The women stole the show at All-Star weekend — now how does it lead to something bigger for women’s hockey?
By Hailey Salvian Jan 30, 2019
The moment Kendall Coyne Schofield was told she would be the first woman to compete in an NHL All-Star skills competition, she knew she was being given the opportunity to do something special for women’s hockey.
“It really resonated with me that this is going to be huge, this is going to break a lot of barriers, this is going to open a lot of doors, and this is going to change the way people perceive women’s and girls’ hockey,” Coyne Schofield said.
She was right. In a blazing 14.346 second lap around the rink in the fastest skater competition, the U.S. Olympian changed the conversation around women’s hockey.
Then, late Friday and into Saturday social media lit up over Brianna Decker, who demonstrated the accuracy passing event and was believed to have recorded a time better than Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl, who won the event and a $25,000 prize. A #PayDecker campaign was ignited online, and eventually hockey equipment company CCM announced it would pay Decker $25,000 for her performance in the drill.
The NHL’s inclusion of Coyne Schofield, Decker and Canadian players Renata Fast and Rebecca Johnston in the All-Star festivities stole the spotlight from the league’s own stars, and put it on the women’s game.
Even after the skills competition was over, the spotlight remained on the women, as adidas announced a partnership with all four players, and the NHL announced it would give them each $25,000 to donate to a charity of their choice.
While the events of the weekend are still making waves, including women in the All-Star festivities is not entirely new for the NHL. Last year the league invited Hilary Knight, Amanda Kessel and Meghan Duggan to demonstrate skills too. Similar to Decker’s demonstration, a fan took video of Knight’s demonstration of the accuracy shooting and clocked her in at 11.640 seconds, ranking third among players and beating Penguins star Sidney Crosby. The video got some traction online, but once the weekend was over, nobody really talked about it anymore.
So, after the tremendous events of this weekend, the question remains: How does women’s hockey keep the momentum going and not let this be another quickly-forgotten moment? Here are five strategies to consider.
Create one unified league
Once All-Star weekend wrapped up, The Athletic asked almost a dozen stakeholders in women’s hockey if the events in San Jose could lead to something bigger for the game. The majority of the answers came back with a mention of creating one league.
Fast, who plays for the Toronto Furies in the CWHL, said what happened over the weekend was “a huge step in the right direction,” but women’s hockey can’t reach its full potential until there is a single league with all the best players.
“I feel like it’s only a matter of time women’s hockey really starts to take off. And obviously, that first step is having one league,” she said.
While one league is the goal, right now, women’s hockey is divided. There are two leagues in North America, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, in its 12th season, and the National Women’s Hockey League, in its fourth. Both league commissioners have said having one league is best for the game, but a merger is easier said than done as both leagues have different business models.
After seeing the response to her performance, Coyne Schofield said she thinks “the sky is the limit,” for the women’s game.
“I am so excited for what comes next, whether it’s more women competing in the skills competitions, whether it’s a women’s team in the All-Star Game, or seeing one league come together for the future of our game professionally,” she said.
The future of the game that Coyne Schofield is looking forward to depends on the forces of both leagues combining – it’s as simple as that. Right now, with two leagues, the talent is diluted across 11 teams. But, if a league could replicate Olympic intensity with the best players playing night in and night out, eyeballs could follow.
Decker, who plays for the Calgary Inferno in the CWHL, said she hopes by next fall there is only one league to play in.
“Who knows if that is going to happen,” she said. “But I do know that us national team players on the Canadian side and the U.S. side, that is our goal is to get one league that is going to be sustainable for us to play in.”
One of the key pieces in creating one league is Dani Rylan the founder and commissioner of the NWHL.
Rylan said the NHL’s inclusion of the four women was a “landmark moment for hockey” and she “loved it.” When asked if it could lead to something bigger she said “it should,” and hinted at what needs to happen for the two leagues to become one.
“Every moment like this fundamentally changes the conversation surrounding women’s hockey,” Rylan said. “Now it’s up to the stakeholders in the game, and anyone who wants to join us and get behind pro women’s hockey with real investment, to figure it out.”
NHL needs to invest in a women’s league
In the aftermath of this weekend, if women’s hockey ultimately gets to one league, the next step in growing the game would be to combine with the NHL to create a WNHL, if you will.
The NHL carries a marketing power and viewership that the CWHL and NWHL combined aren’t anywhere close to. If the skills contest was any indication of the power of the partnership, women’s hockey could grow exponentially if it ends up under the NHL umbrella.
“If we could work with (the NHL) in the future to take a further step to create one league and have the NHL behind our back that would be awesome,” Decker said.
Commissioner Gary Bettman has publicly expressed support of one women’s league, so it is no surprise that when players talk about one league, the idea of the NHL being involved quickly follows.
The NHL commissioner has made it clear he is not interested in competing with either of the two leagues and that the league would not get involved until there is a single women’s league. But still, Fast is optimistic the NHL will eventually get involved.
“I think they made it clear with the message that they sent and the attention that they gave us that they want to work with us, and that they want to be more inclusive to the women’s game,” she said. “I think it was kind of a statement that they are with us and they want to help out.”
She said while in San Jose she and the other three players met with the NHLPA and Bettman and had discussions about the future and Bettman’s desire to help grow the game.
