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Right Now, the NWHL Is a League of Haves and Have-Nots

A divide exists within the NWHL—players who are on the national team, and those who have to supplement their league income with other jobs. The disparity is showing up in league standings.
Photo NWHL/YouTube

"In my opinion, there's no ideal place to be in women's hockey once you graduate college, where you're practicing five times a week, getting good quality games every weekend," said Jocelyne Lamoureux, a United States National Team player and forward for the Minnesota Whitecaps. The Whitecaps is a team that stands on its own, belonging to neither the National Women's Hockey League nor its rival, the Canadian Women's Hockey League, though it plays exhibition games against teams in both. Still, Whitecaps players like Lamoureux keep up with what their Olympic team peers and rivals are up to in the Northeastern corridor.


What they see is a sport divided into two camps: haves and have-nots.

"There's still the blowouts in the CW[HL]; there's still the blowouts in the NWHL. There's still give and take," Lamoureux continued, sighing a little.

Much of this inequality has to do with a divide that exists within the NWHL itself: players who are on the national team, and those who aren't. The first group has a significant competitive advantage, one that goes beyond sheer individual talent.

"You have to get a job if you're not on the top end of those [National Team] paychecks," Lamoureux said.

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USA hockey gives its players stipends, ostensibly to allow them flexibility to train. The stipend increases for players who make Olympic rosters. This, combined with earnings from the NWHL (and no national team player signed with the NWHL for less than $15,000), works out to a comfortable salary, one that allows national team players to focus solely on hockey, taking care of their bodies and working out appropriately.

USA hockey players like Hilary Knight make more money from just playing their sport. Photo by Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

For the rest of the players in the NWHL, though, the league's salary structure does not provide enough to live on. Sixteen players make the minimum of $10,000 a year; only one NWHLer––Kelli Stack, a two-time Olympian and forward for the Connecticut Whale––makes the maximum of $25,000. Nearly all national team players signed with the league for $19,000 or more, while only one or two non-national team athletes crossed that threshold. This stretches the disparity between the haves and the have-nots even further.


Although they have more wiggle room than their CWHL counterparts, who are not paid at all, many NWHLers still work full-time jobs and train only when they have practices in the evenings or games on weekends. These players don't have the ability to sleep in late on a certain day, or lift weights when it's convenient for them. Instead, they fit it in what they can around the rest of their lives and jobs.

"It took about two months to start feeling like myself," New York Riveters forward Brooke Ammerman said when the subject of her return to hockey came up. Ammerman, one of the older players on the Riveters at 25, had continued playing after graduating from the University of Wisconsin by heading to Germany and joining a team. She found that life wasn't for her. When the NWHL formed, she submitted her name right away for consideration, but was unprepared for the time commitment required to elevate her skill level to where it had been.

In college, Ammerman scored 241 points in 152 games, well over a point per game. Her 82 goals earned her third place in Wisconsin's record books and she earned a team Offensive Player of the Year award as a sophomore. Germany saw a dominant forward; Ammerman was the leading scorer in the overseas league. However, on the New York Riveters, she scored only 14 points over 15 games; she was the second in points on her team, yet considered her performance a reality check.


"If I was playing every single day, obviously that gets you a new level of play, but that's just not plausible for the majority of this league because people have full-time jobs and other lives to lead," Ammerman said. "We don't have that opportunity that some of the national team players do. That extra level of play is only attainable if it's offered to us, being on the ice six days a week."

As long as there continue to be two tiers of pay, there will also continue to be two tiers of players: those who can afford extra time on the ice or a nutritionist or gym time, and those who live on bagels and pizza, attend training twice a week, and see corresponding results.

"With the time I'm allotted and what I can do, this is as good as it's going to get," said Ammerman, who coaches two different teams full-time in addition to her time on the ice for the Riveters, and is planning offseason camps she will run with her fiancé, as well as a summer wedding. "When I was playing at the University of Wisconsin, there'd be another level to get to. But that's something that's just not on my list of priorities right now because of what I have going on in my life.

"When you break it down, the number of hours you've lost sleep over [it], you know, people are doing it for the love of the game still."

The Pride and the Riveters were unevenly matched throughout the season. Photo NWHL/YouTube

Players themselves see the blowouts and the standings, and they are dissatisfied with the lopsided competition. To many of them, the inequality stems not only from the fact that some teams are stacked with seven or eight national team players while others sport only one, two, or none, but also from the ancillary financial opportunities available to the national team players, such as brand deals.


The Boston Pride, who won the first ever Isobel Cup in the championship finals earlier this month, featured eight national team players, while the Buffalo Beauts, who played the Pride, were home to five, both American and Canadian. The Connecticut Whale and New York Riveters had four and three apiece, but none of New York's national team players were American or Canadian; all came from second- or third-tier national teams, such as Team Japan.

The teams that are more successful will naturally see more dollars come their way in sponsorships, advertising deals, and so on, which lends itself to further income inequality for players. Hilary Knight, captain of the Pride, has deals with three companies already (Nike, Red Bull, and Chobani); as Knight gets even more airtime, she becomes a more familiar name to fans and sells more jerseys. And unlike the NHL, where a revenue-sharing model means jersey profits are split evenly between all players, according to the NWHL's agreement with players for 2015-16, 15 percent of that revenue gets funneled back into the individual player's pocket.

Right now in women's professional hockey, you need money to make money.

"I think we just need to put our lines in the sand aside and figure out if we truly are interested in women's hockey: in the growth, in the development and the players themselves, that they're getting paid and getting the opportunities they need to get," Knight told Today's Slapshot in a March interview. "Not just the national team players, but all the professional hockey players. We need to work together and we need to figure out what that looks like."

A big step towards that growth and parity could be livable salaries for all players. For instance, the WNBA's minimum salary for players with less than two years of experience last year was $38,913, according to the league's CBA. Even though many players go overseas in the offseason to supplement this income, it's at least enough to cover living expenses without requiring young players to hold a second job during the season. The WNBA has also had 20 years to establish its fan base, as well as the support of the NBA's deep pockets. The NWHL is entirely financed by private donors right now, so while its $10,000 minimum salary may seem paltry at best in comparison, perhaps that will improve as the league builds its business.

Of course, livable salaries across the board might not bring complete parity between teams. While lesser players figure to improve through more training, ice time and focus, there's still a skill gap between national team players and everyone else. Moreover, better salaries won't solve the issue of talent clustering on a handful of teams. It's not the job of the national team players to spread themselves out around the league and make their lives more difficult. Boston has been an epicenter for women's hockey players training in between Olympic years; if they choose to sign with the Pride year after year, it's hard to blame them.

The pool of elite collegiate women hockey players is small, and the few opportunities available to women post-graduation doesn't do much to make it bigger. Taking that pool––previously spread over five teams in the CWHL––and adding another four teams in 2015 contributed to overall talent disparity. If younger players begin to see women's hockey as a viable career path, with livable wages and a way to keep improving on the ice, that problem may ultimately solve itself. In the meantime, the NWHL will continue to struggle with competitive balance.