Hockey Friday with Erica L. Ayala, May 3, 2019

#ForTheGame - Interview with Hilary Knight - must-click links in women's hockey

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Making a case for NOT taking sides

I caught wind of what is now the #ForTheGame movement on Monday. I’ve spent the past few days collecting as much information as possible since. It’s been an odd few days collecting facts, opinions, and hearing lots of frustration from parties across women’s hockey.

The last part is hardly surprising. I’ve joked every week since March, and will likely have reason continue to do so, that week-by-week there is women’s hockey news that shocks the community. The most recent ripple has also made its way to mainstream media and their very, very hungry trolls attacking the comments section.

However, don’t worry WoHo fans! We now have a an answer to what will happen after Worlds, kinda. Okay, but at least we have UNITY (in Queen Latifah voice) across women’s hockey, well maybe we do. Oh, I got it, the NHL … nah, couldn’t even finish that one.

Okay, so my point is, we still have a long road ahead. And, if I can be honest, I wish I were more fired up about this latest collective action. I mean, I’m a professional advocate (shout out to Westchester Children’s Association). I should LOVE this just as much as I loved #BeBoldForChange.

Yet, I’m struggling fam. I really, really am.

I’ve become less of an activism elitist when it comes to people calling things movements since the advent of social media. Collective action does not a canned tweet make. Yet, I am here for players unifying their voices! So, why the reluctance?

My first issue is, I’m still very confused. In a conversation with Hilary Knight, the 2018 gold medalist and #ForTheGame leader stated, “This movement, what we’re trying to do, isn’t about destroying a league by any means. It’s just, we see a better future for the sport, and the NWHL isn’t going to provide that future.”

The NWHL does not deserve to be saved from itself most times. And, there are very deeply-held reasons that I know of and more that I likely don’t for players to lack faith in the NWHL.

Yet, respectfully, this is definitely about destroying the NWHL. On its face, I don’t see that as bad. As in, if there is a hurdle to what you really want, you either jump over it or remove it from your path.

But, call me crazy, I like to tell people I’m burning shit to the ground, if indeed I’m burning shit to the ground!

My second issue is, I can’t for the life of me understand why that isn’t the explicit message. Why say, “we won’t play in a North American pro league” and not “We refuse to play in the NWHL”?

If the CWHL starts back up tomorrow, will that statement have to be amended? Would players have continued on and left #ForTheGame for another time (I asked Knight, check below)?

Okay, some of you are probably thinking, is Erica really ranting about semantics? Yes, yes I am! Words matter. And fewer, more direct words leave less room for false interpretation.

My second issue is, there is also an uncomfortably opaque connection to the National Hockey League in all of this. Multiple sources have shared that one of the recruitment points for #ForTheGame was NHL involvement by way of a showcase style of women’s hockey. When sources were asked if salaries, roster size, or other resources and compensation expectations for that model were shared, no specific were given.

Additionally, the timeline for a WNHL doesn’t seem to be clear. I’ve heard 16 months from now being tossed around. But, publicly the NHL is playing its same tune and has said the topic of women’s pro hockey is not on the agenda of the NHL board, per Marisa Ingemi.

My third issue is, some players like Kaleigh Fratkin felt they were being asked to make a big decision with limited information. The defender who has played three full NWHL seasons expressed to Kristina Rutherford that if she was forced to make a decision on the spot, she had to opt out of #ForTheGame. Not because Fratty feels the need to protect the NWHL, but because she wants to move in the direction of changing the game with conviction.

Related, some players, like the acting NWHLPA director and three-time NWHL All-Star Madison Packer, were not invited to cast their vote at all.

“Surprise and confusion summarize my reaction best,” Packer told me last night. She went on to say that in a 72-hour span, conversations went from having a united front and exploring all options to an abrupt stop to open conversation.

Seeking to be the voice of all players while also excluding certain voices from the table is not the ideal start to a transparent, player-focused future for women’s hockey. Perhaps this was a misstep. Perhaps Madison being engaged to NWHLPA director Anya Battaglino factored into her omission from certain calls. Either way, it’s not great.

I hope the collective action sorts out the kinks and starts asking the same hard-hitting questions its asked of the NWHL to the NHL and/or the investors allegedly attached to the immediate next steps.

But for now, it’s a no for me.

This Week in Women’s Hockey

Reminder: First, the underlined words are the links. Second. CLICK these, even if you’ve already read them. Clicks = Attention from editors, producers and webmasters. Third, if you want to push out stuff you’ve written or read, email me!

