Roughly 4.9 percent of Americans, and likely more, work multiple jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women’s professional hockey players of the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) contribute to this statistic. Most of the people who make up the NWHL—both athletes and staff—work multiple jobs like 4.7 million other Americans. They might not need the money to make a living, but they need the hockey to truly live.
Imagine it’s Friday. You’ve worked through your lunch to get out of the office early and beat rush hour traffic to start your weekend out of town. You feel good about catching your flight when you leave the office parking lot with two and a half hours until boarding. But once you reach the freeway on-ramp, you see that most the city’s commuters had the same idea you did. Your half-hour trip to the airport turns into an hour, but a few vehicles in the ditch remind you that safe passage is not guaranteed, especially during winter in Minnesota.
After parking at the airport, you have an hour to check luggage and get through security before boarding. You haul your bag of hockey gear and another carry-on bag from the airport parking lot to your airline’s help desk. You check your hockey bag, but not before it’s thoroughly searched by a TSA agent.
Then you stand in line for 30 minutes to get through security because you don’t have TSA pre-check. When you finally get beyond the metal detector, your carry-on bag is selected for a random search. You start to worry there’s something in your bag not allowed on a plane, even though you got it through security on a flight last weekend.
After unpacking your bag, the TSA agent helps you repack it, putting everything in the wrong place. But you stopped caring about wrinkled clothes the moment your bag was flagged for random search. Repacked and ready for boarding, you run to your gate and find your teammates already in line. They teasingly give you a standing ovation as you join their ranks. This is the life of a women’s professional hockey player.
American Dreams on Ice
If you think NHL players are tough for playing back-to-back games on the road, imagine them riding a bus for hours between those games, flying coach on commercial flights, and standing in line at airport security with the general public, only to come home and work a 40-hour week at their day job with either hockey practice or a workout after. Those are the lives, and for some, the American Dreams, of women paid to play hockey for the Minnesota Whitecaps of the NWHL.
For those familiar with the NHL, the Whitecaps might be best described as the Vegas Golden Knights of the NWHL. The expansion team ended the regular season with back-to-back, road wins to finish in first place and earn home ice advantage throughout the 2019 Isobel Cup Playoffs. All 1,200 tickets available for Friday‘s playoff matchup at TRIA Rink, the practice home of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, sold out in 25 hours—an NWHL record. Don’t worry, you can watch it on the NWHL’s Twitter page.
Needless to say, the Whitecaps are going to need a bigger rink, and it wasn’t that long ago they didn’t even have one. But that didn’t keep the ’Caps from playing hockey. Players traded youth hockey instruction services for ice time and gave the children they trained free tickets to whatever games they could schedule, mostly against women’s college teams. Then they donated all proceeds from ticket sales to the children’s hockey associations who had gifted them ice time, building a loyal following that has made the Whitecaps the first NWHL team to turn a profit in the league’s four-year history.
They’d Still Pay to Play
Just last year the Whitecaps were still paying to play hockey, well after the NWHL became the first women’s hockey league to pay its players in 2015. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) followed suit with an expansion to China in 2017, five years after citing travel costs as the biggest reason for requiring a $200,000 payment from the Whitecaps and the sacrifice of their eight-year-old name and brand. But after seven years as an independent, unpaid, women’s hockey team, the Whitecaps finally became the women’s professional hockey team representing the State of Hockey in May of 2018.
While NWHL players get 15 percent of their personal jersey sales (buy them here), they only made salaries between $5,000 and $7,000 in the 2017-18 season. The NWHL season spans six months from October through March, but with much of February off. The Whitecaps practice twice weekly and generally play two games most weekends.
NWHL players might only spend 10 hours per week doing hockey-related activities, but that doesn’t include their travel time, which turns a 50-hour work week into 60 or more when flights are delayed by typical Twin Cities’ snow storms. Multiple players said travel delays made for a 70-hour work week at least once this season. The Whitecaps’ first ever playoff game was rescheduled due to travel concerns related to weather.
