Words: Matthew Ohayon
Photography: Wesley McLean
Women’s hockey first became an Olympic sport at the 1998 games in Nagano, 78 years after men started lacing up for best-on-best competition on the world stage. Last year’s Olympic gold medal game between Canada and the United States drew more than 3.5 million viewers in the US alone.
Unlike their male counterparts, women players face many uphill battles in their fight to make livable salaries by playing the game they love. Today, there are two professional women’s hockey leagues in North America, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) and the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL). Most of the players who play in the Olympics are members of one of the two leagues. In the CWHL, salaries range between $2,000 and $10,000. Last season in the NWHL, player salaries ranged between $5,000 and $7,000 after being cut in half from the season before – a far cry from the average NHL player’s salary of $2.8 million.
We spoke to Julie Chu, former US Olympian and head coach of the Concordia Stingers women’s hockey team, along with local radio broadcaster and play-by play announcer for Les Canadiennes Robyn Flynn, and Caroline Ouellette, associate coach of Les Canadiennes de Montréal, to ask them about their perspectives on the growth of the women’s game and where it’s heading.
The City: Have you seen major growth in women’s hockey in Montreal since Les Canadiennes partnered with the Montreal Canadiens?
Chu: We have one of the best organizations around, and [the Montreal Stars] came before we partnered with the Habs. Once that happened, it just increased our resources and ability to reach out to the fans. But, I remember when I first joined the team in 2010, it was incredible how many volunteers and passionate fans of women’s hockey would come out. At every one of our games, we have a small coaching staff that is paid, but most of them are all volunteers. There are at least 15 to 20 volunteers, if not more, at every single game.
That’s pretty impressive, knowing all of them have full-time jobs and families. But they’re really passionate about women’s hockey and want to give the athletes the best experience. They provide them with awesome resources, but also getting fans into the stands.
Canadiennes rookie Taylor Willard stares down a member of the Calgary Inferno from the bench on Feb. 2, 2019.
Flynn: I remember going to see them when they were the Montreal Stars and it was obviously a lot of fun, but there weren’t that many fans in the stands. Now you’re seeing them pack thousands of people into the Bell Centre. The first time they did that, I remember having tears in my eyes, because the little girl in me never thought that thousands of people would care about women’s hockey. To see that actually come to fruition was really emotional for me, for the women on the ice – it was something really special and that was just a couple of years ago. It’s hard not to be impatient when you see this growth and momentum. You want to claw into it and carry it over.
Ouellette: I think it’s best shown by the crowds [Les Canadiennes] have at our games. We almost sold out [on Feb. 2], and we’ve sold out a few games this season. Our fan base is following us. Our volunteer team is growing. People are getting involved because they want to help, and we have attracted players from all over because they know we have a great organization. I’m excited to see where our home will be in the next couple of years. Whether it’ll be in Laval or the Verdun Auditorium, we need a home, and we need a place where people will know where we play so they can follow us on a regular basis.
I remember having tears in my eyes, because the little girl in me never thought that thousands of people would care about women’s hockey.
The City: How did you feel when you saw women participating in the NHL Skills Competition?
Chu: I thought that was amazing. Last year, they participated in the demonstration part, similar to this [year’s competition]. Hilary Knight did the accuracy shooting and I think she would’ve ended up in third place. It’s just a testament to the skill and the level that we do have at the women’s level.
The fun part [this year] was seeing the comments from people afterwards, because sometimes you’ll have people on social media that want to make snide comments, like “Oh, ok, whatever. So they can shoot a puck, but they can’t really play hockey.” But, honestly when they saw how fast [Kendall Coyne] could go, I didn’t see any negative comments. The fact that she’s in the top five between those competitors, if you were to match her with the rest of the guys in the NHL that aren’t that fast, it’s pretty impressive.
The Felines du Saint-Laurent were in attendance and excited to see Les Canadiennes face off against the Calgary Inferno on Feb. 2, 2019.
Flynn: It was honestly the only time I’ve had an interest in the skills competition or the All-Star weekend at all since I was a kid. I consider myself a big hockey fan, and for the first time I didn’t feel like I was watching because I have to. I’m watching because I’m actually interested. I think it was amazing. I would’ve liked to have seen more, but I guess that’s because I’m greedy with my coverage. But just having the women participate and having fans see what they’re all about – like to watch Kendall Coyne completely blow everyone away in the fastest skater competition and for people to start being like, “Oh my gosh, she can move fast!” We’ve been telling you this for years! These women are amazing athletes and deserve your time and attention. That was fun, because it was almost like the world got let in on this little secret that the rest of us have had for a while.
