May 2, 2019 / 6:40 PM / 19 days ago

Top women's hockey players to boycott professional leagues

(Reuters) - More than 200 women’s hockey players, including the game’s biggest names, said on Thursday they will not play in North American professional leagues next season as part of a boycott they hope brings about a more economically viable league.

FILE PHOTO - Ice Hockey - Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics - Women's Gold Medal Final Match - Canada v USA - Gangneung Hockey Centre, Gangneung, South Korea - February 22, 2018 - Gold medallists, Team USA and Silver medallists, Team Canada shake hands. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The group, which includes Olympic gold medalists Marie-Philip Poulin of Canada and American Hilary Knight, said they cannot make a sustainable living playing in the current women’s professional game.

“Having no health insurance and making as low as two thousand dollars a season means players can’t adequately train and prepare to play at the highest level,” the players said in a statement released on their social media accounts.

“Because of that, together as players, we will not play in ANY professional leagues in North America this season until we get the resources that professional hockey demands and deserves.”

The decision comes just over a month after the sudden demise of the six-team Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) left the future of women’s professional hockey in disarray with many top players without a team to play for.

The CWHL’s decision left the five-team National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), founded in 2015 and based exclusively in the United States, as the only professional hockey option for women in North America.

The NWHL, which had an average attendance of 954 at its 46 games during the 2018-19 season, said in a statement it will continue with plans for its next season to begin in October.

The league also said that after recent discussions with the NWHL Players’ Association it is offering increased salaries and a 50-50 revenue split from league-level sponsorships and media rights deals.

“Of everyone working in women’s hockey, we are among the players’ biggest fans,” the NWHL said.

“In a challenging climate for women’s sports, our leadership has been proud to invest a great deal of time and resources in women’s hockey and these athletes. We believe in them.”

‘OUR MOMENT’

While the possibility of not competing professionally in North America next season could soon become a reality, the women feel a boycott is the best way to see the creation of a single, economically viable professional league.

“This is the moment we’ve been waiting for - our moment to come together and say we deserve more,” the players said.

“It’s time for a long-term viable professional league that will showcase the greatest product of women’s professional hockey in the world.”

Players, and even commissioners, from the NWHL and now-defunct CWHL have previously said a single women’s professional league in North America would be best for the sport.

Many pundits have suggested the ideal outcome for women’s hockey in North America would be if the National Hockey League, home to the top men’s players, provided its infrastructure, marketing and branding to unite the two leagues.

The NHL, which has provided financial support to women’s hockey and previously said it was hesitant about assuming control over either league because it does not believe in their models, is monitoring the situation.

“Obviously, we will be interested observers in how this plays out,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told Reuters in an email.

“We support the NWHL’s objective of giving elite women hockey players the ability to perform at the professional level.”

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The group of women who have come together say they feel a sense of responsibility to leave the game in better shape than when they entered it.

“While we have all accomplished so much, there is no greater accomplishment than what we have the potential to do right here and right now - not just for this generation of players, but for the generations to come,” the players’ statement said.

“With that purpose, we are coming together, not just as individual players, but as one collective voice to help navigate the future and protect the players needs.”

Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Ed Osmond

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