Despite travel delays and the obligations to their families and day jobs, the Whitecaps are already back to their championship-winning ways. The team added an NWHL regular season title to its three consecutive regular season championships in the Western Women’s Hockey League (WWHL) that started in the 2008-09 season.
Minnesota also took home the CWHL’s Clarkson Cup in 2010 and has everything it needs to add the 2019 Isobel Cup to the trophy case. How they do it is simple enough. But how do they do it? How do they handle the excess workload and increased speed of living a nonstop lifestyle almost half the year? How do they slip the hits brought by the forecheck of life? And how do they overcome the checks life inevitably delivers in order to attain their goals, both on and off the ice?
Days in the Lives of Minnesota Whitecaps Players
Chelsey Brodt Rosenthal
Clif Bar Customer Manager for the Midwest/Life Time Fitness Trainer/Defensewoman
Chelsey’s father, Jack, started the Whitecaps in 2004 with fellow hockey father, Dwayne Schmidgall. It was meant to be a way for their daughters to continue playing hockey after college. Winny, Chelsey’s older sister, is an original member of the Whitecaps and the only player in the NWHL who’s older than Chelsey. So Chelsey’s well-versed in the ways of the Whitecaps and knows how to best handle surprises on and off the ice. That’s how she manages to work three jobs while raising two kids—experience and a lot of help from her teammates, especially her husband, Craig, who coaches the Roseville High School girls hockey team. “Luckily” for Chelsey, though, he doesn’t work full-time.
“His day starts at like 2 p.m. for high school hockey, and so he’s still gone for a few hours, and if we need the kids picked up…that’s where Grandpa and Grandma come in handy. So we really appreciate all of their help.”
Chelsey thinks Minnesota has the only three player/parents in the NWHL, so practices are a family affair, with children often in attendance and highly attentive to the on-ice action. Children add an unpredictable element to an already unpredictable employment situation, but players—whether they’re parents or not—interact with their teammates’ children as if they’re their own. The pre-practice interactions and smiles on both players’ and children’s faces are indicative of the ’Caps championship-caliber camaraderie.
Championship conditioning in any pro sport can’t be achieved part-time, however. All the Whitecaps interviewed for this piece said they liked or needed to stay active, citing standing desks in the workplace, lunchtime walks, or early morning conditioning or evening weightlifting. Chelsey is up at around 5 a.m. “for fun” to teach a conditioning class at LifeTime Fitness. She’s home from her first job just in time to make breakfast for her five-year-old daughter, Haley, and two-year-old son, Jake.
Then she’s off to her second job, but some days she doesn’t actually have to go anywhere. Much of Chelsey’s work can be done from her home office, like conference calls with Clif Bar customers. Other days she’s visiting grocery stores in the Midwest that buy Clif Bar products, which means she travels a lot even when it’s not hockey season. She takes a lunch and a walk daily and finishes her full-time job around 5 p.m. unless she has to pick up Haley and Jake at school.
Then Chelsey and the kids are off to either Haley’s gymnastics training or her and Jake’s hockey/skating training. After dinner, it’s off to her third job—hockey practice, which is generally held at 7 or 8 p.m. for an hour on the ice and another half hour before and after, just to change in and out of her third work uniform of the day.
When asked how many hours per week Chelsey estimates she works during the hockey season, “It only stops when I’m sleeping,” she laughed. “I can’t even put a number on that.”
She does take the summer to golf and enjoy the offseason, but she and the family have turned the NWHL regular season into a vacation, too. The family visited New York City after watching Chelsey and the Whitecaps beat the Metropolitan Riveters, whom Minnesota will host in their Isobel semifinal game, Friday.
The Whitecaps are undefeated in four games against the Riveters this season, two of which were preseason wins. With one more win, they’ll be playing in the Isobel Cup championship game in front of their dedicated fans.
Chelsey has won championships in high school, at the University of Minnesota, and is now chasing the most elusive championship for female athletes—one they’re paid to chase.