Les Canadiennes de Montréal rookie Maude Gelinas stands worried amongst her teammates during a timeout, with her team down late in the game on Feb. 2, 2019.
Ouellette: I was very proud of that openness from the NHL to invite some of our best players. I knew they would do well, and I knew that it would be appreciated. It’s not about performance; it’s about creating that dream or role models for those young girls who want to play hockey, because they saw Brianna Decker setting a record at the passing competition, or they saw Kendall Coyne skating faster than many, many NHL players. We deserve and belong in the game, and there is a fan base for us. We just need to develop it.
The City: What is the impact of having two professional leagues, on the growth of women’s hockey?
Chu: To some extent, it’s really good that we’re in a lot of different markets. There are different young hockey fans that can watch women’s hockey in different locations. It’s just the two teams in Toronto, one in Calgary, one in Montreal. Now there’s two in Boston, one in Connecticut, one in Long Island, and now out in Minnesota. In Connecticut, I had my niece go out to games – I think that’s the positives of having those leagues; you give the opportunity to fans to see women’s hockey at an elite level. The challenge, though, of having two leagues is that we want to make sure it’s as elite as possible. So, I think we need to merge both leagues, put the best players together in a smaller [league] so that there’s not as much of a gap between the top and bottom teams, and instead having six really talented teams.
Canadiennes forward Katia Cleymont-Heydra prepares to take a faceoff with her team down 4-3 in the third. Feb. 2, 2019.
Flynn: I think in theory it dilutes the talent. At least in the first season, it was very noticeable, because all the American players, with the exception of basically Julie Chu, went to the NWHL. But now you’re seeing a lot of those players coming back to the CWHL. I would say the CWHL probably has more longevity; it definitely has more transparency with its books. It’s been around a little bit longer, and it’s growing steadily. You haven’t seen them cut player salaries the way the NWHL did. I think the NWHL tried to grow a little too fast, and the CWHL went about it in a bit of a smarter way. But I don’t think having two leagues hurts the game. If people care about women’s hockey, having more of it to watch is only a good thing. I feel bad for these players that are constantly asked about when the leagues will merge, and ‘when will you guys get paid?’ and ‘what’s the future of women’s hockey?’ NHL players aren’t asked about business decisions on the NHL level; they’re just asked about the game itself. These women are under so much pressure to just be businesswomen, role models, and amazing athletes… I honestly have no idea how they do it.
Melanie Desrochers leaves the rink and enters a sea of young fans waiting for high-fives on Feb. 2, 2019.
Ouellette: We need one league so that the best are playing the best. If we go to one league, then we’ll have more teams. We can’t keep having two teams in the same city. It doesn’t make sense, so I think that’s the priority. I think there are conversations to be had to solve that for next year.
The City: Do you have any advice for future players?
Chu: We have these conversations with our players now. We had most recently Tracy-Ann Lavigne who was the captain of [the Concordia Stingers] who is playing in her second year with Les Canadiennes. I told her our chance to get to play hockey is limited. At a certain age, you can’t play competitively anymore, and we’ll only be able to play in [recreational] leagues. But for those players that are talented enough, and are willing to make the commitment, do it. Is it challenging? For sure. Tracy has a full time job and is managing Tuesday and Thursday practices and training. And then Saturday and Sunday, which are her off days, she’s playing. Then Mondays she’s back at work. So to be a member of the CWHL, there’s a lot of time and commitment of long days, and not a lot of time off along the way. But just make sure you work hard and want to do that. Having that patience and [confidence] is good, but there will be growing pains. Right now players aren’t being paid full time. You really do it because you love the game.
Flynn: Know that you’ve got an uphill battle, but try to carry that attitude that you have on the ice, off of it as well. That fighting spirit, the refusal to give up – you have to carry that into life. I feel like that’s good advice for pretty much anybody. If you want to do something that’s important in the world and for yourself, you’re going to have to fight hard to make that dream come true.
Ouellette: There’s no secret there! You have to make every [high level] team on [your] way to the top. You have to make your provincial team and then earn a great opportunity to play college hockey, whether in Canada or the US, because very few graduate and have an impact right away in the CWHL. There’s a big step at every level, and the most dedicated athletes make it to the top.