Nova Scotia

Canadian women hockey players yearn for professional league

Allie Munroe wants little girls playing hockey to be able to aim for more than the Olympics. The 22-year-old from Yarmouth is spending the year playing in the Swedish Women’s Hockey League, but was close to home this week for the Canadian women national team’s fall training camp in Liverpool.

League closure means less practice, time on ice for players

Brianne Jenner chases the puck during the first period of the women's gold medal final at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Gangneung, South Korea in 2018. (The Canadian Press)

Allie Munroe wants little girls playing hockey to be able to aim for more than the Olympics.

The 22-year-old player from Yarmouth, N.S., is spending the year playing in the Swedish Women's Hockey League, but was close to home this week for the Canadian women national team's fall training camp in Liverpool.

Munroe graduated from Syracuse University last spring, shortly after the collapse of the Canadian Women's Hockey League. She didn't have any options closer to home, but she and other players want that to change.

"I hope [young girls] can look up to us playing in a women's hockey league professionally every weekend, not just in these one-time tournaments like worlds or Four Nations," said Munroe.

The CWHL folded in March, citing a lack of funding and sponsors. Some of the 47 players who are training with the national team this week are still competing through university hockey, but more than half of them no longer have a club team.

This means it's going to be more challenging for players to stay on top of their game and prepare for next year's world championships in Halifax, said Gina Kingsbury, director of the women's national team with Hockey Canada.

Allie Munroe is a player from Yarmouth, N.S., who is spending the year playing in the Swedish Women's Hockey League (CBC)

"Their skill level is incredible, but if you're not skating at that level, if you're not pushing yourself on a daily basis, it's very hard to play in a game that intense and at that speed," she said.

"Especially when you're playing the U.S. or team Finland, you know the game is at a very high pace so you have to train like that throughout the year in order to be prepared."

Finding a solution

Without a league for the majority of its female players, Hockey Canada's board has committed more money to its women's programs.

Kingsbury wouldn't specify a dollar amount, but said it will fund several four-day mini training camps for the players who won't be part of a regular playing season.

Normally the national team only meets a handful of times before the worlds, so she also hopes the added time together will give the team a strong identity.

"It was very important for us to find a solution to make sure that our athletes got the opportunity to play best on best and certainly get the volume that they need in order to be as prepared as possible for Halifax," said Kingsbury.

Gina Kingsbury of Hockey Canada said daily practice is necessary for players to keep skills sharp. (CBC)

Players are also banking on a new professional player's association and a union to keep them on the ice. So far, Unifor is sponsoring games in Toronto and there are three other events planned in U.S. cities.

The Professional Women's Hockey Players Association's goal is to promote the sport and try to establish a unified North American league. There is one league in the U.S. now — the National Women's Hockey League — but no members of the Canadian women's national program play in it.

'One league'

Two-time Olympian Brianne Jenner, who was a forward with the CWHL's Calgary Infernos when she wasn't with the national team, said the reality is only a few dozen female players in North America are funded to play hockey full time.

"We want to see one league established that's going to be sustainable, that's going to offer a little bit of opportunity so players aren't paying out of pocket in order to play," she said.

"We need that initial investment I think to take us to the next level. And I think we can make that step."

Two-time Olympian Brianne Jenner says players need more marketing and exposure in order to set up a league that would attract athletes from around the world. (CBC)

Jenner is confident she and her teammates have the energy and talent to hook fans, but said they need more marketing and exposure in order to set up a league that would attract players from around the world.

"I think our game is the best it's ever been," she said. "We need that initial investment to take us to the next level."

That next level includes earning enough to train full time.

The CWHL only paid players between $2,500 and $10,000 a season.

That means players always had to think about finding another job, said Cassie Campbell-Pascall, who is an adviser to the women's national team.

Pay gap 'frustrating'

"They're kind of scraping by, you know, but they're passionate about it. They're just as dedicated as the men. They put the time in that the men do and it can be frustrating to watch," she said.

"I'm not sure we'll ever see the equal pay as far as millions and millions of dollars. But just to be able to make a living, a decent living, you know I think right now that's all we're after."

Players from the Canadian women's national team watch from the bench. (CBC)

Campbell-Pascall would like to see a WNHL and thinks the players association is the first step. 

She said as a 16-year-old, she'd never considered playing for Team Canada until she met some of the country's top hockey players after a tournament in Brampton, Ont. 

"Who knows where my hockey career would have been. I probably would've played another sport. I think seeing your role models is essential for young girls to stay involved in sport," said Campbell-Pascall.

Jenner said despite the tremendous growth in women's hockey, it's still crucial for young female players to have those role models.

"This is more about the next generation and setting the table for them," said Jenner.

"They need to see us on TV, they need to be able to come out and buy tickets to games. The impact that had on me when I was a young female hockey player growing up and being able to see Team Canada live — that was amazing and so inspirational."

The bleachers were nearly full, and the crowd was engaged as they watched the game play out on the ice. (CBC)

Munroe, who will fly to Europe when the Liverpool camp finishes, said she'd return to Canada if a league started up. She's been rooting for the players association from afar.

"It's inspiring and it's incredible to watch strong females and strong women get what we deserve," she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC in Halifax. Over the past 13 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

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