I’m actually going to keep this list short, because there is a lot to read about #ForTheGame.

I’ll start with the always wonderful Mike Murphy and his timeline of the hashtag.

My latest for The Hockey News with some insight into the finances behind those leaving, and those choosing to stay.

Shannon Szabados will wait as long as it takes, writes Emily Sadler.

I joined Jerred Bapty to discuss #ForTheGame

Katie Strang and Hailey Salvian have been on this story for some time, check out their latest. They were also the first I saw hint at #ForTheGame in this story that ran Monday.

Sarah Nurse joins Sportsnet to chat #ForTheGame.

If softball meets basketball meets hockey is your thing, check this out!

Hear me get loud about this topic, listen to my Rant before The Storm.

This is the article by Kristina Rutherford I referenced above. I know I said I picked a side, but I just want to reiterate that I’m on Fratty’s side. The side of I need to know more and until I do, it’s a no.

The Ice Garden has a list of players participating in #ForTheGame. Some have raised questions if all stepping for to support the opt-out now will do so in the future. We shall see!

Tweet of the week

This seems like this happened decades ago, but it’s still hilarious!

Five at The IX: Quotes from Hilary Knight

Hilary is one of the leaders of #ForTheGame

Erica L. Ayala: I’ve always felt that when you returned from the national team and the Olympic Games, that there are a lot of speculation about why you maybe you went to Montreal, but I yeah, you know, and, and I think sometimes you were asked, but I just want to, like, especially now we’re here now and maybe you know, this is the right time to ask you what was going through your mind coming out of that gold medal game, and making that decision to go to Montreal? Was this on your mind?

Hilary Knight: Yes, 100%. be honest, I wasn’t sure how it was going to play out. I just knew that after we had won the gold, I took a deep breath and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, now we got to figure out this professional league. So, um, yeah, I just knew that, you know, obviously, in retrospect, the CWHL folding was unfortunate. But, you know, I kind of believe that, wherever I was lending my talents was essentially me endorsing league and I lost all faith and NWHL, and their model and their viability and their sustainability. And so I decided the CWHL was the next best thing.

And unfortunately, now, you know, looking back, it folded kind of out of nowhere to many of us, but the silver lining, and that is, you know, they, you got to give their board of directors credit, because they too, saw how their business model was unsustainable. And why are we going to continue to perpetuate these cycles and pretend like we have a legitimate professional hockey league, when we don’t have the adequate resources, funding personnel? You know, it’s just, there’s a lot, there’s a lot more that goes into a league. And I’m very fortunate that the CWHL provided us to play at a professional level for as long as they did. But at the same time, this is sort of a new frontier for women’s hockey and that’s why all of us got together and said, you know, what, enough is enough. You know, we’re going to forgo the convenience of today to build a better tomorrow. And, you know, obviously, some of that is, is timing, but the other part of that is having strong women come together and stand up for what they believe in. And that’s building a sustainable future in sport.

ELA: I’m trying to for the readers in particular, to just get an understanding from you. I mean, we know that the salary cuts happened in season two, and then you finished out season two, you’re away for season three and season four. So what didn’t get done Hillary, from your perspective?

HK: I think there’s a there’s a big lack of trust, I think sort of it. There was a, and forgive me, I’m just taking my time to make sure I, you know, I answer this correctly.

ELA: No problem.

HK: There wasn’t the appropriate growth model, I guess, is the way to put it. And there weren’t the proper steps, in order to get to where the league needed to be. And I get it like the first year, the first couple years, you know, you can kind of where the startup excuse, and that’s fine.

And I think the first year, we were just all happy to be there. And we were willing to kind of skirt a lot of these, these other issues. And you know, whether it’s having to ride with your hockey equipment next to you on the bus because the bus is too small, and the buses showing up three hours late, and you’re getting it up to Buffalo at 3am.

I think it’s just, it’s not a good business practice, I guess, is what I’m trying to say. And that lack of trust was definitely there from the very beginning. And, you know, this movement, what we’re trying to do isn’t about destroying a league, by any means. It’s just, we see a better future for the sport, and then who is not going to provide that feature? And that’s so we’re not going to play in it.

