The women’s hockey landscape didn’t just tilt in 2019. It was turned upside down and shaken like a Polaroid picture.
From the folding of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League to the upending of the established world order to the game’s stars flexing their collective power and going rogue, many see opportunity in the upheaval.
“I think that what we’re trying to do is very powerful and exciting,” Canadian defender Meaghan Mikkelson said.
“It’s all of the best female players in the world that are coming together to do something that would go down in history.”
The U.S. women’s soccer and hockey teams playing hardball with their own sport federations in recent years emboldened Canadian and European women to take up the mantle of self-determination.
But American forward Kendall Coyne Schofield was the spark in 2019.
Invited to compete against NHL players in the speed lap of the Jan. 25 all-star skills competition in San Jose, Calif., it took her 14.346 seconds to challenge assumptions about women’s hockey and ignite a social-media buzz. Coyne Schofield finished less than a second behind the winner.
A week after the Calgary Inferno won the Clarkson Cup, interim commissioner and Hockey Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford announced March 31 that the CWHL would fold after 12 seasons.
She declared the non-profit model no longer financially sustainable. The majority of players on the Canadian and American national teams played in the CWHL.
They were en route to, or had just landed in, Espoo, Finland for the women’s world championship.
Off the ice, there were meetings and text conversations between players from competing countries on what to do about it.
On the ice, Finland threw a wrench in the notion that international women’s hockey is predictable because the U.S. and Canada play for gold every time.
The host Finns upset Canada in the semifinal and lost the gold to the Americans in a controversial shootout.
Petra Nieminen’s overtime goal was waived off for goaltender interference. The U.S. women claimed a fifth straight world title in the shootout.
Bronze medallist Canada didn’t play in a world final for the first time.
Coyne Schofield, U.S. teammate Hilary Knight, Canadian team captain Marie Philip-Poulin and veteran Finnish goaltender Noora Raty were among 200 players stating in May they would not play in any North American league in 2019-20 until “we get the resources that professional hockey demands and deserves.”
Both a boycott, and a shot across the bow, of the five-team, U.S.-based NWHL, it’s also a move to force the NHL’s hand.
The women who formed the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, with Hefford at the helm, believe the NHL’s involvement is necessary to achieving the league they envision.
But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says the league has no interest in operating a women’s league while one still exists.
PWHPA players are without a league during the current standoff.
They’re barnstorming throughout North America in “The Dream Gap Tour” playing each other in showcase tournaments and exhibition games.
Their goal is to win hearts and minds in hockey markets, as well as attract sponsors to give them economic clout for whatever comes next.
“This year I don’t think has been easy for anybody, not playing as many games and not having the structure of a league that you would normally be used to, but if things work out in the end and there is a professional women’s league then it will all be worth it, not just for us but for future generations,” Mikkelson said.
“Sure there is doubt and there is uncertainty, but I would say more than anything, just the empowerment and the movement that we’re trying to create, it’s exciting.”
Unrest in the women’s hockey ranks spread to Sweden. The top players are boycotting the national team over compensation and working conditions.
The walkout forced the cancellation of the annual Four Nations tournament involving Canada, the U.S., Finland and Sweden because the Swedes were to be the host team in November.
Halifax and Truro, N.S., are the host cities of the 2020 women’s world hockey championship March 31 to April 10.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press