Sask. hockey player holds out on going pro amidst women's league turmoil

Saskatoon's Emily Clark was hoping to join the pro hockey world once she finished university this year. That plan is now on hold indefinitely.
Saskatoon's Emily Clark is in her senior year of university and not planning on signing with any women's pro teams until changes are made. (Dave Holland/CSI Calgary)

Saskatoon-born Emily Clark was hoping to join the pro hockey world once she finished university this year. That plan is now on hold indefinitely.

Clark was only a few days away from playing in the women's world hockey championship when she found out the league she'd expected to play in after she finishes university, the Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL), was folding.

"I'm graduating university and don't have somewhere to play," she said.

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The bottom had dropped out of the quick-rising hockey player's plans to pick between CWHL teams — Calgary, Montreal or Toronto were all options. Her Canada teammates who played in the league were dealing with a harsh reality as the CWHL announced it would cease operations on May 1, citing an "economically unsustainable" business model.

Clark was in the room during the conference call when they found out.

"It was pretty tough, just to see all those girls realize that their teams that they've been playing on, that they've put the time into work for, it just came to such an abrupt ending," Clark said.

She was in the midst of studying for her final months of school at the University of Wisconsin, where she played with the Badgers, when a movement was born amongst her fellow women's hockey players.

Two-hundred players from across North America decided to boycott professional women's hockey.

Aside from school, Clark said she was getting educated on what these women call "For the Game," a decision not to play on women's professional hockey teams in North America that will only end once a single, sustainable league is developed.

"We're definitely unified and excited to take action on what we think we deserve," Clark said.

She is joining the boycott by not signing with the league still operating, the U.S.-based National Women's Hockey League (NWHL).

So what is the landscape like for pro women's hockey players?

Last year Amanda Kessel, who had previously been reported as one of the highest paid women's hockey players in the U.S., made $10,743 on her NWHL team.

Her brother Phil Kessel, who plays with the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, makes about $10.7 million.

Kessel told CBC's As It Happens that the decision to stay off the ice is not just about long-term viability, it's about "low compensation and low resources. We need something better."

Hailey Salvian, a writer with The Athletic, went on a road trip with the former CWHL Toronto Furies and witnessed the sacrifices players were making financially, juggling full-time jobs with demanding hockey schedules.

Some made as little as $2,000 a year.

"I was looking at the NHL CBA (collective bargaining agreement) and it's just completely different the way that male professionals are treated compared to women," Salvian told CBC.

While the NWHL has been paying its players more over the years, its players association said it's concerning that so many of their players won't be on teams this year.

Anya Battaglino is Executive Director of the NWHL Players' Association and a former player.

She said she gets both sides, but that she can't do her job — which is to get players the best deal — with players walking away.

"Unfortunately we don't have the resources to pay a ton," she said.

She said she would like to see the league be the full-time job for its players, but that for now it doesn't have weekly or daily time commitments outside of play, which ensures players are making above minimum wage.

The "For the Game" movement took less than a week to build momentum and support on social media.

"It's very alarming to me that, very quickly, something with not a concrete piece of information was born, adopted and supported and I think that was that was a crazy transition in my opinion," Battaglino said.

The future?

Clark said she's optimistic that something good will come of the boycott.

Visibility of women in hockey has been a struggle. The NHL has helped — when Kendall Coyne Schoffield became the first woman ever to compete in the NHL All-Star skills competition in January, she captured attention across the world.

Clark and others are hoping the NHL will step up, but Commissioner Gary Bettman has said he wouldn't want to step on the toes of the remaining league to explore the idea.

"What we've repeatedly said is if there turns out to be a void — and we don't wish that on anybody — then we'll look at the possibilities and we'll study what might be appropriate," Bettman said. "But at the end of the day, we're not looking to put anybody out of business. And if the NWHL can make a go of it, we wish them good luck."

For the time being, Battaglino said the NWHL will be able to fill up its teams when this season starts in October, but not with the calibre of players it has in the past if the boycott continues.

For Clark, the boycott isn't extending out to national teams. This summer, she'll be returning to Saskatchewan for training and family time.

No matter what impact the boycott has, Clark said it's been powerful enough to get people talking about and learning about what women players deal with and what leagues are out there for them.

With files from Peter Mills, As it Happens, The Associated Press


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