ELA: Yeah, and I do want to just challenge the the idea there a little bit, again, just to give the readers a good understanding of where you’re coming from. Because, you know, it might not be inadvertently to destroy a league, but it would seem that, presumably, it could that could be one of the effects of this …

HK: For sure! I think that’s where, you know, when, when you first launch a league, you need to understand all the intricacies about it. And you need to have the people who can help you find answers and solve problems for you. And you know, that that salary cut really affected people’s lives. I mean, you signed a contract saying you’re going to receive X amount of dollars, and at that time, it’s the biggest money you’ve ever received for women’s professional hockey.

And keep in mind, we didn’t have the training stipends and all that other stuff figured out yet, I don’t think. So that’s, that’s a big deal. And then all of a sudden, we don’t have top line equipment anymore, because that bill wasn’t paid. You don’t have health insurance and you’re considered an employee. I mean, there’s, there’s all these things that go into it. And, you know, it just didn’t have the right, or doesn’t have the right growth model …

And to be honest, we have a big disparity between the national team members and then the non-national team members right now. And as team members receive training, training funds, and then a non-national team member, you know, some of them, some of these girls are trying to live off $3,500. And you can’t do that. I mean, they have to get a second job. So then you’re talking about, you know, are we sacrificing some of the product to because, technically, this isn’t considered … that’s that’s not not a livable wage either. But we’re also going out there saying it’s professional hockey.

ELA: Is there a road that you see, because I think the one clear road that everyone’s looking at is is the NHL, and I want to get to that, but is there a way from today that that road could lead back to the NWHL, in your mind?

HK: No … there’s a reason why I moved up to Canada and left all my friends behind in Boston and I think those those same issues are represented similarly among the people who are like, you know, what, I’m not, I’m not doing it anymore. I’m not perpetuating the cycle, it’s not going anywhere. Why are we pretending this is a professional league? I think it’s one thing to say professional league, and I think it’s another thing to actually have one. So that’s what we’re interested in creating, and what that future looks like, specifically, I’m not sure. But I know right now, it doesn’t exist.

ELA: If tomorrow, you get a call, someone picks up the phone and says, ‘Hilary, I know you need something viable, the NWHL isn’t for you, I read Erica’s story (I SURE DID PLUG MYSELF WHILE TALKING TO KNIGHT).’

What would you have to hear from them to put your faith and really go back to this group of 200 plus athletes to feel confident? What would they have to say for you to gain confidence in what they’re building?

HK: Yeah, no, that’s a good question. And to be honest, I think there’s been a lot of people kind of kind of pitching and saying, ‘Oh, we want to get into women’s hockey!’ And, you know, that’s great. But what does your business model look like? What’s your projection for growth? How are you planning on entering these markets? What type of market research have you done? You know, how are you planning on supporting the women? Where are your teams? And there’s all these sort of fluid questions that that just like pop up into my mind?

Because we need to learn from previous iterations of these leagues and really make sure that we’re carving out something that, you know, it is sustainable, long term…

I think we need to have adequate resources, right? We need to have people full-time in a in a front office with experience to be able to get the team and the different respective clubs the attention they deserve. It needs to be a full-time business. And it it’s going to require a lot of different individuals on board. But it’s going to require previous knowledge and and research moving forward.

ELA: I’ve heard names like Billie Jean King thrown around. I’ve heard, and I don’t know, that’s necessarily a big surprise, that Gary Bettman has been having conversations with people in women’s hockey to figure out some of those question you would ask. Are you getting any sense from the National Hockey League on what this could potentially mean for their investment in the future of women’s hockey?

HK: The NHL, to be honest, they’ve been extremely generous with their support … they’re trying to grow the women’s game as well. Granted, you know, they were giving support to leagues that they didn’t necessarily have a stake in. So I think that just that’s a great illustration of their support on the women’s side, and they obviously do a lot to help out. You know, whether it’s like providing opportunities at All-Star Weekend and different club-specific opportunities. Those those things are going to be there just because we all love the sport of hockey. But yeah, in terms of moving forward, I think that’s, that’s a fantastic question for them. I can only speak on the players behalf. And I know like what we’re capable of as a group and what we want to see. And, you know, we’re willing to explore any sustainable viable option that presents itself.

ELA: And I mean, as of yet has the NHL floated what that business model or pay structure might look like if they were to run women’s hockey?

HK: I don’t know. I mean, that’s like, a question to them, I guess.

ELA: Okay, but they haven’t shared that with players, necessarily?

HK: Um, that (laughs) you’re asking me to talk about their business. So, you know, that’s not … I can only speak on on, like, what we’re trying to do as a group and what our intentions are.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Lindsay Gibbs, @Linzsports ThinkProgress
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Erica L. Ayala