Inside the NHL
History often shows humans engaging in similar behavioral patterns over time, which is worth considering given the current state of women’s professional hockey.
The National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) is in its fifth season minus some 200 players boycotting it in hopes that a broader, more lucrative circuit can form instead — preferably with NHL funding. That boycott began after last May’s collapse of the rival Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) left the five-team NWHL the only women’s pro circuit.
Some suggest the NWHL prompted the older CWHL’s demise by throwing money around and raiding its rosters. They’d like NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan to end her league for the “greater good” of women’s pro hockey so a unified entity can emerge.
But while that sounds virtuous, it actually amounts to imposing a double standard on the women’s game.
After all, the fledgling NHL — and its National Hockey Association (NHA) predecessor — a century ago spent years competing with the rival Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) and other pro leagues in which rosters were raided for talent all the time. The Seattle Metropolitans of the PCHA captured their 1917 Stanley Cup title two years after snatching up practically the entire championship-winning roster of the NHA’s Toronto Blueshirts.
Competition was cutthroat, driving up salaries and hurting many teams. Some didn’t make it. Even regionally, the PCHA by 1921 was dealing with a new pro Western Canada Hockey League. But nobody was stepping aside for the greater good of all. Why would they when money could be made?
Instead, the NHL merely outlasted the rest financially as the lone major pro league by 1926. And barring an abrupt reversal by Rylan’s NWHL, a similar evolution will continue within the women’s game.
Locally, an “NWHL to Seattle” group lobbying to bring a franchise here has been caught somewhat in the middle — having launched right before the NWHL boycott. It recently changed that name to “Women’s Pro Hockey Seattle’’ to be inclusive to all pro efforts beyond the one league.
“We didn’t come to this decision lightly — it came after much discussion with the community, who encouraged us to be inclusive of all professional women’s hockey players, teams and organizations,’’ said campaign spokesperson Kelly Stephens-Tysland, a Lynnwood native and former U.S. Olympian.
The “organizations’’ part refers to the newly formed Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA), a union created by the boycotting players to push for better wages, working conditions and medical insurance. It largely envisions a new, expanded league bankrolled by the NHL.
The NHL, though, has avoided the fray — perhaps remembering its own dog-eat-dog origins — and stated it won’t intervene as long as the NWHL exists.
Local women’s hockey fixture Zoë Harris, who founded the NWHL to Seattle group, said the name change hasn’t impacted relations with Rylan’s league.
“She is supportive of the campaign and advancing the sport in Seattle regardless of our name,’’ Harris said. “We look forward to partnering with the NWHL, PWHPA, NHL Seattle and other groups on events that will help increase exposure and interest in women’s pro hockey in Seattle.’’
Rylan has been cast as somewhat of a villain; detractors labeling her a sports mogul wannabe who can’t see the proverbial forest beyond her league’s trees.
And yet, just last week, the NWHL announced new equity funding from insurance and IT entrepreneur Anthony Scurto that it hopes will keep the league around for some time.
“Thanks to our investors, the difficult, demanding, but rewarding work of building a women’s sports league and proving its value by demonstrating growth and viability continues,’’ Rylan said in a release.
It’s a timely reminder that the “pro’’ part of pro sports involves money, which is why nobody male or female tends to cede power for the “greater good’’ of anything.
Women’s pro hockey isn’t some charity venture; it’s private enterprise seeking a workable financial model for owners and players to profit off. The NHL once similarly struggled at striking a balance between working wages for players and owner profitability.
Many NHL players needed second jobs until the 1980s. And their pay only increased after a challenge to NHL hockey supremacy by the World Hockey Association (WHA), which formed in 1971 and started poaching players away with better offers.
But while the NHL eventually beat the WHA into insolvency by 1979 and absorbed four of its teams, the opposite happened on the women’s side where the upstart NWHL is still standing and, apparently, attracting new investors.
So, that league likely isn’t going away anytime soon.
And that will leave boycotting players facing choices, as many are already sacrificing a season in their primes.
But conflict and sacrifice are usually what propels major changes within pro sport. It was unrealistic to assume in this case that, just because women were involved, everything would be resolved quickly and peacefully by somebody giving up an entire league without struggle.
Stephens-Tysland said the newly-named Women’s Pro Hockey Seattle group is taking a long-term approach while everything plays out.
“The movement to bring women’s pro hockey to Seattle will not happen overnight,” she said. “Since we can’t predict the future, we are pursuing various opportunities to increase exposure and interest in women’s pro hockey in the Pacific Northwest.”
That means talking up Seattle’s support for women’s pro sports and strong hockey fan base. And rallying support for the women’s game locally regardless of whether Rylan’s vision or that of the boycotting players ultimately prevails.
That neutrality seems safest for now because — just like in men’s leagues throughout history — nobody seems prepared to give up future spoils from the women’s game without a fight.