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Photo Credit: © Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

“For the love of the game”: The gendered pay gap in professional hockey

I remember the moment clearly. Team Canada, down a goal with 1:14 left to play in the third period of the gold medal game, was given a reprieve.

“IT HITS THE GOAL POST,” Mark Lee cried.

On the ensuing faceoff Marie Phillip-Poulin, acting as the roving extra attacker, lines up on the top inner half of the right circle. Hayley Wickenheiser, representing Canada in her fifth Olympic games, loses the scrambled draw. Poulin expertly reads the play, powering across to the far wall, where the puck arrived a second later. Poulin jumps in front of Julie Chu, the American forward for whom the pass was intended, and works the puck back to her teammates below the goal-line.

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Canada cycles the puck, completing two passes and it comes to Rebecca Johnston in the corner, who pivots and throws a backhanded pass off the side of Vetter’s net. The deflection wrong-foots Kelli Stack, a United States forward covering on defence, and the puck drifts fortuitously into the low slot. There’s Poulin, again, one step ahead. She collects, goes backhand to forehand, and chips the game-tying goal past Vetter, exactly 30 seconds of game time after the puck hit the Canadian goal post.

And of course, Poulin then scored the gold-medal-winning goal in overtime. Canada’s victory over the United States in the 2014 Winter Olympics was memorable, hard-fought, and for Canadian supporters, euphoric. This moment is representative of the highs of elite women’s hockey, a tightly contested, grudge match that turns on one moment. The drama and intrigue of that match and those final few minutes are still palpable six years later.

By the game’s end, Poulin had become a national and personal hero. This was an iconic moment in my hockey memory. I can only imagine it was memorable for the 13 million Canadians who watched the game on CBC, along with the 4.9 million spectators stateside on NBC. The Olympic final was the premier competition in women’s hockey at the time when a women’s professional league was still a year away from being established.

Unless packaged within the nationalistic pageantry of Olympic competition, I was all too ready to forget about women’s hockey, despite being truly captivated by the game I had just witnessed. I didn’t watch another women’s hockey game for four years. While I didn’t seek out women’s hockey, this fan experience is hardly unique.

A big part of this is a lack of representation by Canadian broadcasters. You can turn on a TV in Canada and watch a multitude of live men’s hockey games. Broadcasters carry not only NHL contests but also a slate of men’s games from the major junior circuit, and position tournaments like the Memorial Cup and World Junior Championships as marquee events. Important and exciting NHL games are broadcast in the offseason, along with a nauseating number of ‘Countdown’ type programs playing top men’s hockey highlights on repeat.

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As an avid hockey fan and a man who grew up fixated on the 21st century NHL, I didn’t question the intense but fleeting and clearly secondary place that the women’s game occupied within the ethos of hockey culture. I didn’t think twice about what these high-performance athletes did in the intervening years between Olympic competitions, and it didn’t strike me as odd to hear about women’s development squads playing against boys AAA midget teams, or legendary players like Wickenheiser needing to go to Europe to play in men’s leagues.

In her 2017 opinion piece on the future of women’s hockey, Rachel Giese clearly attends to the backwardness of the status quo, which is that female athletes still aren’t taken seriously:

“The main case against supporting women’s hockey is that the sport doesn’t draw the same crowds and sponsors that the men’s league does. But that’s an absurd, self-fulfilling argument. In order for the sport to grow, its players need more training, more ice time, more competition, more media coverage and more pay.”

It all smacks of the deeply held assumption that women simply couldn’t be as good at hockey as men, without considering the social and economic conditions that validate and elevate hockey as a serious career choice for men but not for women. Giese continues by convincingly laying out the disparate economic incentives for elite-level male and female hockey players by comparing the incomes of the Kessels. Phil and Amanda both represented the United States at the Olympics, played professional hockey, and both were paid at or near the top of the pay scale in relation to their peers in 2017.

The difference? Phil made $9 million dollars before tax in the NHL. Amanda made $26,000 in the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL). Given this wide disparity of economic incentives for comparable professional athletes, it’s no surprise that Canadian and American women aren’t routinely encouraged and supported to make a career of hockey in the way that men are.

The KRS Vanke Rays, a former Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) club which now plays in the Russian Women’s Hockey League (KhHL) is a leader in women’s hockey with regard to providing robust funding and amenities befitting professional athletes.

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Speaking to The Victory Press, KRS Head Coach Brian Idalski said, “I felt like financially [KRS] were supporting it in a way that you won’t find anywhere else.”

The author of the article, Kristen Whelan, goes on to mention the “deeply entrenched notions of acceptable femininity [in Russia]”, which are overt enough that North American players are confronted by a highly gendered view of hockey among some Russians. However, Whelan continues:

“There’s a certain irony, to be sure, to the fact that many of the best offerings in women’s team sports are found in a country that sometimes struggles to embrace women’s presence in traditionally masculine spheres. But perhaps that only throws into starker relief the disparity between discursive and material support that currently exists in North America.”

Whelan’s insight speaks to the dissonance between the NHL’s ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ and ‘Gender Equality Month’ campaigns, or Hockey Canada’s ‘Hockey is Hers’ initiative, and the inadequate levels of funding and resources made available for women’s hockey, particularly at the professional level.

