After an offseason full of ups and downs, 81 players from the four Canadian chapters of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association finally took to the ice this past weekend at Westwood Arena in Etobicoke for the Unifor Women’s Hockey Showcase.
The Unifor Showcase was the first stop on the PWHPA’s Dream Gap Tour, a series of tournaments that are designed with several purposes in mind: to give their members somewhere to play hockey, to showcase the talent available in women’s hockey, to demonstrate to potential partners (and a little bit to themselves) that, properly supported, women’s hockey can draw an audience, and to bring their message to the media and the public.
The 170-plus dues-paying members of the PWHPA aren’t willing to restrict themselves to on-ice practices and off-ice skills sessions while they work towards their dream of a sustainable professional women’s hockey league. These are ultra-competitive hockey players, some of the best in the world, and they’re looking for game action. With no stakes on the line, but in front of packed houses and assembled in rosters not that far off from those of their former CWHL teams, the women of Teams Jenner, Johnston, Knox and Poulin put on a hell of a show.
The hockey was fast, it was skilled, and it was aggressive. Crosschecking, bodychecking, tripping, holding, hooking, roughing... “I think I can speak for all of us that we’re all super competitive,” said Rebecca Johnston, perhaps understating the case a little. Off the ice these women are united in a common goal but once the puck dropped they were ready for battle. We saw a Blayre Turnbull hat trick, with bonus game-tying, buzzer-beating action and a Rebecca Johnston game-winning shootout goal. We saw classic combinations like Natale Spooner scoring off a set-up from Sarah Nurse, and a Mélodie Daoust goal assisted by Marie-Philip Poulin and Ann-Sophie Bettez.
Perhaps more importantly, 10 of the 27 goals in the tournament were scored by players who were neither at the World Championships this past spring nor at Team Canada’s Fall Festival camp for the senior national team players the previous weekend. The games were an excellent showcase for how good the level of talent is, not just among the national team players but among the recent university graduates and CWHL veterans, the players who can’t rely on Hockey Canada to give them a place to play. There were 23 players on the ice who were at the 2019 Women’s World Championships, three from Team USA, 20 from Team Canada, and another eight Canadians who were at the Fall Festival. In front of a full rink, and more online, the other 50 players showed they could hang with the best and deserve a league where they can continue to do so.
According to the PWHPA, seating was sold out for all four games, and attendance for the Team Knox vs Team Poulin game on Saturday afternoon drew a crowd of over 1100. (Westwood Arena has a combination of bench seating and standing room.) That’s better attendance than the majority of GTA-area CWHL games. The merchandise table, selling pucks, t-shirts and hoodies, was almost out of adult t-shirts by the time the doors opened on Sunday morning and they were down to pucks by the end of the weekend. In addition, the Chicago showcase taking place October 18-20 sold out yesterday. This is obviously something that will look very good to both current and future partners wanting to see that women’s hockey can bring in money. But the players were pretty excited about it too.
Taking time off with no guarantee of when or even if the league they dream of will come to fruition must have been a nerve-wracking decision even for the most fervent of players, but the support from fans made them feel validated.
“I think going into today I underestimated how special it was going to be,” Brianne Jenner reflected after the first game. “Being on that ice, and when you felt the crowd—I think the cheers that we heard were for something bigger than just, you know, a hockey game.”
“I was really excited to see great attendance at both games” Liz Knox commented following Saturday’s games. Knox spent seven seasons as a goalie with the Brampton and then Markham Thunder before hanging up her skates this offseason. She’s now working more on the administrative side of the PWHPA, and the players of the GTA West chapter voted to name their team in her honour. “I got the chance to float around with crowds a little bit and just talk with fans, hearing their support...really validates what we’re trying to do, just making those connections in the community.”
“The fact that we played at 9:30 this [Sunday] morning and the house was packed, it was electric in there, the atmosphere was incredible, the fans have been amazing...” Sarah Nurse said “...it’s been such an awesome event and I’m so happy to have been a part of it.”
Even before the tournament started, the list of partners onboard with the PWHPA was extensive and impressive. Adidas provided jerseys and other clothing, Bauer provided new equipment for all the players, Budweiser sponsored the streaming, sold beer at the games, and provided a Budweiser goal light for both the Fan of the Game and the Goal of the Game at each game. A partnership with the NHLPA, following on from two seasons of support of the CWHL, was announced on the Thursday, and players wore NHLPA patches on their jerseys. The Ontario Women’s Hockey Association has been a perennial partner, and Tim Hortons sponsored the three stars of the game, as they had in the CWHL. Secret is a new sponsor, and Unifor has stepped up in a big way, funding two practice sessions a week for PWHPA players and also providing other details such as catering for the players during the tournament. Those are the big names — the tournament drew a number of smaller sponsors and several media partners. Plus in the US Dunkin’ Donuts and Billie Jean King’s Magellan Corporation are title sponsors for the New Hampshire and Chicago showcases respectively.
