Is #ForTheGame the best approach for women’s hockey?

We asked players, management and industry insiders to weigh-in on the player boycott.

The future of professional women’s hockey is in limbo. An unexpected blow to the sport came March 31, when the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) announced it would cease operations May 1.

A few days later, over 200 professional female hockey players announced a boycott of the sport, saying they would “not play in ANY professional leagues in North America” until players receive the resources they demand, launching the #ForTheGame movement.

In the weeks since the boycott, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) has moved forward with signing players for the upcoming season, and saw the formation of a new players association: the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association. Not quite a labor union, rather a nonprofit association of workers calling for league-wide improvements in working conditions and benefits.

With uncertainty in the air, the NWHL forging ahead, and the NWHL players association worried about a fracturing of their labor movement, the question becomes:

Is the #ForTheGame movement the right way forward for women’s hockey?

Courtney Szto - Assistant Professor, Queen’s University ():

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Women athletes are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If they aren’t sexy enough, they can’t sell a product. If they are too sexy, they aren’t taken seriously. If women athletes want what the men have, they are told they haven’t earned it. If they want to forge their own path, they are told “that will never work.” This is why I don’t think that there is a wrong answer with respect to the challenge that currently faces women’s hockey. Collectively, there is literally nothing to lose in this situation and everything to gain. I could not be prouder of the women who have committed to a vision bigger than themselves because individually there are very real sacrifices being made.

At the same time, I also understand why the NWHL is forging ahead and why women are signing up to play. Anya Battaglino, NWHL player representative, has made very concrete points for why she believes proceeding with incremental changes in the NWHL is the correct way forward. She has argued that if and when a new league appears, many women will have to give up the pensions and health care provided by their full-time jobs in order to play in a startup league. She also contends that demonstrating incremental growth is the key to a successful business model. This isn’t necessarily incorrect, but I will warn that evidence gathering (which is where I feel women’s hockey is right now) is often a make-work project designed to keep the marginalized busy and along the margins.

Author, professor, and feminist killjoy, Sara Ahmed has written that collecting more evidence is often what you do when there is nowhere to go with that evidence. You just keep stuffing your archive full of more evidence: proof that you matter, proof of your value, proof that other people care. When you need that evidence, then yes – you better have it at the ready, but we also must understand that, “evidence of walls does not bring the walls down” (Ahmed, 2016). For those who believe in women’s hockey there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that these women and the game have economic, social, and cultural value. For those who do not genuinely believe in women’s equality there will always be a request for “more evidence.”

Importantly though, Ahmed also proposes that if evidence, by itself, cannot bring down walls then it can be used to prove existence and struggle: “Our archive is an archive of rebellion. It testifies to a struggle.” I see both #ForTheGame and the NWHL in this assertion. #ForTheGame is a welcome reminder that individual success and freedom are constrained within and by much larger structures. The CWHL vanished overnight, but the people who made up the CWHL have certainly not disappeared; they make up that archive of rebellion. The NWHL’s persistent existence testifies to the struggle that is women’s hockey. How do you fault anyone for wanting to ensure that women have an option to play if they so desire? Personally, I’m always up for a little rebellion, but I do think that the debate about a “correct” path forward is a distraction from the larger issue at hand: sexism is alive and well. Pitting the women against each other is not actually where this fight lies.

Katrina Galas - Former Assistant GM, Toronto Furies (@katrinagalas): 

All forward-minded movements are positively contributing to the future of women’s hockey. Like all long-term strategic plans, the planning portion goes through phases, as does the building and execution. However, the strongest way to get through each phase is to involve all key stakeholders every step of the way. If the concept can get buy-in and be championed from the onset, it’s like pressing fast-forward on the movement. It’s the “all hands on deck” mentality of leveraging the expertise and advocates of the game that have emerged already, as they represent a heightened starting point for this next phase – creating this unified voice is an important first step.

As this very media platform validates, sport intersects with culture, society, politics and business in various ways. Hockey, or women’s hockey as I hesitate to call it, is no different. In order to propel sustained success forward, all of these elements should represent drivers within the business model, as the impact of this game goes well beyond the balance sheet. And if that is captured, the model will lend itself to a long-term impact that, arguably, other sports are trying to reorient their leagues around now. Inspired and purpose-led organizations attract audiences beyond the typical fan – being cognizant of how to craft, create and collaborate to drive a multi-faceted solution for women’s hockey is anticipated to be at the forefront of this next phase of its development. So it can not only catch up with older, established leagues, but surpass them in the minds of the global fan and allow for the impact the sport is capable of.

Over the years, women’s hockey has indeed carved out a fan base of its own, showing there is a demand for this sport, which is valuable to other organizations looking to engage in hockey beyond their own fan base. It’s important to keep these fans, supporters, champions close by, as they will remain the strongest advocates for whatever comes next. As they say in business, it’s easier to keep a customer than buy a new one, so advancing the movement relies critically on those with an unwavering commitment to its success already.