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Playing for the ‘love of the game’

The National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) proudly declares, “all players are college graduates,” which is true. It’s an entry requirement in fact. The overwhelming majority of professional female players played hockey through the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the U.S., while a few played under U Sports (formerly Canadian Interuniversity Sport [CIS]) in Canada. At Hockey Canada’s 2019 National Women’s Development Team selection camp, 37 of the 44 collegiate athletes who were invited played in the NCAA.

Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association members have gone a similar route. A glance at their membership list shows that only one player did not play university or college hockey. This is not the case for many elite male hockey players. The Canadian junior and major junior system results in many Canadian male players not receiving university education before entering professional hockey. The result of women receiving training opportunities through universities and colleges, is that they are higher educated but vastly lower paid.

Low pay has a dual impact. Financially one does not have the economic security to fully invest themselves in their job over the long term because of the nagging prospect that low pay will eventually force them to seek other employment. Low pay can also be symbolically discouraging because on a basic social level it shows that the work is not valued, especially when peers with similar training and experience are compensated at much higher rates.

There are plenty of reasons to choose to work a job that is low paid, such as doing meaningful and enjoyable work, being in a positive work setting, and having an opportunity to use and expand ones’ skills and sense of competence. Despite these rewarding attributes of work that happens to be low paid, however, the dual impacts of financial and symbolic under-appreciation take their toll.

In a 2013 New York Times feature, American forward Kate Buesser spoke about the financial implications of playing in the CWHL.

Buesser said that until she became eligible for a training stipend from the United States Olympic Committee, she had never made a dime from the sport since graduating from Harvard in 2011… After graduating, [Buesser] debated the idea of continuing with hockey. Boston had a franchise in the five-team [CWHL], which offered a professional environment but no pay… by her estimate, Buesser paid $600 to $800 for gas money and meals on the road during her two seasons with the Blades. But it was worth it. “It was an amazing experience,” Buesser said. “I wouldn’t take anything back, even if I had to pay two grand.”

Buesser went on to play another season with the Blades and one season with the NWHL’s Connecticut Whale. She retired from professional hockey following the 2015-16 season.

Today, expectations of double day labour for women have been internalized in Canadian and American culture for so long that its preposterousness is no longer readily apparent.

The idea of the double day of labour goes back to the 1950’s and 60’s, when rising household expenses meant that women needed to find part- or full-time work to supplement family income, but were generally still expected to ‘keep up’ with cooking, cleaning, and childrearing among other household tasks.

Women who want to play hockey professionally are expected to do it for the “love of the game”. NWHL practices are held late at night and games are played on the weekends because most, if not all of the team members have full-time jobs.

Double day labour means that on top of working a day job NWHL players were often expected to arrange their own food, their own transport to and from games, and bring and wash their own towels, that is if they even had access to locker rooms, bathrooms and showers which is not always the case. 

The bottom line: Show her the money

The NWHL was founded in 2015, becoming “the first professional women’s hockey league in North America”, according to the league website. However, there is some debate over the use of this term, and the level of compensation needed to qualify as ‘professionals’. As Sarah Nurse said recently, “what we have considered as ‘professional’ women’s hockey in the past has been far from professional”. While the NWHL has paid its players since the league’s inception, salaries ranging between $10,000 and $26,000 in the leagues inaugural year were slashed in half in 2016, as league revenue could not support the salary expenditure. In 2019, top end players made a league maximum $15,000.

According to the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA), “[our members] cannot make a sustainable living playing in the current state of the professional game. Having no health insurance and making as low as two thousand dollars a season means players can’t adequately train and prepare at the highest level.” In a thread of tweets from September 2019, which were seen as a rebuttal to the PWHPA claims, the NWHL said their players were covered in the event of on-ice injuries.

The PWHPA has over 200 members, including Canadian and American Olympic team members. Poulin, Kendall Coyne Schofield, Brianne Decker, Natalie Spooner, Hilary Knight, Nurse, Renata Fast and Amanda Kessel are some of the elite level female players who have decided not to play “in ANY professional leagues in North America… until [they] get the resources that professional hockey demands and deserves.” In lieu of league competition the PWHPA organized the Dream Gap Tour, a multi-city tour showcasing some of the best women’s hockey players in the world and giving fans, particularly girls and women, and chance to see and meet these elite female athletes.

The now-defunct CWHL was officially an amateur association, which covered travel expenses and provided equipment for its players. In 2017 the CWHL announced that it would pay female players a stipend ranging from $2,000 to $10,000, drawing from a $100,000 budget or salary cap made available each CWHL team through centralized league funding. This decision was based on increased Canadian sponsorship, revenue generated from the league’s expansion to China, and less directly, the visible comparison with the NWHL, which had been paying players since it reorganized in 2015.

In its comprehensive open letter from July 2019, the CWHL Board of Directors said the “’one league’ concept created confusion and unrealistic expectations in the market place,” specifically among potential corporate sponsors. They tersely noted that while expanding women’s hockey, the 2015 formation of a second league in the United States “unfortunately fragmented the potential sponsorship dollars”.

“It is not smart for all of us to lament the end of the CWHL, while not changing the behaviours that led to its end…” the letter continued, “we keep hearing it is not about the money, but it is about the money, the revenues, the investments, the profits and so to truly advance this game, settling for a non-living wage to play this game ‘professionally’ should not be tolerated.”

The bottom line is that money is important. While the global pandemic has induced setbacks for all live sporting leagues, we must not forget that there is substantial fan interest and funds to draw upon. It’s a matter of what we choose to value. We can’t expect women to play professional hockey for ‘the love of the game’ when their male counterparts would never be expected to do the same.