The Unifor Showcase was definitely successful in two of its goals, but what about the third? In terms of getting their message out, all four games were streamed via YouTube and CBC Gem, and the showcase drew a fair amount of mainstream media as well. TSN and Sportsnet were in attendance, and Ron McLean, Don Cherry, Tara Slone and Brian Burke participated in ceremonial puck drops.
What was the message? Annie and I have been pontificating on this all off-season, so I’m going to let the players speak for themselves. (The first few quotes come from a press conference involving Kacey Bellamy, Brianne Jenner, Rebecca Johnston and Nicole Kosta, but I was a little ambitious in thinking I’d be able to match voices and names later.)
“We want one, sustainable women’s hockey league in North America, and we want all the best in it—Europeans, Americans, Canadians, that’s the goal. Obviously we’re really excited about this tour, but you know, the end goal isn’t a six to eight week tour, but you know, we want to get to the point where a pro league can offer a sustainable wage and a good, competitive training environment.”
“It’s being able to leave your equipment somewhere at a rink, it’s being able to get your skates sharpened, it’s being able to get your laundry done at the rink, it’s these little things that day in and day out we are doing and the sacrifices we are making, traveling from one rink to the other, working out at another facility, and when you look at a league, we want a sustainable, viable league, where we can be able to have all those resources and be successful as a professional.”
“We’re not talking million-dollar contracts or anything, you know, just, in the past players are usually in the negatives coming out financially in the year because they’re paying for parking at the airport, they’re paying for meals on the road, and having some improvements there would be huge for us.”
Natalie Spooner :“I think there are a lot of things that we hope for, for that younger generation. Obviously we would love to see girls have a career out of hockey, and I think, right now it’s a bit of a double-edged sword in that girls do have regular jobs and go to hockey practice after, and I think women’s hockey could just take off if we had it as a career and if girls were really able to just focus solely on hockey. But I think there’s a lot of different things, even just getting ice time, treatment services, dental plan, whatever it is, there’s so much, so many little things.”
Liz Knox: “We look at sport as a microcosm of our society, and so the conversations we’re seeing coming out about women in sport in general, it’s—it’s because our intentions are changing, right? We’re starting to see there is benefits to giving young girls opportunity, not just in sports but in business, and science, and education, and we’re seeing the power that comes with that. And so I think this is our little way—this is our little world, our part in society, this is our part in the bigger conversation, we can make this little change for hockey, maybe it has a trickle-down effect.”
The messaging has, in some ways, changed from what these players spoke about while they were playing in the CWHL. Sarah Nurse was one of the faces of the league in the 2018-19 season and delivered a message that pushed growth but that was still very supportive of the league. In an interview with Kristen Shilton of TSN on the Thursday prior to the showcase she painted less of a rosy picture, mentioning things like running out things as basic as stick tape. I asked her about what made her feel she was able to speak out more about the rougher aspects of the league.
“When you’re playing in the CWHL that’s your league, that’s kind of your livelihood, and so there is a lot of respect that goes into being a part of that organization,” she answered. “So definitely last year, my first year, I didn’t 100% know where the lines were, and so coming out of that experience and going into this movement I think it’s really a disservice if I’m dishonest. And so I’m going to be 100% candid about what went on in my first year of quote-un-quote ‘professional hockey.’ And I think that me being honest about it is going to improve the conditions and improve the future of this game.”
As for concrete steps on how the PWHPA is going to move forward on its long-term goals, players preferred to focus on the start of the Dream Gap Tour and leave the future for once the excitement had died down a bit. However, when asked about the longevity of sponsor support, Jayna Hefford had this to say:
“I think at this point there is no end date, none of us know how long this chapter will last, so we have people on board with us that support the purpose and the cause, and I think it’s as simple as that. Anybody who wants to be aligned with this group is going to be aligned with the purpose, and we know we’re going to push the game forward and we know we’re going to create some great opportunities for young girls, but in terms of how long that is, I don’t know if any of us can say right now.”
Liz Knox raised a somewhat more definitive timeline: “[Women’s hockey is] Olympic-driven. So we’re on a four-year plan. And we’re already two years into it, right? So the reality is, come the next Olympics, we better have an answer.”
Now that the excitement of a fabulous weekend of hockey has died down, how can Toronto fans continue to support the PWHPA? The rest of the Dream Gap Tour will be streamed on the PWHPA YouTube channel—tune in to those. The GTA East (Team Jenner) and West (Team Knox) teams are planning some games against each other in cooperation with the OWHA—keep an eye on local news (and of course right here at PPP) for dates and locations and come out when you can. And, as Brianne Jenner reminded us, it’s important as fans to talk about women’s hockey in your area. “The struggle that we had with the CWHL was that a lot of people love watching the product but didn’t know it was right there in their city.” So tell all your friends! Drag ‘em to a game, host a viewing party, go out to your local U Sports or PWHL or girls hockey games.
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