USA 1999 transformed women’s soccer. Can Beijing 2022 do the same for ice hockey?

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Larry W Smith/EPA</span>
Photograph: Larry W Smith/EPA

In 1996, the US women’s basketball team won Olympic gold in Atlanta, providing a solid foundation for two professional leagues. The WNBA, which had the backing of the NBA and better marketing, outlasted the ABL and continues to this day.

After their victory on home soil at the 1999 World Cup, the US women’s soccer team seized the spotlight and parlayed that attention into a professional league. That league collapsed, but waves of publicity over the next decade have yielded a solid fanbase determined to keep professional women’s soccer running.

So when will women’s ice hockey get its moment?

Since the sport joined the Olympic program in 1998, North American rivals Canada and the US have dominated to an extent that makes Scottish soccer’s Rangers-Celtic lockdown on the top spots pale in comparison. Only once in the Olympics and only once in the world championships have the Big Two not faced each other in the final. Total solar eclipses happen more often than losses by either team to someone other than each other.

With the two dominant countries in the sport sharing a border and already collaborating on the world’s top men’s league, the NHL, why have we not seen a viable fully professional women’s league? Why isn’t seven-time world champion and 2018 gold medalist Meghan Duggan, who now works for the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, as easily recognizable as Megan Rapinoe? When will women’s hockey have a professional league final with TV ratings to match the average of 548,000 for the 2021 WNBA finals or the 653,000 who watched the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup final

Related: The US women's hockey team gave their employers the whipping of their lives

Professional hockey salaries briefly edged up to $25,000 for one year but immediately dropped back to the low five figures and below. For comparison’s sake, the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) has a minimum salary that has risen from four figures to $22,000, a number sure to go up with upcoming collective bargaining. The average salary in the WNBA is more than $120,000.

Without living wages in the pro game, the US women turned instead to USA Hockey, earning a mammoth raise from $6,000 a year to $70,000 plus bonuses after a boycott threat in 2017. That’s still less than the $100,000 given to core US women’s soccer players on top of more than $70,000 in NWSL pay that, until next year, has been provided by US Soccer.

In short, women’s hockey is now where women’s soccer was in the mid-2000s, with no full-fledged pro league and players depending on a national federation for money. Women’s soccer players can make living wages even if they’re not in the national team picture; women’s hockey players only get living wages if they’re in the select few. The US women’s soccer team will have increasing competition for places as players can stay in the game through their 20s; women’s hockey players have to scrounge to keep playing after college if they’re not already firmly established as international players.

It’s not that no one’s trying. At the turn of the century, the National Women’s Hockey League emerged from Ontario and slowly spread across Canada, and its teams signed most of the Canadian women’s team members who weren’t still in college.

By 2005, though, women’s hockey entered its phase of in-fighting and alphabet-soup leagues, a phenomenon all too familiar to those who’ve followed North American pro soccer. The NWHL’s western teams split to form the WWHL (Western Women’s Hockey League). A 2006 reunification didn’t stick, and the NWHL’s management problems culminated in a farcical game in Montreal that ended with 2:04 remaining because the home team had failed to book sufficient time for the game, forcing top-tier hockey players to clear the ice so the general public could skate.

The WWHL boasted stars like Canadian Hayley Wickenheiser and US player Angela Ruggiero, both of whom were featured in the NHL13 video game, along with a US presence in the Minnesota Whitecaps. But it dwindled to three teams by 2009 and fizzled out. Back east, the CWHL (Canadian Women’s Hockey League) launched in 2007 and remained the de facto top-tier league despite its amateur status.

In 2015, the NWHL name was revived south of the border, with four American teams competing and actual salaries on offer, ranging from $10,000 to $25,000. The next year, those salaries were cut in half, while the CWHL announced it would start paying players in the $2,000 to $10,000 range.

Meanwhile, the CWHL expanded halfway around the world, bringing in two teams (later one) from China, where authorities were willing to shell out some money to develop the sport in time for the 2022 Olympics on home ice. With calls for a merger with the NWHL growing, the CWHL rendered the question academic by folding in 2019. (One Chinese team, the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays, continues to play in Russia’s Zhenskaya Hockey League and won the 2020 championship with the help of US national team players Alex Carpenter and Megan Bozek.)

The drop to one North American league united the players, but that unity didn’t come in the NWHL. More than 200 players announced they would not play club hockey at all “until we get the resources that professional hockey demands and deserves,” they said in a sharply worded statement.

So once again, we have two entities. One isn’t a league, per se. The PWHPA (Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association) puts together showcase events and exhibition games. In early 2021, national team players were involved, but this year, the US and Canada have residency programs.

The NWHL has continued but had to cancel its 2020 championship between Boston and Minnesota due to Covid-19. The league attempted to play a two-week 2021 season in a bubble at Lake Placid, home of the 1980 Winter Olympics, but a rash of positive Covid tests forced an abrupt reformatting, and the playoffs moved to March in Massachusetts. Coincidentally, Boston and Minnesota again advanced to the final, with Boston winning 4-3. The league rebranded to the PHF (Premier Hockey Federation) in September and is playing a full 2021-22 season, albeit with the same Covid-related rescheduling that other sports leagues are facing.

Signs of progress are emerging. Before rebranding, the PHF doubled salaries to an average of about $15,000.

But is slow, incremental change enough to build the sport? Or does women’s hockey need that moment like the 1999 Women’s World Cup in soccer, and if so, how can that happen?