Inside the NHL

This isn’t quite another Ken Dryden story, though the tale of Snohomish native Lexi Bender has parallels involving law degrees, championships and aborted hockey careers.

Dryden, of course, is the Hall of Fame goalie who, after winning two Stanley Cups his first three seasons with Montreal, famously skipped the 1973-74 campaign due to a salary dispute and articled for a legal firm to complete a McGill University law degree. Then, degree in hand, Dryden put off a legal career and returned for five NHL seasons and four more championships.

Bender, 27, spent four seasons as an All-Star defender with the Boston Pride of the six-team professional National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL). A year ago her one-loss team was preparing for the Isobel Cup championship game against Minnesota. Alas, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and the game was canceled two days before puck drop.

Fast forward 12 months to last Saturday, and the Boston-Minnesota championship was finally played, albeit after a new, COVID-19-disrupted season that just happened to again leave them as the final squads standing. The Pride won 4-3, becoming the first two-time champion of the six-year-old NWHL, but Bender was nowhere to be seen.

She had retired from pro hockey in January, just as the NWHL was launching a COVID-19-shortened, two-week regular season inside a Lake Placid, New York, bubble. The reason? Bender had completed a Northeastern University law degree, passed the Massachusetts bar exam and just started as a full-time associate for a Boston firm.

“I wouldn’t want to do something where I couldn’t commit 100% of my effort and be my very best,” she said Monday in a phone interview. “And I didn’t think I could be the very best lawyer I could be and the very best hockey player. So something had to give.”

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Left unspoken are stark financial differences between the NHL and women’s pro game, exemplified by Bender opting to begin her off-ice career just as her on-ice performance was peaking. Unlike a peaking Dryden resuming his hockey career post-degree five decades prior, the financial reality of women’s pro hockey — where sub-$15,000 salaries are the norm — left Bender little choice.

Dryden, even in the 1970s, could afford to earn his degree, then keep playing. After all, Dryden’s annual hockey salary that period — which various published sources say averaged about $180,000 (roughly $820,000 in today’s money) given fluctuating Canada-U. S. exchange rates — was far more than any law firm would pay him.

In fact, Dryden was earning $100,000 annually with Montreal when he held out that lone season at age 26 — the same age as Bender her final NWHL game — and was paid only $7,500 by the Toronto law firm for which he articled. The Canadiens eventually produced the pay raise that kept Dryden playing until his 1979 retirement and subsequent post-hockey career as a renowned hockey author, NHL team president and general manager, politician and university professor. 

In Bender’s case, shelving a potentially lucrative legal career to play hockey another five years at current wages just isn’t realistic. Sure, she could try juggling both — as many NWHL players working outside jobs to make ends meet are forced to do — but that’s probably not the best way to impress a law firm. And as Bender said, she felt she wouldn’t give her team enough.

So Bender watched on NBCSN last Saturday as the Pride won the championship missing from her résumé. Besides last year’s canceled final, she’d lost in her lone title-game appearance as a rookie.

But if anything felt bittersweet, Bender wasn’t letting on. 

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“I’ve never been so happy for a group of girls, watching them hoist the Cup,” Bender said. “A lot of the girls texted me right after, saying ‘You’re a part of this.’ It’s very kind of them, but it was a new season, and they did it.”

In fact, Bender doesn’t sound bitter. She correctly notes — evidenced by Dryden — that an NHL player couldn’t have attended law school and articled as she did since 2018 for her current Foley Hoag LLP firm while continuing to play.

“I mean, we all want the women’s game to get to a point where it can be a full-time career, and I think that’s a very reasonable goal if we can get the exposure,” she said. “But at this point I’m incredibly thankful that the NWHL gave me the opportunity to pay my rent while going to law school and to do so for an extended period of time.

“My dad always says I got four bonus years of hockey, and I’m very grateful for that.”

And perhaps it’s unrealistic to compare Bender with Dryden, given massive revenue differences between the NWHL and NHL, and hockey’s history. After all, the NHL formed in 1917, and plenty of players worked second jobs and died broke for decades before the 1970s onset of heftier salaries.

Proponents of the fledgling women’s pro game say salaries won’t evolve until top players unite within a single league. After the longstanding Canadian Women’s Hockey League disbanded in May 2019, about 175 top players boycotted the surviving NWHL and instead formed the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) — a group pushing for better pay and working conditions within a unified pro circuit.

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The PWHPA offers training and exhibition game opportunities, such as the ongoing Dream Gap Tour in New York, Chicago and St. Louis through April 12.

NHL teams have partnered with the PWHPA, hosting Dream Gap games at Madison Square Garden and United Center. But the NHL has avoided calls to organize a unified women’s pro league — reluctant to intervene while the NWHL remains operational. 

This latest NWHL season was difficult; the Lake Placid bubble abandoned pre-playoffs in February after a COVID-19 outbreak. But a four-team playoff in Brighton, Massachusetts, resumed this month, with plans under way for a seventh season.

Bender has avoided taking sides in the NWHL-PWHPA debate. She said women playing on national television, whether in the NWHL final, or PWHPA exhibitions at major arenas only helps growth.

“I think it all boils down to one word — exposure,” she said. “I think what you see in common and what everyone’s driving for is exposure and getting the women’s game on to a bigger stage.”

Bender plans to “give back” to hockey by staying involved at some level once her law career stabilizes. Her law specialty is “mergers and acquisitions,” and when I quipped she could help acquire new women’s pro teams for whatever league ultimately needs them, her voice leapt.

“I would love to!” she said. “Make sure you put that in print.”

Done. And, perhaps like Dryden’s heralded post-NHL career, to be continued.