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Women’s Hockey Wednesday: Why eliminating practice players from the NWHL is a bad move

The CWHL adds a second Chinese team, Cornell celebrates 45 years and Sweden and South Korea are getting set to face off.

A Day In The Life Of The New York Riveters Women's Hockey Team Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Story of the Week

NWHL Increases Roster Size Ending Practice Player Role

The NWHL was founded on the concept that women should be paid to play hockey. Yesterday they took another step back from that founding principle. From salaries ranging from $10,000 to $26,000 USD for rostered players in their first year, to salaries that were slashed without warning during their second year, they have now moved to a pay-for-play concept. The press release language frames the announcement as one of “increasing roster sizes”. The only thing this move increases is the number of practice players per team. They’ll now all have the label of “regular team member” but not a single player will be guaranteed money.

Assuming that each team manages to recruit 25 players, that’s 8 players per team who could conceivably call themselves “regular team members” and never see a cent. As an aside: teams in the NWHL have been allowed to sign players since May 1st, and yet roster limits weren’t set until July 18th? Granted, no team has managed to recruit the minimum 17 players yet so it’s a minor, if telling, detail.

Despite calls from the players for more transparency in the second season, the league still has not divulged where its funding comes from, nor what their budget for this season actually is. Further, this year they announced that salary numbers (now per-game wages) would only be announced just prior to the start of the season.

This “roster expansion” benefits the league and only the league. It’s unclear exactly how much of a financial benefit this will be, as the payment structure for practice players was never clarified. Was it a flat fee per player per game, or did each player negotiate a different per-game fee? Where were those wages coming from — a fund outside the salary cap or, as was once rumoured, did roster players who missed games pay for practice players from their own salaries?

Since a salary does strongly imply pay for the season regardless of days off for injuries or unavoidable non-NWHL obligations, it’s entirely possible that the league paid all roster players for each game, plus the fees for any practice players that a team may have needed. If that was the case, the NWHL just saved itself a lot of money.

There are implications for players’ health - will a player be more apt to play through injuries if she really needs the money that month? Worse, the power dynamics between coaches and players just became extremely fraught. If a coach wants to healthy scratch a player, for legitimate reasons or for reasons of interpersonal conflict, that player will give up her pay for that game.

There has been some mention that this will allow the players with outside jobs more flexibility. Since there are no National Team players this season and the NWHL has never paid a living wage, that’s every player. I don’t think “oh it’s okay, I can miss this game, I just won’t get paid” counts as any reasonable sense of flexibility. How many games can a player miss before the coach simply stops putting her in the lineup?

The lack of transparency regarding pay rates for players who have already signed creates another set of questions. Are players still being paid different amounts? If so, what happens if money begins to run out near the end of the season? Will cheaper players be in the lineup more often? Some of these details may yet to be worked out, but it’s especially troubling that the language used by the league is one of a positive change. The change is most definitely negative and hints at continuing financial issues for the NWHL.

What’s more, the initial goal of paying women’s hockey players was to move towards a world where second jobs weren’t necessary for survival. The players bearing the brunt of this change are players who, for the most part, have not been part of the National Team program for years — the ones who might simply be grateful for the opportunity. To turn around and say “we’re making your work precarious, but that’s okay because we’re not your main source of funds anyway” is most assuredly a step in the wrong direction. The US Women’s National Team went on strike only a few months ago for, among other things, the right to be paid a salary to play hockey. If they come back from the Olympics to a league that cannot pay salaries, what are they supposed to think?


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