Ergodyne Product Developer/Forward
Allie Thunstrom might be the fastest Whitecaps skater, according to a source close to the team. That might surprise those who watched her teammate and Olympic gold-medalist Kendall Coyne Schofield turn heads with the speed she displayed in the fastest skater competition at the 2019 NHL All-Star Skills Challenge. Her lap time was faster than one NHL All-Star competitor’s, so Allie really flies, both figuratively and literally.
When Allie isn’t traveling to games with her teammates, she’s traveling to trade shows to discuss and demonstrate Ergodyne’s work gear and safety equipment to see how she can help people be more productive and safer on their construction sites. It can make for some incredible travel itineraries during the hockey season.
“When we went to New York at the beginning of the season in October, it was kind of a wild week for me,” Allie advised. “I was in Miami for a big, end user event for two days, flew from there to New York, played the Riveters, flew from there to Houston for a big trade show for four days…”
In the final weekend of the NWHL regular season, after beating the Boston Pride on Saturday and Connecticut Whale on Sunday, Allie flew to Orlando for a trade show instead of flying home with the team. She was there through Wednesday night but doesn’t think her day job takes away from her on-ice performance. She actually thinks it keeps her from thinking about her game too much, but acknowledges that it’s tough for anyone to be 100 percent after three flights in three days.
3M Product Assurance/Quality Engineer/Forward
The leading scorer for the Whitecaps is as meticulous off the ice as she is on it. She helps assure the safety of patients who use 3M products already available and currently in development. Jonna works typical business hours when the Whitecaps’ schedule allows, but appreciates that her and her teammates’ bosses have been so accommodating.
“I think nowadays employers are starting to embrace the flexibility of things like work-from-home. At least with my boss, she understands—as long as I get my work done. I’ll come in at 5 [a.m.] to make sure I get eight hours in. If I can’t on Friday, I’ll just come in a few extra hours during the week.”
Like her teammates, Jonna prefers a busy schedule. And although she would make hockey her full-time job if she could, she also likes working at 3M and recognizes that hockey careers are considerably shorter than those in product assurance and quality engineering.
St. Paul Academy Administrative Assistant and Boys Hockey Coach/Goalie
Every team needs a backup goalie or two, and Julie stopped 33 of 37 shots during the regular season in that role. But she’s also another coach on the bench when she’s not in net. She coaches the boys team at St. Paul Academy, where she also works as an administrative assistant. Her schedule is pretty predictable, but she likes that each day brings different tasks that require her attention, especially with the rest of her life so scheduled.
After school’s out, Julie holds practice from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. and does some weightlifting after. She then runs home for a quick dinner and heads to Whitecaps practice. She enjoys her nights off when the Whitecaps don’t practice and even finds the fun in the grueling, weekend road trips.
“It’s a grind when you do have multiple jobs, and you can’t solely focus on just being a professional hockey player, but…Being able to travel with these girls and have experiences like you did in college, I mean, a lot of us never thought we’d be doing that.”
Protolabs Account Manager/Forward
You miss all the shots you don’t take, both on the ice and in life, and salespeople know it never hurts to take a shot and ask for the sale. Even if you don’t get the sale, sometimes you end up selling something else—like a sharp-angle wrister resulting in a fat rebound a teammate can shoot into an open net. Sometimes a shot in the dark ends up an assist in the scorebook, and Amy seems well aware of that given her high shot percentage and day job as an inside salesperson managing a group of accounts at Protolabs, a manufacturing service that helps companies with product development.
Amy described her Protolabs responsibilities as working to “accelerate” her clients’ product development, a fitting word choice coming from a forward. She also understands how her desk job can sap her strength if she’s not careful.
“Just feeling that ‘I’ve been sitting all day,’ and then you have to get up and go to practice and skate hard for an hour. You can definitely feel it if you didn’t stand up or sit down enough throughout the day,” she explained. “But I do have a standing desk…I try to stand for a bit of the day.”
Standing sporadically for just 10 minutes at a time throughout the day can apparently improve mental focus. But Amy gets most of her focus from coffee, especially on Mondays after a road trip and getting into the airport at 2 or 6 a.m. “Unless you want to take PTO…you just gotta go into work. And yeah, you’re dog tired.” When asked if she kept smelling salts in her desk, Amy joked that she might have to invest in some.
