In defense of a two-league model — PWHPA Collective Bargaining Agreement — Must-click women’s hockey links
The IX: Hockey Friday with Eleni Demestihas, Feb. 24, 2023
Happy Friday, folks. This week I’m gonna do something a little different. I’m not going to recap PHF scores or NCAA scores, I’m not going to get into PWHPA leading scorers, and I’m not even going to recap the end of the Rivalry Series (spoiler though, Canada came back, made the US look absolutely amateurish, and swept the last two games). Instead I’m going to write about the PHF and the PWHPA and make the case for having two leagues.
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I want to be frank with you guys, because you’re not paying The IX for me to tell you things you already know, or to collect everyone else’s viewpoint on this without giving my own. If you’re new to the PHF/PWHPA split, here are a few articles to get you started:
How we got from #OneLeague to #ForTheGame, written shortly after the PWHPA movement began (but before the PWHPA was called the PWHPA).
A timeline of the folding of the CWHL leading to the PWHPA (again, written before it was known as the PWHPA).
An article from this summer with a recap of where the PWHPA was at that time.
Now with a little bit of background, let me first say that the absolute best outcome, from the moment the NWHL was formed, was for two women’s professional hockey leagues to exist and grow in North America. That may not have been the prevailing opinion at the time—it’s been four years so I’m not even sure it was my opinion at the time—but I do genuinely believe that was true in 2019 and is true today.
Since I began writing for The IX, we’ve seen some rumblings about the PWHPA that were never really substantiated by on-the-record sources or specifics in a way that moved me towards believing a second league was imminent. I’ve always believed that was their goal, and I’ve always believed there were multiple avenues to get there that the PWHPA could pursue, but we had been hearing “close” and “soon” for years by the time this past summer hit. My viewpoint has generally been, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’
On Thursday, Hailey Salvian reported for the Athletic that the PWHPA has taken steps to organize a formal union and begin bargaining with their investors to establish a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
Assuming this works out and they’re able to unionize successfully—this is me saying that I’m seeing it, and I’m believing it. Having a CBA in place before a league even begins play would be huge for the players and for the yet-to-be-formed league. Not having a union or a CBA makes players’ positions within a league extremely precarious and their experiences individualized. As of today, the PHF Players’ Association (PA) is not a union, is not separate from the PHF, and, as far as I’ve seen and heard, doesn’t really operate like a union would. I’ve heard plenty of player grievances that either didn’t go through the PA for various reasons or weren’t taken up by the PA. While it’s true that not every grievance can be handled by a PA, whether it’s unionized or not, it’s pretty clear to me from the state of the PHF this season that whatever the PA is doing is not working for all of the players, even if it’s working for some.
Using only examples of things that have been publicly released and reported, the PHF has seen no less than three players request releases from their contracts. That’s never happened before in the PHF, not even in season two when salaries were halved in the middle of the season. It’s been obvious for months that the situation in Buffalo is bad and getting worse. Sure, they just won two games back to back, but they won those games against Minnesota, who just lost goaltender Amanda Leveille for the season and had to trot out an ice cold goalie because the Caps have never used their backups. Additionally, Minnesota is the other team that’s seen a player request a release—Meaghan Pezon, who had been injured earlier in the season, then cleared to play, but was glued to the bench despite dressing for a game after she was taken off long-term injured reserve (LTIR)—so, back to back wins against that specific Minnesota team does not convince me that things aren’t still quite bad in Buffalo, especially in the locker room, even if they are playing marginally better.
Autumn MacDougall was the first player to seek a release from the Beauts, and ended up in Montreal. She made it as clear as she could, as respectfully as she could, that being benched—for no reason, considering she had the OT winner that was responsible for the team’s only win for most of the season—felt personal to her, and wrong. Michaela Boyle was just released from her contract last week. If there are issues in Buffalo, which is easy to extrapolate, you would think, maybe even hope, that the PHFPA would be involved there. As far as I’ve been told, they haven’t been.
