Women’s hockey continues to grow in popularity and participation, yet professional opportunities still lag far behind those offered in the men’s game. Observers of the game say the NHL’s cooperation is key to push a new league forward.
Since the first women’s world championship in 1990, female hockey has grown in popularity. In 1990-1991 in Canada there were 8,146 female players and nine years later there were 85,624. Later this month, the Olympics will bring renewed attention to the women’s game and its star players, such as Marie-Philip Poulin, one Canada’s flag bearers.
Sandra Prusina is a sports anchor at City News as well as a former play-by-play voice of the Calgary Inferno, a Canadian Women’s Hockey League team before the league ended in 2019. She says that women’s hockey has continued to grow but is nowhere near what it should be.
“It should be in the forefront of all sports, not just when there’s a special event; an Olympics or World Championship or World Cup. It needs to be talked about amongst the NHL, [Major League Baseball], [National Basketball Association] (NBA); it all needs to be part of that repertoire in a sports cast,” says Prusina.
Breanne Trotter is a forward on the Mount Royal University women’s hockey team. Trotter has been playing since she was six-years-old. The thought never crossed her mind about why she had to make a switch to female hockey at 14.
She explains male dominance in hockey has been the norm and what society has been accustomed to. Although female teams are available at every level of minor hockey, not enough progress is being made.
The challenge of becoming the best at the sport but only being able to go as far as the collegiate level – unless a player is elite enough to make it to a national or pro team where they still will be underpaid – can be disheartening.
“We don’t really have the opportunity to go far after university. We can go play pro in Europe or something but if you’re a male you can always work to get onto a farm team and make your way up to playing in the NHL,” says Trotter.
The opportunity for Trotter after university is to possibly play pro, but even then, the money is not sustainable enough to build a career.
Scott Rivett, the coach of the MRU women’s hockey team, explains that girls who go on to play pro get their basic living and necessity costs covered but have no actual income while playing.
“It’s more for the experience, I would say, than necessarily the quality of hockey and certainly not the income,” says Rivett.
The big money for men is in the NHL, but there are many other leagues that can pay the bills like European pro hockey. Even in the highest men’s junior league, the Western Hockey League, players receive a stipend and many do not have the stress of focusing on school or working other jobs if they do not want it.
“My opportunity and route is to play in university and get a degree and use the degree. Most men can be here just for hockey and they get a degree on the side because they want to go and get scouted,” says Trotter.
Rivett agrees the majority of women finish their last years of hockey in university as their priorities are landing a job with their education.
“They come through and are done and focused on starting a career and starting to do those things. There are certainly some opportunities for them to play professionally, but not as many as one would like,” says Rivett.
Sandra Prusina says if female players do go on to play a professional level, it can not only be physically draining, but mentally draining as well.
“As a professional athlete, your practices are like 6:30 in the morning, some ungodly hour, you still have to go to work and then you travel on the weekend,” she says. “How is that even sustainable as a human being to be a top level peak athlete, but also be a peak whatever your career is?”
According to Rivett, the solution does not involve proving the merit of high level women’s hockey. The answer is to find the support and have the NHL subsidize a women’s league.
“If the National Hockey League steps in, no different than [the NBA] did with the Women’s National Basketball Association, I think then there could be something meaningful here in the next five to ten years,” says Rivett.
Prusina agrees that Garry Bettmen, commissioner of the NHL, would need to roll up his sleeves and put in motion a women’s league with livable wages including real contracts.
“The NHL needs to just step up and say that they’re going to do it. If not, this is going to be in limbo and it’s going to be so disappointing because we’ve lost the opportunity to see some of the best players in the world,” says Prusina.
The advice that Prusina offers to collegiate female hockey players is to not give up because although the NHL has not taken action, there are professional players and media working to make change for the female game.
“Embrace all your time playing college [hockey], don’t let any sort of negativity stop you from trying to reach your goals and dreams because really, women’s sport is on the rise and you can be a really special part of it.”