BY: EMILY COSTANZO
When someone mentions “professional hockey” in the U.S., most people think of the gleaming Stanley Cup trophy, Wayne Gretzky, or the brutal (yet entertaining) on-ice fights. They think of the Bruins, or the Rangers, or, perhaps, even the Mighty Ducks. What most people don’t consider, however, is the fact that there exists an entire population within professional ice hockey that has been mistreated, overlooked, and undercompensated for years—women.
Currently, women’s professional ice hockey is divided into two leagues—the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) and the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA). Although each league undoubtedly boasts some of the best athletes in the game, for purposes of this article, I will focus on the NWHL and its six member organizations.
As of April 2021, the NWHL increased its salary cap from $150,000 to $300,000 per team and continued its exercise of a 50-50 revenue splitting model. Although this substantial increase demonstrates progress towards the development of an equitable, sustainable league, the NWHL is still without one of the most powerful legal tools a professional athletics league can have—a collective bargaining agreement.
Without the protections of a collective bargaining agreement (hereinafter “CBA”), nearly every single woman in the NWHL is forced to maintain employment outside of her team commitment, as the wages provided by the league are impossible to live on alone. These women work as coaches, nurses, and more, deprived of the ability to earn a living simply as what they are—elite professional athletes.
For reference, the NHL salary cap is currently $81.5 million per team, with an increase expected for upcoming seasons. The NHL, along with the MLB, NBA, and NFL, each have their own CBAs, introduced in 1994, 1968, 1964, and 1968, respectively. As of August 2021, the only female professional league to have its own CBA is the WNBA.
Often referred to as the “primary basis for determining legal relationships between owners and players in professional sports,” CBAs allow players associations to advocate on behalf of their fellow athletes on different terms and conditions of employment including, but not limited to, wages, working conditions, employee benefits, and management responsibilities.
This legal instrument is a labor contract between a union representing employees and the employer for whom they work, and it is a contract whose terms are negotiated. It is important to note that CBAs differ from most contracts in that the obligations set forth within them do not cease upon the expiration of the contract. Instead, so long as a majority of the bargaining unit employees continue to support the union, the union representatives will bargain for another CBA. In the interim, the terms of the expired CBA will continue.
It is indisputable that the NWHL has made phenomenal strides forward since their inception in 2015, but without a functional CBA, many fear their ability to continue this forward trend. As Anya Packer, former executive director of the NWHL Players Association, states in reference to the league’s salary increase and revenue splitting model, “…that is about the ceiling for what that group can do without somebody ready to come in, unionize, and make a CBA.” The key, says Packer, is outside investment. “I wish I could say it was five years down the road, but it’s all kind of waiting on when people are going to invest back in women.”
So, what can be, or is being, done?
Although the NHL enacted a “partner program” wherein their organizations provide financial support and other resources to their NWHL counterpart, a great deal of this responsibility falls upon the millions of us who identify under the umbrella of “sports fans.” It is time to put the pressure on, and dollars behind, making a change.
When we pause to truly consider the state of women’s ice hockey, we must ask ourselves this—what if these athletes were our daughters, sisters, or friends? Would our interest and investment in them and the sport they adore be anything other than obvious? If we, as sports fans, increase our support for the NWHL, providing them with the opportunity to secure the resources they need to develop a sustainable league, the hope is that one day, one of those beloved, powerful women in our own lives will have the opportunity to be on the ice representing a league who values her as much as we do.
 https://www.forbes.com/sites/ericalayala/2021/04/30/former-nwhlpa-director-anya-packer-discusses-her-new-role-increased-salary-cap/?sh=1bff5e4e6914  https://www.nhl.com/news/nhl-salary-cap-projections-for-next-season/c-315855100  https://wnbpa.com/cba/  Matthew J. Mitten, et.al., Sports Law and Regulation: Cases, Materials, and Problems (3d ed. 2013). Collective Bargaining Agreement, Practical Law Glossary Item 4-504-1300  Id.  Id.  Id.