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Women’s hockey stars promote their sport, look to grow the pro game beyond the NWHL

The star players are boycotting the struggling NWHL pro league because of pay issues. They took their “Dream Gap Tour” to the Flyers’ Voorhees practice facility.

(From left) Olivia Hefferan, 7; Alexis Duffy, 8; and Aiden Duffy, 8, from Media, watch an exhibition game during Saturday's "Dream Gap Tour."
(From left) Olivia Hefferan, 7; Alexis Duffy, 8; and Aiden Duffy, 8, from Media, watch an exhibition game during Saturday's "Dream Gap Tour."Read moreAkira Suwa

In her lone National Women’s Hockey League season, Kendall Coyne-Schofield earned $7,000, arrived at game sites the night before, slept on air mattresses in friends’ apartments, and then, without having practiced, played for the Minnesota Whitecaps.

“It was extremely challenging,” Coyne-Schofield, 27, a member of the gold-medal-winning U.S. hockey team at the 2018 Olympics, said Friday. “When young girls would look at you and say, `I want to be you,’ I felt like it was hypocritical to look back and agree with them. I don’t want them to be professional hockey players making $7,000, sleeping on air mattresses, and not attending one team practice. That’s not professional. That’s not how it should be. That needs to change.”

That enforced poverty explains why Coyne-Schofield and dozens of other North Americans — many of them Canadian and U.S. Olympians — are boycotting the NWHL, the five-year-old pro league with teams in Minnesota, Boston, Connecticut, Buffalo, and Monmouth, N.J.

The boycott is the work of the Professional Women’s Hockey Player Association, an organization the rebel players formed after the other pro circuit, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, shut down in May. Its stated goal is “a league that fairly compensates the best female hockey players in the world.”

To spread that message and to raise awareness of their sport, the PWHPA has embarked on a “Dream Gap Tour” of several NHL cities across North America. After visits to Toronto and San Jose, this weekend they came to the Flyers’ Skate Center in Voorhees, where they put on clinics, proselytized, and performed in four sold-out games.

“It’s been received incredibly well,” said Coyne-Schofield, an Illinois-born Olympian who’s been doing some broadcasting for the San Jose Sharks and some community work for the Chicago Blackhawks and who, in 2019, took part in the NHL All-Star Game’s skills competition.

“A lot of places we’ve gone, the buildings have been sold out. What really touches us is to see a lot of young hockey players there wanting our autographs, wanting to hear our stories.”

‘Lack of opportunity’

Women’s hockey, which burst onto the international scene at the Nagano Olympics in 1998, finds itself wrestling with an odd dichotomy. While its participation numbers are growing rapidly — up more than 18% since 2010 — there’s no viable landing spot for its best players once they have finished college.

“There’s a lack of opportunity in our game,” said Coyne-Schofield, “but it’s not at the grassroots level, it’s in the professional realm.”

There are youth leagues for girls at the Skate Zone and elsewhere in the Philadelphia area and many of their players turned out this weekend to watch women stars like Coyne-Schofield, Amanda Kessel, Hillary Knight, and Jocelyn Lamoureaux-Davidson.

The PWHPA’s logo portrays the hope it wants to convey to the following generations following in the sport — a silhouette of a female player in uniform gripping the hand of a similarly clad young girl.

When she discovered the game while watching an older brother play almost 25 years ago, Coyne-Schofield said, the only girls involved in the sport were those with hockey-playing brothers. That was the case with almost all the U.S. Olympians in 2010, 2014, and 2018, she said. But now it’s the success of those Olympic teams that is luring young girls to hockey.

“That’s the importance of us being visible and accessible to the communities when we go to these cities,” said Coyne-Schofield. “This tour isn’t about the players people will see on the ice this weekend, it’s about inspiring the next generation.”

Two girls from that generation — Lydia Shelov, 9, and sister Joanna, 4 — attended the early Saturday game with their parents. Walking to a snack bar after a fast-paced first period, their eyes were as wide as pucks.

“Lydia already plays and the younger one will too,” said Eric Shelov, a Philadelphia physician. “It’s great for them to see these women. Those are former Olympians out there and it’s some really serious hockey. Their mother played Division I hockey at Yale and she said this was better than any hockey she played.”

No plans for WNBA-type league

Still, despite the crowd’s enthusiasm, despite a streaming agreement with, and despite tour sponsors like the Flyers, Sharks, and Maple Leafs, there’s no sign of a workable league on the immediate horizon.

While the NHL recently has made overtures — inviting women to participate in All-Star Weekend events, hiring a few female assistants and scouts, backing the tour — it also has indicated there are no plans for any affiliated, WNBA-type league.

The WNBA recently provided the PWHPA with an emotional boost when its players agreed in January to a new collective-bargaining agreement, an eight-year deal that sets the average salary at nearly $130,000 and gives top players the chance to earn up to $300,000.

“I couldn’t think of anything more fueling and inspiring for us during these long days than when we saw the WNBA announce their new CBA,” said Coyne-Schofield. “It shows it can be done.”

Although the American and Canadian Olympians consistently have provided compelling action at the Winter Games, without a league for them to graduate to, public interest invariably waned.

“People see us and want to talk about us during the Olympics,” Coyne-Schofield said. “So how do we create a platform and infrastructure that provides us to continue to showcase the best of women’s hockey? That’s what we hope to do.”

In between tour stops, Olympians like Coyne-Schofield, Kessel, and Haley Skarupa practice and play with the national team and work with NHL clubs. But most of the 80 touring women must support themselves with non-hockey jobs.

“People want to say the national team players work hard,” said Coyne-Schofield. “Well the non-national team players work harder. They’re the ones working 50-hour weeks as nurses, teachers, doctors, lawyers. They do that by day and they’re hockey players by night. That structure needs to change.

“It’s 2020. Why shouldn’t talented, committed professionals be compensated as professionals? If you’re a professional, woman or man, you should be compensated properly for your job. And for us, that job is hockey.”