Time To Consider Professional Female Players

FOR the past few years, the National Women’s Hockey League has been operating as an arena for the best female hockey players to showcase their hockey talents. It’s been, more or less, a success, providing a springboard to the Canadian national team, but now the NWHL was faced with a boatload of new problems, not the least of which is the issue of lucrative National Collegiate Athletic Association scholarships.This season, the NCAA has started to crack down on NWHL players who, in any stretch of the imagination, could be considered “professional players”, including the receipt of expensive gifts by the players. For example, the Telus-sponsored Durham Lightning had, originally, given all of its players free phones, but, because of the new NCAA crackdowns, the players were forced to pay for the phones or risk losing their scholarships. In addition to that, the NCAA ruled that even if one player on the team is “paid” the whole club is inelligble for NCAA schloarships, some worth as much as $20,000 (U.S.) a year. NWHL president Sue Fennell told the Toronto Star in defence of her league, “does any one of our teams write a payroll cheque? Not that I’m aware of,” and the accounts of several concerned NWHL team presidents suggest the same thing.

Upon hearing of this, I was appalled, but probably not for the reason you’re thinking of. I stand by the NCAA in saying that gifts cannot be received by the players, and, if the female players want scholarships, they’d better follow the same rules the men do- simply, it’s a matter of fairness. Still, while this does indicate that women are starting to be treated as equals as men, this seems to be not what women probably had envisioned when they thought of equality. You see, what appals me about all this is the fact the NWHL isn’t professional but simply just an outlet to the NCAA and nothing more. Perhaps it’s a little ignorant on my part to be saying this, but I had, for the longest time, believed the NWHL was professional: I mean, how else could I explain the presence of so many Canadian national team members? Now, upon learning that it isn’t and all the new struggles it’s faced with, I think the time has come for the women to have a professional outlet, be it with the men in the National Hockey League or with their own league, if the women want true equality.

The first reason is probably the most obvious: why should men be allowed to make a living out of their sport while the women cannot? In a perfect world, women would be making the same salaries the men do- but, then again, that’d be a request I’d make for any occupation, sports or not. Still, even if women players could make something like $70,000 a year for their sport, nothing too Earth-shattering but enough to live off of, it would be a positive first step, since, just like the men, the women can now make a living playing the game they love. It’s more a symbolic thing than anything else, since, in realistic terms, there’s no way, just yet, that a women’s game can generate as much money as a men’s game (thus making it nearly impossible for multi-millionaire women players), but the idea is all that’s important here. Once people realize that the women are serious, more attention will be paid to them and only from there can the women pursue options that will lead to pay equity with the men. Unfortunately, here in North America, other than in the Olympics, the only way people do pay heavy attention to anything is if it is professional or if it has some links to the pros (as is the case with college football, basketball and baseball)- and, because women’s hockey is not, it’s largely forgotten, wrongly in my opinion I might add.

Second, this kind of precedent isn’t at all unheard of: sensing the increase in attention given to women’s college basketball, the National Basketball Association created the Women’s National Basketball Association a few years ago to relative success. While many casual sports fans probably don’t know any WNBA players, there are a quite a few- even non-basketball fans- who have come across a name like Chamique Holdsclaw or any number of the WNBA stars- and this is largely due to the exposure the WNBA gets. Women’s hockey, arguably, has just as much attention paid to it that women’s basketball did before the WNBA and could be at the stage where it could take off, with a professional league, in Canada like women’s basketball did in the U.S. when the WNBA started. The NHL could have a hand in running it like the NBA does with the WNBA- however, since NHL teams don’t make as much as NBA teams, this may be an ardous task especially for cities like Edmonton and Ottawa, who have a hard enough time as it is running men’s teams. Of course, with separate broadcast contracts this cash requirement would even out eventually, but start-up would prove to be a problem. Other issues like ice time would also have to be resolved, but, if all the NHL teams had women’s teams, the NHL could simply flip the schedule (for example, if the Ottawa Senators are visiting the Calgary Flames in the NHL, the women’s schedule would have Calgary in Ottawa), making things considerably easier. Packages too, could be designed to cover everything- season tickets, say, could cover all the men’s games and all the women’s games too- and, besides, what hockey fan wouldn’t want to go 82 home games? I’d certainly welcome it (well, if I had the money, that is).

Last, but not least, in my opinion anyway, the women’s game is far more enjoyable than the men’s. Because women tend to be less physical (from observations), the game is more wide open and more exciting than the men, who are too preoccupied with clutching and grabbing to allow for exciting games. Scores are higher than the men (one game in the NWHL was 14-0, while another 9-4- when was the last time they were NHL scores?), and, other than the existence of two really bad teams- TELUS and Edmonton- the NWHL is pretty even. As Puckboy once wrote back in December 2001, it’s worth catching a women’s game, so, thus, it’d be worth pumping millions into a pro league because the product will be good- at least better than the men.

I know that much of this is probably a pipe dream, but I feel that, in the name of equality in sports, a women’s pro league has to be considered. There may be more men than women who play and watch sports, but the reality is that there is enough women who do that to merit such an entity. Plus, women’s hockey is gaining more exposure as we speak- thus, then, a women’s pro league would compliment perfectly this momentum, and present another sign for equality and a more positive one than the new NCAA restrictions that have been levied.