Inside the NHL
Lexi Bender never got to skate on-ice as a child with any women’s professional hockey players.
The women’s pro game didn’t exist back then, so the closest Bender, 26, a Snohomish native and this region’s foremost current female star, got to such exposure was her father arranging a coffee chat for her with two local U.S. Olympic team members. Thus, Bender, a Boston Pride All-Star defender, recently jumped at the chance when asked to help run a National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) clinic for female players ages 6 to 16 in Lynnwood next weekend.
“There wasn’t really this type of opportunity when I was coming up,’’ Bender told me by phone from Boston, where the former Boston College standout is spending the summer as a supervised junior associate at a legal firm ahead of finishing her law degree. “But I remember once I got coffee with (Olympian) Kelly Stephens and did the same thing with Brooke Whitney and that wasn’t even on the ice. And that had a huge impact on my career, being able to talk to someone about the path they’d taken from Seattle and check some boxes in my head.’’
The Aug. 3 clinic at the Lynnwood Ice Center costs $50 with two hour-long age group sessions; one at 10 a.m. for ages 12-and-under and another at 11 a.m. for ages 16-and-under. Sign-ins, after advance online registration, start an hour before the first session up to the start of second session. It’s part of the Jr. NWHL Summer Clinic Series taking place in cities where the league has no team.
Besides Lynnwood, there was a clinic last month in North Carolina and two upcoming in Tampa Bay and Long Island. To hear Bender tell it, it’s no coincidence this region was chosen as it awaits the October 2021 debut of an NHL franchise and with local lobby efforts underway to land an NWHL team as well.
“I wasn’t too much involved in the process for selecting the locations, but I know it was strategic,’’ she said. “You’ve seen in the last year that there’s been a huge growth in hockey in Seattle generally with the NHL team coming and then in women’s hockey as well. I think we’re just looking to capitalize on that and get some exposure in the Seattle market.’’
In late April, local women’s hockey fixture and former University of Washington non-varsity men’s coach Zoë Harris launched the NWHLtoSeattle group to lobby to bring a league franchise here. Harris said she’s thrilled the clinic is coming and that Bender will help “inspire the next generation of players.’’
The clinic also comes at a tumultuous time for the five-team NWHL and women’s pro hockey in general. Still reeling from the folding last May of the rival Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), numerous top NWHL players such as Kendall Coyne-Schofield and Hillary Knight formed a #ForTheGame movement and refused to participate in this coming season until a unified circuit with better pay and working conditions emerges.
Many of those boycotting players, earning as little as $2,000 per season, don’t believe the NWHL is sustainable. They’ve since formed the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association — a union promoting the need for a new league and helping boycotting players with training to stay in shape.
The association’s chief operations consultant, Bryan Hicks, a career hockey referee from New Jersey, told ESPN this month that the group now has 173 dues-paying members. Initially, about 200 players said they’d boycott the NWHL season, but some have changed their minds and the NWHL now has about 40 signed to contracts with more expected as the free agency period unfolds.
The NHL, which supplies some annual NWHL funding, is monitoring things for now and has said it will only intervene — possibly with a WNBA-type circuit under its control — if there are no pro leagues remaining. That isn’t the case now, with the NWHL — in which two of the five teams still have partnerships with NHL clubs, down from four last season — planning to play in 2019-20.
NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan initially suggested her league would add former CWHL teams from Toronto and Montreal. But that was put on hold after the boycott, leaving several of the world’s best players without a place to play that’s close enough to the day jobs they work to make ends meet.
Rylan has said she’ll revisit expansion for 2020-21 and remains open to talk about a new league.
For now, the defending champion Minnesota Whitecaps, Buffalo Beauts — who’d been operated by Buffalo Sabres ownership until being given back to the league once the boycott began — Metropolitan (New Jersey) Riveters, Connecticut Whale and the Pride will launch a fifth NWHL season Oct. 5 with players as divided as ever.
Bender admits “it’s pretty split’’ and there’s pressure to choose sides. Her decision to play came down to the NWHL being “a set league that’s frankly been very good to me. Since I graduated from Boston College it’s given me an opportunity to play, whereas I wouldn’t have had an opportunity otherwise to pay my rent while I’m in law school, which is an amazing opportunity.
“And it’s my last year in law school and thinking about my options I just think it’s the best fit.’’
Bender declined comment on the #ForTheGame movement, the new union or planned player boycott, citing the sensitivity of the situation.
For now, Bender is focused on the Lynnwood clinic and showing female players they can have a pro future once issues of the day get resolved. She plans to introduce drills run by the Pride and Boston College — including mini-games, which both incorporate within daily practices to keep things competitive.
“Coaches are great, but when you play for the same coach you end up doing a lot of the same drills,’’ she said. “It’s just good to hear a different voice and do some different drills, work on some different things.’’
And plan for a future by standing on-ice next to a top player already living hers.