“Obviously, things can’t happen overnight, but I think we had positive communication while we were there,” Fast said.
“To have the support that the NHL gave women’s hockey this past weekend is such a positive statement and I think it just goes to show it’s bound to happen, that the relationship is bound to flourish with the NHL and that’s going to really bring women’s hockey and the entire game of hockey, both men’s and women’s, to new heights.”
Fans need to step up
The NHL should be congratulated for showcasing women’s hockey over the weekend, but now it’s up to the fans to truly make a difference, said Brenda Andress former commissioner of the CWHL and the founder of SheIs, an organization that seeks to grow women’s sport.
“(The NHL) showcased wonderful, talented women and showed everybody out there who says ‘girls aren’t as good as the boys,’ that they are just as good,” she said.
“And now it’s up to us as individuals to not say somebody else should fix it, but to go and fix it by going and watching Brianna Decker when she is in Calgary, when she comes to Montreal, when she comes to Toronto. To watch Kendall in the NW, to just go to the games!”
Andress said everyone who tweeted #PayDecker should now get off their computers and pay her with their actions.
“If fans really want to make a difference, if they really want to stand up and say those women should be paid, or those women deserve this, then go to a game and support them in their own rink,” she said. “Because if you show up there and the attendance grows, sponsorship grows, broadcasting grows then the women get paid.”
Andress said its time to stop asking the NHL and other stakeholders to pay tens of thousands of dollars. It’s time for people to step up on their own.
“We just had an All-Star Game here in Toronto with the best women across North America, and it wasn’t sold out. It was an opportunity to stand up and support women, and they didn’t,” she said.
“You can’t blame sponsors because they can’t take the jump until fans do.”
Sponsorships with big brands
While it is important for fans to step up, there is still a need for sponsors to support the game too. Over the weekend, adidas and CCM made massive moves to support women’s hockey, and it’s sponsors like them that will ultimately help grow the game by giving players an extra platform to tell their stories.
CWHL commissioner and Hockey Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford said it’s important that brands like adidas and CCM partner with the players to help grow their profile.
“It always comes back to the idea of visibility and having people know the players and getting invested in them as stars and stars in our league,” she said.
“This is how we sell the game, is through these great athletes that we have and we need more people (sponsors) to help tell those stories.”
Dan Near, the senior director of adidas Hockey, said the company is “thrilled” to be partnering with the four players who participated in the skills competitions. He would not disclose specific details of the partnerships, but said framework is consistent with what their NHL athletes – the likes of Crosby, Connor McDavid and PK Subban – receive.
“Female participation and access to sport is important to adidas,” he said. “Hopefully with global brands taking an interest, the scale and frequency of women’s hockey initiatives enhance the everyday conversation and ultimately provide sports fans with more exposure to the sport.”
CCM is on the same page as adidas and Hefford. Senior brand marketing manager for the company, Eric Bannon, said CCM is wholly committed to growing the women’s game.
“Specifically to the women’s game, we want to help elevate the profile of these athletes,” he said.
Bannon said CCM has a women’s task force, comprised of a number of female employees with a passion for the women’s game, who’s job is to identify opportunities where CCM can help elevate the profile of the women’s game. For example, paying Decker, and signing Furies stand-out rookie Sarah Nurse to their roster of players.
Andress said sponsors won’t jump until fans do, but brands like CCM and adidas that take the jump to support women’s hockey are going to be a key player in the growth of the game, and continue that momentum. But, there needs to be more than just a handful of them.
“Women’s hockey is growing fast,” said Bannon. “So if I could give advice to (a company that isn’t sponsoring women’s hockey) I would say to them ‘do it, and do it now.’”
Players need to promote themselves
Finally, the easiest way for women’s hockey to continue the momentum from NHL All-Star weekend is to use social media. It may seem unfair considering the marketing power of the NHL, but the reality of the women’s game is that players need to market themselves. They need to tweet about their games, post videos of their highlights and sell themselves to fans and doubters alike.
“The power of social media cannot be overstated,” said AJ Mleczko, a two-time Olympic medallist with Team USA turned NBC broadcaster.
“Without social media, we wouldn’t even have known Brianna’s time. So, when you look at things like Twitter that is something that has really helped increase the speed at which these athletes are recognized.”
Andress agreed that to keep the momentum going, social media from the four players and two leagues needs to be massive.
“They have to highlight those players; their names are everywhere right now,” she said.
“Those four players have done more in a short time this calendar year than anybody can pay for. It’s about utilizing what happened, and utilizing what the NHL has done.”
Decker, who said she saw an uptick of 4,000 Instagram followers this weekend, said players don’t promote themselves on social media enough.
“I don’t think it’s a disappointment though, I just think we get wrapped up in performance stuff and how we are doing and making sure that we are winning games,” she said.
“It’s not a bad thing that we aren’t as active on social media, but I definitely think we can do a bit more of that.”
If players can continue the positive conversation around women’s hockey that was sparked this weekend, realistically, they could be able to carry the momentum from the All-Star Game into the Canada-USA rivalry series in February, then to respective league’s playoffs, and then hopefully into the World Championships in April.
Editor’s note: Dani Rylan’s comments were added to this story after it was initially published.