undefeated season in Division I NCAA play—announced she was retiring from women's hockey unless she could play in a competitive league. She was just 24 at the time, and in top form.
In a statement Räty posted on Twitter, she explained her choice: "As much as I would love to just play the game [that] I love and that has given me so much, I have to choose a work career (unless I can make a living from playing). Why? Because who would then pay my rent, car loan and insurance, and other bills? … The answer is no one."
A month later, Räty signed with Mestis, Finland's second division professional men's league—the same league in which Canadian hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser previously played.
But Räty and Wickenheiser are exceptions, not the rule. There's scant opportunity for women to make a decent living in professional sport, says Ouellette. "We wish that the opportunities would be better, but the reality is that for any female sport, it's been hard to survive at a professional level," she says, though she points to the WNBA's success in partnering with the NBA as model that could work in hockey. Plans to address the pay gap -- or at least pay players something
The challenge now is to get the fans to buy in to the CWHL—it's a key element in the league moving forward and reaching a point where it can pay its players, says Andress. "I say all the time, 'Guys, you're right. It's atrocious that these women aren't paid. But you can make a difference, and all you have to do is come to a game or watch it on TV—and 13 million of you did that [during] the Olympics.'"
It's a frustration the athletes also feel. "They don't know we exist," says Ouellette. "They watch us play at the Olympics and it seems like we only matter one year out of four, but we all play in the CWHL or in college hockey between that, and that's where we get better in order to compete in the Olympic Games."
The CWHL is banking on hooking fans with free admission to the inaugural CWHL All-Star Showcase, presented by the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre on Dec. 13.
Andress also believes women need to play a big role in growing the fan base. "In order to make change for us or any woman out there who's not making equal pay, we the woman has to support that," says Andress. "We've got to stand up and say, 'Yeah you're right, I've got to go to a game.'" How you can support the Canadian Women's Hockey League
Here's how you can support the economic health of the CWHL: Love women's hockey? Our January guest editor is Hayley Wickenheiser! Plus, what is hockey culture all about anyway.