Now, if the PHFPA was a union, a separate entity from the league, things would be handled differently. It’s possible they still wouldn’t be fighting whatever is going on with the coaching in Buffalo, but they would be more seriously obligated to take a look at it and consider their options. Using that situation as an example, you can understand why the PWHPA starting off having a union and a CBA even before they hit the ice would be a really strong decision.
Separately from the specific pluses surrounding unionization and collective bargaining, the last four years have taught us a lot about the state of women’s hockey in North America. One of the things we’ve learned is that there is absolutely more than enough talent, in North America and worldwide, to sustain two leagues on this continent. If the PWHPA is going to have a four-team league with 23-player rosters, there will be absolutely hundreds of players available to play in the PHF. And all of those players, even if they were theoretically ‘not good enough’ to make PWHPA teams through a tryout process, deserve the chance to play professional hockey.
If you can look at me and tell me that a player like Taylor Girard shouldn’t get to play pro because we need one league and there are only four teams, I don’t believe that you love the sport or that you want it to grow. I just don’t. There are plenty of people and organizations with money to fund two leagues. There are plenty of months in the year for two leagues to stagger their schedules. There are plenty of fans who watch NHL, NCAA and AHL hockey on different streaming services. And, most importantly, there are plenty of talented, passionate players available to play in both leagues. I’ve yet to hear a serious, good-faith argument for downsizing the number of professional women’s hockey teams in North America from 11 (four PWHPA, seven PHF) to four.
Aside from providing opportunities to more players, there are other reasons why having two leagues would be the best way to grow the sport. One is that more teams means you’re reaching more markets. Right now the PHF is east-coast focused, with one midwest team, which means you’re not really reaching the west coast or most of the midwest and prairie regions. Given the number of youth players registered in those areas alone, it’s safe to assume that those are regions where the game can grow, and that’s not even taking into account the American south. Having only four teams, in markets where hockey and women’s hockey are already established, wouldn’t do anything to grow the game. Having 11, on the other hand—let’s say, for the sake of argument, your four PWHPA teams are in Chicago, Quebec City, Ottawa and Calgary. You’re going to have to have a team in Quebec because Poulin isn’t playing anywhere else, but the other three teams going to cities expanding west (even if only slightly, in Ottawa’s case) makes a big difference.
Another great reason to have two leagues is something we’ve normalized in professional sports in North America: avoiding a monopoly. The NHL is the professional men’s hockey league in North America. There are minor leagues, but they don’t compete directly with the NHL. The same thing is true with MLB, which has no competitor in North America. The NFL is in a slightly different position as it’s been challenged, and continues to be challenged, by leagues like the XFL and USFL, but given the NFL’s dominance over viewership in the United States, it still feels like a monopoly. We’ve grown really accustomed to the idea that sports is supposed to be run that way (in fact, US law contains an exception to antitrust rules that allows certain monopolistic action from sports leagues that wouldn’t be tolerated in other industries), but the truth is, I don’t think it helps the game, and in the case of a rapidly growing sport like women’s hockey, it would be actively bad.
Competition between the PWHPA league and the PHF would make both organizations better. If one organization is paying better, the other organization can press its investors to raise the cap. If one organization is handling allegations of abuse more comprehensively, the other organization can take notes and improve its own systems. Players will have more independence and more options, which will increase player welfare and the pace and quality of play on the ice. The desire to set your organization apart from a competitor is what drives innovation—things like different rules (Two-pointers? Why not!), groundbreaking ideas across social media and content production, partnerships and marketing.
All this to say that not only do I hope the PWHPA forms a league, I hope it succeeds. I hope it thrives, and I hope it pushes the PHF to be better. I hope the PWHPA’s unionization forces the PHFPA to unionize and approach the league with a proposal to begin collective bargaining. I hope that dozens of graduating NCAA seniors will have more than one option to play professional hockey in North America. I hope players in the PWHPA and the PHF have the ability to hop from league to league based on their needs and the organizations’ ability to meet them. And when both leagues take the ice, I hope I see you there.
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