Regardless of how tired she gets throughout the season or how much money the NWHL is willing to pay her, Amy says she’s committed because playing professional hockey is a labor of love.
“I signed up for it. I wouldn’t be doing both if I couldn’t handle it, and I only do hockey because I love it. Obviously it’s not for the money, but I think that’s why we’re all here, because we thoroughly enjoy playing it, and we enjoy the environment…Even if they didn’t pay us a salary, I’d still be here. I did it last year.”
Amy would “absolutely” play hockey full-time if it paid the bills. But she doesn’t bring up her part-time job when people ask what she does for a living because “it doesn’t make me enough money to live at this point.”
While the Whitecaps women are technically professional athletes, no one interviewed for this piece actually felt enough like a professional athlete to share that fact with a stranger asking what they do for a living. But with many people unaware that women are being paid to play hockey, raising awareness of the NWHL’s existence starts with players feeling enough like professionals to advertise their athletic accomplishments unprovoked.
Perhaps when players are making salaries similar to that of their day jobs they’ll more openly advertise themselves as professional hockey players. That is the goal for women’s professional hockey, and whether it’s achieved during Amy’s career or not, she’ll be pleased to see the work of these Whitecaps, and those who came before them, payoff for female hockey players.
“I always kind of joke that if we were male, we probably wouldn’t be working these full-time jobs, right? But at one point males couldn’t do this either. They couldn’t play hockey full-time, so someone had to start somewhere.”
Now that the NWHL has started a successful franchise, sports media members and the league’s male counterpart are finally starting to pay the league and its players some well-deserved and long-delayed attention. But making women’s professional hockey players feel like professional hockey players will require much more than a superstar skating with the boys at the NHL All-Star Skills challenge. When the rest of the sport’s headlines are buried on the ESPNW website, or worse yet, never born, it’s going to take a dedicated effort by sports media moguls and executives in order to grow women’s professional sports.
How to Grow Women’s Professional Sports
If you were previously unaware that women are being paid to play hockey in North America, don’t be ashamed. You’re hardly alone. That’s because there’s a vast disparity in the amount of media coverage dedicated to men’s and women’s sports—both professional and amateur—across all mediums—print, radio, television, and digital.
There are only so many pages of print and minutes of broadcasted content between the advertisements, and men’s professional sports fill much of that space. Why? Men filled 87.3 percent of sports journalism jobs as of 2014, down just 2.1 percent since 2010. That doesn’t mean most male sportswriters are sexist, though.
It’s understandable for a male sportswriter to devote more of his time covering and writing about men’s sports if those are the sports he most enjoys. It’s just as understandable for a female sportswriter to dedicate more time and coverage to women’s sports if that’s what she prefers. Biases don’t have to be written to be revealed. What does and doesn’t make it to the printed page, podcast, or broadcast is also indicative of the content creators’ biases.
Addressing the disparities between men and women in sports reporting won’t solve all the problems facing women’s professional sports leagues like the NWHL and WNBA. But more women on the beat would certainly open up avenues for women’s sports to increase awareness of their existence through free media. News outlets are already giving plenty of free advertising to the male counterparts of the NWHL and WNBA, and the NHL and NBA don’t need it. Women’s professional sports leagues then suffer from a catch-22: they need exposure to grow their popularity, but they don’t get the exposure unless they’re popular.
The same opportunity afforded men’s professional sports leagues—a man’s world with no women’s competition in the pro sports market—doesn’t exist for women’s professional sports leagues. The playing field isn’t level for men and women in the sports and entertainment industry, or any other industry, so drastic measures must be taken, not necessarily by the leagues or athletes (although applying some pressure might help), but by the sports media.
Newspapers, magazines, sports radio and television shows, and online outlets should strive to not only provide equitable coverage of men’s and women’s professional sports, but make up for the years women and girls have taken a back page to men and boys. And there’s a lot of making up to do.