FILE - Canada forward Brianne Jenner and Finland forward Noora Tulus collide with Finland goaltender Noora Räty during third period of 2018 Four Nations Cup preliminary game in Saskatoon, Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards)

Game on: Women’s hockey union takes 1st tangible step in Toronto

Stars played in the inaugural Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association ‘Dream Gap Tour’

The reality of what the new women’s pro hockey union was launching didn’t resonate with Brianne Jenner until she came out of the locker room and saw the crowd — many of them young girls — in the stands of the 700-seat arena.

The leap of faith taken by the Canadian national team forward and more than 200 other top players — a pledged in May to not compete professionally in North America this season while demanding a single economically viable league — took its first tangible step in Toronto over the weekend.

The stars played in the inaugural Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association “Dream Gap Tour” stop, which featured some 80 Canadian players split over four teams for a two-day tournament.

“I think going into today I underestimated how special it was going to be, being on the ice and when you felt the crowd,” Jenner said after the team named after her defeated Team (Rebecca) Johnston 4-3 in the opening game.

“I think the cheers that we heard were something bigger than just a hockey game. There was a lot of passion in that rink,” she added. “Last spring, when we had the announcement of the (Canadian Women’s Hockey League) folding, I don’t think too many of us thought we’d have this kind of event put together in the short time that we did. So to see the talent out there, to see the fans supporting us, it was a pretty special day.”

READ MORE: 200 pro women hockey players form union in step toward league

Historic, perhaps as well, Jenner added, because it provided players validation that they just might be on to something.

“It’s knowing what we’re doing is something that’s bigger than ourselves,” said fellow national team member Kacey Bellamy. “And 50 years from now, we’re going to look back and say, ‘Wow, we started this.’”

Though it might be premature for anyone to get ahead of themselves, the tour got off to a solid start.

The game began with a ceremonial faceoff featuring Hockey Night in Canada television fixtures Don Cherry and Ron MacLean, and PWHPA executive and Hockey Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford. And it ended with Jenna McParland stuffing in a rebound to break a 3-3 tie with 3:20 remaining.

Just as important was the turnout, both games were played in front of a mostly packed arena with single-game tickets costing $15.

More impressive was the large collection of corporate sponsors the union assembled to not only pay for the players’ travel, lodging and food, but also outfit them with jerseys and track suits emblazoned with the PWHPA logo.

Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, served as the title sponsor, and has also committed to paying for the four Canada-based teams’ practice times. Adidas provided the clothes. Budweiser was on board, while also offering up a lounge for fans. The NHL Players’ Association provided enough of a commitment to have its logo placed on the upper right chest of the jerseys.

Other sponsors included Secret, Bauer, Tim Hortons and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The “Dream Gap” name of the barn-storming tour represents the missing link for young girls who fear being limited to competing in college or the Olympics while never having a shot to play professionally.

READ MORE: Olympian brings women empowerment in sports to the Okanagan

The PWHPA is also made up of U.S. and European players and has already scheduled tour stops in New Hampshire and Chicago next month with more in the planning stages. American players also made their union debuts this weekend by playing games against Boston College and San Jose Sharks alumni.

Hefford, who served as the CWHL interim commissioner when it folded last spring, estimated the PWHPA has already attracted more financial support from sponsors than the Canadian league did in its final year.

“Companies are coming on I believe because they’ve come to understand the current circumstance of the game where you have a player like Marie-Philip Poulin or a Hilary Knight making $3,000 a year. People didn’t understand that,” Hefford said.

The players’ movement was borne out of the CWHL’s demise after a 12-year run in which it out-grew its limitations in relying on volunteers and how much it could pay players under Canadian tax laws. Another issue was players accepting the status quo of little-to-no compensation, with players spending their own money on everything from tape to airport parking for away games.

Sarah Nurse was dismayed by the playing conditions during her one CWHL season after completing her four-year college career at Wisconsin. She noted Badgers players were treated far better than the pros.

“When I came to the CWHL and I saw everybody so satisfied with what they had, it shocked me and it made me sad because it was like, ‘You guys, we’re so much better than this,’” Nurse said. “So when the CWHL folded it was honestly just the kick in the butt we needed to really put this thing in motion.”

READ MORE: Top women’s hockey player Natalie Spooner coming to the Okanagan

What remains unclear is what the women’s pro hockey landscape will resemble a year from now, and whether the PWHPA can generate enough momentum to gain the attention of the game’s stakeholders, in particular Hockey Canada, USA Hockey and the NHL. Another question is the stability of the five-team, U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League, which is embarking on its fifth season without many of its most high-profile players.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to be viewed as “a bully” in pushing a women’s league out of business. He’s also said the NHL doesn’t believe in either of the league’s business models. Though the NHL provides funds to the NWHL, the league is mostly backed by private investors.

The players are pushing for the NHL to step in because it can provide them stability and the necessary infrastructure — from marketing to man-power — to promote and grow women’s hockey.

“It’s not about them just doing us a favour,” Hefford said of the NHL. “We bring content. We bring diversity and inclusion. We bring some entertainment value that people love.”

Though Jenner said every option is on the table, the NWHL isn’t considered a realistic option with players having already gone through the disappointment of the CWHL folding.

“It’s not about someone coming in and saying, ‘I have $20 million. I want to start a pro league, beautiful’” Hefford said. “That’s not what these players want. They want something that they know in 10 years, 15 years, 20 years down the road is going to be there, and it’s going to continue to grow and it’s going to be strong. So to me, you need that infrastructure and we never had that with the CWHL.”

John Wawrow, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Just Posted

Castlegar mural defaced with swastika

RCMP do not suspect that the graffiti was the act of a hate group.

How local candidates are using Facebook to advertise directly to you

Liberal campaign is the biggest spender on Facebook ads in South Okanangan–West Kootenay

Kootenay-Columbia candidates attend Creston Valley Chamber of Commerce 2019 election forum

About 120 people attended the Creston Valley Chamber of Commerce 2019 election forum on Oct. 16 at the Prince Charles Theatre.

Inquest planned in death of Peter de Groot

It’s been five years since the Slocan man was shot by RCMP

South Okanagan-West Kootenay candidates talk climate change and environment at recent forum

Forum on Tuesday grilled candidates about plan to bring about low carbon emission economy

VIDEO: First all-female spacewalk team makes history

NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir did work on International Space Station’s power grid

Zantac, the over-the-counter heartburn drug, pulled in Canada, U.S.

Health Canada also investigates possible carcinogen in some ranitidine drugs

B.C. public safety minister says cannabis edibles not in stores til January

Mike Farnworth says he wants regional issues considered when it comes to licensing

Greta Thunberg calls for climate action in Alberta, but doesn’t talk oilsands

Swedish teen was met with some oil and gas industry supporters who came in a truck convoy

Scheer denies spreading ‘misinformation’ in predicting unannounced Liberal taxes

Conservative leader had claimed that a potential NDP-Liberal coalition could lead to a hike in GST

Council asks to limit cruise ship visits to Victoria harbour

Mayor says motion is not meant to curtail current visits or limit local cruise industry expansion

Chilliwack man pleads guilty in crash that killed pregnant woman

Frank Tessman charged under Motor Vehicle Act for accident that killed Kelowna school teacher

Delays at railroad crossing in Kootenay town cause for concern

About 1870 Fernie residents are temporarily isolated when the train passes through town

Kawhi Leonard, former Toronto Raptor, welcomed back to Vancouver at pre-season game

Fans go wild at pre-season game between L.A. Clippers and Dallas Mavericks at Rogers Arena

Most Read