I had the honor of being the GM of Team Johnston at the Toronto Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association Dream Gap Tour in late September. My duties as GM included ensuring the team was ready to go, general logistics – and driving the team bus. To the hotel. Then to the rink. Then repeat. No joke.
Let me be clear – I’m not complaining that part of my GM role was literally steering the bus. It’s actually a perfect symbol of the gap that exists between professional male and professional female hockey players. But being in Toronto for those inaugural PWHPA games gave me a lot of hope that the gap is narrowing – and will close. Yes, there’s a lot of work ahead, but here are three things I learned from that September weekend:
There is an appetite – and support – for professional women’s hockey.
The stands were packed at the Westwood Arena and there was a definite buzz in the air. Kids – boys and girls – held colorful signs in support of the women players. Brian Burke, Ron MacLean, Don Cherry and Gerry Dee were there too. So were CBC Sports, SportsNet and Budweiser. And the merchandise stand? It sold out of PWHPA swag on the first day.
These professional athletes understand fair isn’t always equal.
Sure, the story now is how the CWHL folded because it wasn’t financially viable. I can tell you with certainty that none of these female athletes are expecting to sign a million dollar contract any time soon. They were thrilled that Adidas gave them backpacks filled with shoes and clothing. And that Bauer stepped up with helmets, pants and gloves. And that there were trainers and physiotherapists and even food.
The point is this – all professional leagues started somewhere – and all of them have had financial issues. Hockey went through multiple leagues before the NHL rose from the ashes. The National Basketball Association was once such a joke that its founding president called it “filler,” for nights when nothing else was happening. And do you remember the 2004 Levitt Report which stated losses of $273 million for the 2002/2003 NHL season? It’s a slow process and it’s easy to forget that it was for men, too.
These women are professionals with world-class talent.
These players put on a show with nothing on the line. Not their next big contract, not the hope for a shorter-term, bigger-money bridge deal, and not a sponsorship gig. They play intense hockey for two reasons: they love the game; and they want to ensure young girls get to have the same dreams as young boys.
I have heard some media types saying that the likes of Brianne Jenner and Kendall Coyne Schofield are demanding things based on morality and fairness. The truth is they aren’t demanding anything. They are taking risks and fighting for something they may not even get to be a part of – a viable women’s professional league.
Yes, there’s a lot of work to do but I have no doubt with people like Brianne, Kendall, and Rebecca Johnston making these sacrifices, girls – mine included – will have a chance to play hockey for a living. Let’s just hope I don’t have to drive the bus…