Top women's hockey leagues thaw frosty relations, look for sustainable progress
NHWL, PWHPA hope to build bridges, chart new path for evolution of women's game
What it will take to take to get women's professional hockey in North America out of a "slurve" seems to be more time, talk, and trust.
One leader in women's pro hockey conjures a phrase from her baseball background to describe the state of it.
"A slurve is between a slider and a curveball," NWHL interim commissioner Tyler (Ty) Tumminia said. "Scouts hate that pitch and I'll tell you why.
"It's in between two things that are clear. It's not a slider. It's not a curveball.
"The state of women's hockey right now, those kind of conversations make the public and the players uncomfortable because it's less clear. It's a slurve."
The daughter of White Sox scout John Tumminia is herself a graduate of MLB's scout school.
Tumminia was a minor-league baseball executive overseeing business operations of multiple teams from 2011 to 2016.
How the top women's hockey league or leagues on this continent will evolve rides on the relationship between the six-year-old, six-team NWHL, and the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association (PWHPA) movement that rose two years ago from the ashes of the defunct Canadian Women's Hockey League.
NHL won't be driving force
The NHL has made it clear it will not be a driver of a women's league, but would consider getting involved if the two entities united and brought a plan to the league's table.
What seemed a frosty relationship between the NWHL and PWHPA a year ago appears to have thawed since October, when Tumminia replaced NWHL founder Dani Rylan Kearney.
"We do talk, communicate," PWHPA operations consultant Jayna Hefford said. "Despite what often gets reported in the media it's never been 'we won't talk to you.'
"I think we continue to talk to keep that door open. As long as I've been a part of the PWHPA, we've communicated what we believe needs to be a part of the next version of a professional women's hockey."
Establishing a relationship takes time, but Hefford and Tumminia have discussed the future of women's pro hockey.
"We've had a couple of conversations," Tumminia said. "We're both in agreement that we want to take it in the same direction.
"You see this in all sports, you see it in all facets of life, personally and professionally, divisibility or divide, there's usually no magic in that."
Building a bridge has taken a back seat, however, to just trying to play games amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Aligning the stars
Canada's first PWHPA tournament in 16 months opens Monday in Calgary.
The seven-day Secret Cup features 60 players from the PWHPA's three Canadian hubs in Toronto, Montreal and Calgary.
The PWHPA's American chapter ran a two-day tournament Sunday and Monday in St. Louis after previous stops in New York in February and Chicago in March.
The NWHL completed its Isobel Cup championship on a second try March 27 in Boston.
The regular season was shortened from 24 to 15 games because the coronavirus infiltrated its February bubble in Lake Placid, N.Y.
The Toronto Six joined the NWHL this past season as its lone Canadian team. The league intends to expand to Montreal in 2022.
Professional sport is powered by its stars, and the PWHPA has them.
Of the 28 women invited to try out for Canada's 2022 Olympic team, 24 are aligned with the PWHPA and the other four are college players.
Fifteen players named to the U.S. world championship roster this year are with the PWHPA, including Kendall Coyne Schofield and Hilary Knight.
The NWHL slashing salaries in half midway through its second season sent several Americans, including Knight and Brianna Decker, to the CWHL.
The NWHL recently announced a doubling of each team's' salary cap to $300,000 US for its seventh season, which could translate into annual contracts of roughly $30,000 for some players.
"The increase in salary cap is a great positive step," Hefford said. "There's definitely some other things that go into it as well.
"We want to continue to see movement, continue to see change, continue find a way that the athletes can be put in a position to succeed and be treated as professionals and allowed to be full-time hockey players.
"That's not strictly a salary point. It's the infrastructure around them."
Daily access to quality training facilities, health insurance, full-time coaching and training staff and national television and streaming visibility are of equal importance to salary in generating a sustainable league, Hefford said.
We are fighting for more than just pay. We want the infrastructure.- Natalie Spooner, Canadian women's hockey player
Tumminia believes the NWHL has made strides towards that suite of needs.
"We didn't have a lot of things, two years ago, correct," Tumminia said. "We didn't even have some things five and a half months ago, a national network deal, and the things that are happening with our new owners, who bring an infusion of cash and facilities.
"We didn't have the highest amount of sponsorship revenue that we've seen this year. It's not going to happen overnight. The conversations have to be holistic. The approach to an actual true business model has to be holistic."
The most recognizable names in U.S. women's hockey clearly have a choice on where they play. For some, the NWHL still has to overcome the breakdown in trust from the abrupt reduction of salaries in 2016.
Some of Canada's top players have made it clear they'll follow the lead of Hefford, who is a Hockey Hall of Famer, a four-time Olympic gold medallist and longtime CWHL veteran.
"I do want to stick with the PWHPA," said forward Rebecca Johnston of Sudbury, Ont.
"It's not all about the money for me at this point. We want to create a league that is sustainable, one that is competitive. I want to see this through. I believe in Jayna. We'll get this league that we're fighting for."
Added Toronto forward Natalie Spooner: "Like Jayna said, we are fighting for more than just pay. We want the infrastructure.
"We want this to be a long-term thing where we can build a sustainable league that's going to be around for a long time."