How to grow women’s hockey

Concordia vs. McGill Women’s Hockey game on Oct. 1 2021

Increasing visibility and investment and paying a living wage could be the key

Brooke Boquist, a forward for the Toronto Six in the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF), works in real estate by day and plays hockey by night and during the weekends. She said her lifestyle can be tough.

“If you’re working and making these trips every weekend or every couple of weeks, it’s pretty busy. So it’s definitely not easy, but we find a way to make it work,” she added.

Before signing with the Six last season, Boquist played two seasons in the Swedish Women’s Hockey League (SDHL), where she didn’t need a second job and was able to completely focus on her game.

“But now here, I can’t just play hockey and not work,” said the 25-year-old forward. “It’s just that you don’t make enough money to do that. And living-wise, I live in downtown Toronto. It’s like a whole different story, right?” she said and laughed. Despite city living costs, she’s happy to have found an interest outside of hockey that she can pursue at the same time.

Boquist said her team has practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and plays games on the weekends. Each PHF team is projected to play 20 games this season, whereas in Sweden her team used to practice every day and play almost every weekend.

Being a professional female hockey player in North America isn’t easy. As opposed to professional male hockey players, female players can’t only focus on their passion, and train, play, and breathe hockey, as that simply doesn’t earn them a living wage. 

The PHF along with the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) are the two professional leagues for women’s hockey in North America. The PHF is comprised of six teams, and the PWHPA of five. That’s a total of 11 professional women’s hockey teams compared to 108 professional men’s teams in five different leagues across North America, including the National Hockey League (NHL).

Many female players, current and former, want women’s hockey to grow to allow these athletes to make a living wage by playing hockey, just like male players.

Julie Chu, head coach of the Concordia Stingers’ women’s hockey team and four-time U.S. Olympic medalist in hockey, said that in order for women’s hockey to get there, the investment has to come first.

While this would allow players to earn a living wage, it would also let them train full-time and “put a product on the ice that is going to be really strong and be top quality,” Chu said.

However, she added that it’s really difficult for players to be able to get to that stage, even if they want to, since they need to have a full-time job, as is the case with Boquist and her teammates.

“There are some amazing athletes still playing in the PHF and the PWHPA, and they’re able to do this,” Chu said. “But just imagine if those athletes have the ability just to be professional athletes and the time and investment that they can put into being a great hockey player, resting, recovering, getting stronger, […] all those resources. That just increases the product itself. So, we need that investment to make the product better.”

Chu played in what used to be the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) with the Montreal Canadiennes (who were formerly known as the Montreal Stars). Being in different situations, Chu said it has really made a difference in understanding that “we can only be as good as we can be, with the resources we have.”

She also strongly believes that increasing visibility would be a big step in making hockey more accessible to women.

“I’m a big believer that, if we’re able to see it, if things are visible, then we have the opportunity to think about wanting to do it,” Chu said.

She said that promoting current athletes at the elite level for the female game is really important. Chu described adding women’s international hockey in the video game NHL 22 as a “huge milestone” for the visibility of women in the sport. There are several ways better representation has been achieved, such as having female player cards in Tim Hortons’ new hockey cards collection.

“I think we do have to make a more conscious effort to make sure that in our local organizations, we’re giving value to each of them equally, versus having the women just be an afterthought,” Chu said. For example, women might not be included within boards of local hockey organizations, or they might not be given the best ice time because they are an afterthought, so a good solution for shared facilities between men’s and women’s teams would be to alternate good ice time – which usually refers to daytime access to facilities – according to Chu. 

She added that we need to make sure that women are part of conversations or part of the solutions if organizations are looking at things that concern both female and male teams.

Another way to increase visibility would be to expand the PHF. The league announced on Jan. 18 that the plan is to expand to Montreal next season.

“I think the main goal for women’s hockey is to get the exposure out there right now and to, eventually, at some point in time, have the girls make a living wage,” Boquist said. “That’s the sole focus. And I think that expanding the league to get more exposure is everything in the right direction.” Currently, the average salary for PHF players is $15,000 per season with a team salary cap of $300,000. With the cap increasing to $750,000 next season, the average salary should reach $37,500.

“It would be awesome to expand into Montreal […] and across Canada,” Boquist said. 

“Obviously we should focus on one thing at a time, but it would be nice to have another team in Canada.” The other three professional female teams in Canada are part of the PWHPA: Team Sonnet of the Toronto Region, Team Harvey’s of the Montreal Region, and Team Scotiabank of the Calgary Region.

However, Chu added that more needed to be done prior to taking that step. She said there’s currently a disconnect in the women’s hockey world since the PWHPA and PHF are separate entities, and that the two should find a way to merge or dissolve separately to then come together in a new league in order to have everyone working together in one entity.

The most ideal situation for her would be for the PHF and PWHPA to merge and launch right after the Winter Olympics. She said using the momentum and visibility of the worldwide event would make the transition a bit easier.

Boquist believes the PHF’s expansion will provide women in Montreal an opportunity to be part of the league without having to relocate. She also thinks the league will benefit from a potential rivalry with Toronto.

Along with an expansion to Montreal, the PHF announced a possibility to add new American teams to the Federation. For the moment, the PHF’s Board of Governors will invest $25 million to the players over the next three years, starting with $7.5 million next season. The plan isn’t only to improve the players’ salaries, but also healthcare benefits, as well as to update facilities, buy new equipment, and increase ice time in terms of both practices and games. The plan is to expand the schedule to 28 games.

“This is amazing news for the league and for women’s hockey,” Boquist said. “Such a great step in the right direction, not only with raising the salary cap but also the expansion (…) particularly to another Canadian team in Montreal.”

At the end of the day, the ultimate goal for Chu, Boquist, and for women’s hockey in general, is to be able to pay players a living wage.

“I believe in everything the PHF is doing right now,” Boquist said. “We’re getting there, we’re making the right steps and doing what we can so one day, I don’t know how long it will take, but one day, hopefully, the girls will be able to just focus on hockey.”

 

Photograph by Catherine Reynolds

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