Cougars reflect on heightened exposure

The women showcase their skills. Wikimedia Commons

NHL festivities highlight the women’s game

The NHL’s best gathered in St. Louis Jan. 24 and 25 for the 2020 All-Star weekend to participate in the usual overhyped skills competitions such as fastest skater, hardest shot, and the sluggish 3-on-3 tournaments. However, at this year’s iteration, twenty women made the trek to the music city to advertise a product that has been poorly marketed to the sporting community: women’s hockey. NHL fans will fondly recall Kendall Coyne-Schofield’s cameo at the 2019 edition of the event where she flew around the NHL ice in 14.3 seconds, shy of McDavid’s winning 13.3, but faster than Arizona’s Clayton Keller and on par with many of the male skaters. After the media storm that ensued, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman upped the ante for 2020, promising a full 3-on-3 game between the top women’s hockey players from Canada and the United States.

Unlike the usual sloppy men’s game, the women’s 3-on-3 brought welcome speed and excitement. It was end-to-end action with Canada’s star Philip Marie-Poulin leading the way with her smooth skating and incredible hands. Both Alex Cavellini and Anne Renee Desbiens put on a show for the St. Louis crowd in their respective nets. The Canadian women won 2-1 and it made for the best hockey of the weekend. For Cougar Women’s Hockey captain Jaycee Magwood, the game brings great exposure for the sport.

“I think it’s very important for the women to get the exposure and for people to see how much skill the women have to offer. Kendall Coyne’s fastest skater time just proved how talented the women are compared to some of the best men in the world.”

The Killarney, Manitoba native was exposed to hockey through her brothers, but quickly became aware of women’s hockey.

“I grew up in a hockey family with an older brother and a twin brother. My family all played hockey before me so naturally that’s what I started to do when I was old enough to learn to skate. Growing up I remember Cassie Campbell as one of my hockey idols.”

Magwood splits her fandom between the men and women’s leagues but appreciates the importance of exposure to grow the women’s game.

“I really enjoy watching both women’s professional and NHL hockey. I think that if the women’s game had more media time it would be a lot easier for more people to keep up with their games and support both the men and women.”

Cougars Head Coach Sarah Hodges also weighed in on the Elite Women’s 3-on-3 competition.

“I think it’s important just to get that exposure. I think the athletes are really good and it’s a good sport. It’s a different sport and I think mainstream people aren’t exposed to it enough, so I think for it to be at the All-Star game is huge.”

“It is a different game, but I think the athletes are equally as talented and more talented in some areas than the men.”

Coach Hodges makes a great point. The leagues are not the same, but one is not necessarily inferior to the other; varsity hockey backs this up. Speaking as a fan, I do not have a preference between men’s and women’s varsity hockey and the rest of the fans seem to agree. Across Canada West, men’s and women’s hockey post very similar attendance numbers, ranging from 100-300 fans per game. Of course, this doesn’t hold up at all in the professional level where women’s hockey has perennially struggled.

The inclusion of Elite women’s 3-on-3 by Bettman couldn’t have come at a better time for women’s hockey. One of the two premier women’s hockey leagues, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, folded on May 1, 2019, just two years after adding financial stipends for the players. With the league folding, there is just one professional women’s hockey league left, the National Women’s Hockey league. Despite the existence of the current league, the opportunities for athletes are still lacking, especially the financial ones. Because of this, Coach Sarah Hodges, says that calling the current system “professional” is a bit of a stretch.

“I think to call the old league professional is kind of disingenuous.”

Hodges cites the experience of Cougar alumni Toni Ross. Ross, who was a Canada West All-Star during her Cougars career from 2011-2016, went on to represent the Calgary Inferno in the CWHL. Like many players who are not top tier stars in the women’s hockey world, Ross had to do much of her travel and practice at her own expense. Having the income to practise is one of the problems Hodges identifies with women’s hockey.

“Hopefully they can get something back together that works. I don’t think you need to be paid a huge salary, but you need to be able to practise every day. That’s the good thing about university, they are able to practise every day.”

For current Cougars captain Jaycee Magwood, her future is still uncertain.

“At this point I am applying into policing, but also keeping my options open. A few girls that I used to play hockey against have went overseas and it looks like a lot of fun, so I’m not one-hundred-percent sure of my future plans.”

Magwood is one of Canada West’s elite players, ranking sixth in points and third in goals in the conference. For her, the disbanding of the CWHL and subsequent lack of opportunity in North America has been a major setback, but she still has hope for the future.

“For sure it’s a setback for women’s hockey after all the progress the women’s game has made over those few years. It obviously affects this generation of female hockey players but with all of the effort and support the women are putting back into the game it will hopefully pay off for the next generation.”

This support has been strong in recent months from all aspects of the hockey community. In May of 2019, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association was founded to lobby for player rights. Since then they have been working to grow the game and help to build a program with viable salaries for their athletes. They have received vocal support from NHL personalities such as Tie Domi, Ron Maclean and Paul Bissonnette. NWHL teams have also partnered with NHL teams, such is the case with the Boston Pride and Boston Bruins.

Canadian Athlete Assistance carding is another source of income for the players, but that too is lacking. For all women’s hockey players in Canada there are just 40 cards available. These cards range from development cards to senior cards, and financial allowance ranges from $1000 CAD to $1700 CAD per month. For post-graduate athletes without sponsorships or other financial support systems, this is hardly enough income to survive. The carding criteria are also innately subjective, which means that it is difficult to allocate the 40 available cards to the best players.

While there are opportunities right now for the top women’s hockey players, the real problem is for players like Magwood who are in transition. For men at a similar age and skill level, there are three major leagues in North America: the ECHL, AHL and NHL, as well as numerous leagues in Europe. While women’s hockey can deliver a potentially better product than those leagues, especially lower tiered leagues like the ECHL, they do not have the chance. Coach Hodges summarizes the bottom line:

“There’s not a lot of opportunities, which I think is a bad thing for those athletes.”

Many people in the hockey community have weighed in on the problem of getting women’s hockey out there and making it profitable. The CEO of the always controversial Barstool Sports, Erika Nardini, who helped to build the media empire, suggested potentially using a tournament-based model to grow women’s hockey.

“You go ten weekends a year, six games, it’s a festival environment.”

In opposition, the WNBA uses a similar model as the NHL to varying degrees of success. Per the New York Times, the WNBA has lost over 10 million USD in every year of its existence. This comes despite the league gaining increasing television viewership overtime, with the hope being that eventually the league will reach a point of profitability. Whatever the solution is for women’s hockey, the first step is clear: to increase viewership and awareness. The NHL’s Elite women’s 3-on-3 was a great step in the right direction, but they need to do more to promote women’s hockey so that players like Magwood can get the opportunities they deserve.

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