Katie Lebel - Assistant Professor, Ted Rogers School of Management (@katelebel)

One month after the boycott was announced, the storyline has largely fallen off the mass media’s radar, potential investors in a new women’s league have thus far remained silent, and players who originally took the pledge have begun to sign contracts to play elsewhere. On the surface, it might be easy to suggest that the movement has not achieved the forward progress it had hoped for. The dream of a “long-term, viable professional hockey league that showcases the best of women’s hockey”, however, continues to exist as a significant and arguably lucrative business opportunity. The brave players that have banded together to demand better continue to deserve the opportunity to play in a league that is worthy of their talent. Young girls continue to deserve to have inspirational role models that they can look up to. The #ForTheGame movement is good for women’s hockey. It’s simply struggling to compete against the oft referred to misperception that there is no market for women’s sport and a tendency to expect big returns on short-term schedules.

There is a demonstrated market for women’s hockey. It shows up in spades every quadrennial when female players are promoted and provided with consistent media coverage (close to 5 million Canadians tuned in to watch the women’s gold medal game during the 2018 Pyeongchang Games at 2 o’clock in the morning). Globally, women’s hockey has grown 34% over the past decade, making it one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Despite relying upon self-generated media communications, IMI International found that 22% of Canadians engaged with the CWHL brand over the course of the past season (a figure on par with the audiences for athletics, gymnastics, the Ryder Cup, Champions League soccer, and National Lacrosse). Perhaps most significantly, the Swedish Women’s Hockey League (SDHL) announced a landmark, six-year television rights deal this week that will air all of the league’s 200 women’s club hockey games next season. Sweden clearly understands the potential for exponential growth in this space.

Fandom is a socialized behavior. Just look at the recent success of the Toronto Raptors and the investment that was necessary to create a basketball culture in Canada. John Bitgove, one of the team’s founders, was quoted this week crediting the team’s ownership for their “financial resources, from both a marketing and a player payroll perspective”. He and co-founder Allan Slaight were quick to reflect on the long-term commitment that was required to allow their vision of a team for the “next generation of Canadians” to come to fruition. It took twenty-four years for the Raptors to become Canada’s most valuable sport franchise. It will take more than a month’s time to cultivate a sustainable business strategy around women’s hockey. I continue to stand behind the values of the #ForTheGame movement and firmly believe the effort is well worth the fight. Big ideas always seem impossible until they’re done.

Kimberly Sass - Goaltender, PWHPA member (@_thedailysass): 

The #ForTheGame movement is the right way forward for women’s hockey, especially if we are looking to move forward at a faster pace as well as in a sustainable and professional nature. The PWHPA is our way to have a voice in what a future league will look like.
Our generation of athletes has been blessed with precedents of this type of movement.  We have witnessed female role models who have pushed the boundaries of their sport/society, acknowledged their worth and fought for the world to recognize it too.  A by-product of achieving a better climate for professional female hockey players through this movement is being able to instill the confidence in other people that is necessary to acknowledge their own worth, no matter what their circumstance is.  This movement goes beyond the realm of women’s hockey and sends a valuable message to all human beings.  I am thankful to be a part of the PWHPA and #ForTheGame movement.

Liz Knox - Markham Thunder Goaltender (@27knoxy):

Some members of the #ForTheGame movement have been around the game for a decade, others, closer to two decades. Have we made progress? Yes. But have we made the significant progress we should have? I don’t think so.

Brian Burke once said, “If men’s track and field grew as quickly as women’s hockey did, Usain Bolt would be running a 7-second dash.”  That’s because the game itself has grown, the product on the ice has grown, but the players are still trying to balance playing full-time and working full-time jobs. That hasn’t changed yet. So we had to think, why hasn’t that changed and what can we do to make that a reality in our lifetime? I don’t want to be 90 when that happens, I want it to happen 5, 10 years down the road, or sooner. That’s the idea behind the #ForTheGame movement- this should have been a reality already.

We’re certainly not here to tell anyone not to play. For a lot of us, especially the CWHL girls, this is an opportunity for us to leave a mark on history, versus just playing one or two more years, and that’s the mindset of a lot of the players that I talk to. They recognize the point in history that we’re at, and are selflessly saying we believe in this and we think this is the path forward, and we’re ready to sacrifice to make it happen.

As far as legacy goes, we’re hoping this is a vehicle that gets us to a professional league that’s widely recognized, on a stage with something like the NHL, or the WNBA, or women’s tennis. Women’s sports in general, if you look at tennis or soccer, there’s been a lot of great strides, and with women’s hockey, we haven’t seen that push, outside of by the US Olympic team boycotting to get equal pay. But we’re not asking for equal pay. We’re looking for more access to marketing, and promotion of our game. We’re looking for the little things. Access to arenas and practice facilities at reasonable hours. The ability to pay our bills so we can practice and train full-time, and be able to get to the gym every day. To walk into dressing rooms and have our jerseys laid out and functioning equipment, and things like enough stick tape. We’re doing it for all of that, and to get access and more exposure. The biggest feedback we hear from fans and non-fans alike is that they just don’t know about the league, and we need to change that.

Al Neal
Al Neal
Al Neal is an award-winning columnist at Grandstand Central writing on politics, labor relations, and the general rabble-rousing in professional sports. He spent a decade working in the trade union movement with various locals across the country and currently serves as Dir. of Education and Advocacy for the St. Louis Workers’ Education Society.



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