Playing at even strength: NWHL's quest for respect, fair wages
Kaleigh Fratkin (third from right) on the bench with teammates at the NWHL All-Star skills competition in Buffalo, New York. (Photo: Michael Majewski / NWHL)
Michael Shulman, CTVNews.ca
Published Tuesday, March 8, 2016 6:00AM EST
Kaleigh Fratkin was 23 years old, in the supposed prime of her hockey-playing career, but she was being pushed out of the game she loved.
Last spring, the native of Burnaby, B.C., failed to make the cut for Canada's national women's hockey team for the world championship in Sweden -- after making its Fall Festival and training camp rosters -- effectively shutting the door on her lifelong Olympic aspirations.
And while the defencewoman was coming off a strong year for the Boston Blades in the Canadian Women's Hockey League, the CWHL does not give its players financial compensation.
Faced with the prospect of playing for free, with no money from Olympic competitions at the end of the tunnel, Fratkin believed her career was over.
"At that point in time, I was realizing that … I was going to be forced out of competitive hockey. The door for me to play competitively … was being closed," said Fratkin, who had won a silver medal at the 2009 World Women's Under-18 Championship.
But, as it turned out, Fratkin would get another shot, and she wouldn't have to retire her stick and skates to rec leagues and shinny just yet.
On April 8, 2015, former NCAA hockey player Dani Rylan announced the formation of the National Women's Hockey League. It had franchises in four U.S. cities across the northeast, and the promise of paycheques -- something that had never been done before in professional women's hockey in North America. The league attracted a wave top talent from across the continent.
Fratkin signed with the Connecticut Whale on July 1, for US$20,000. She described as a "no-brainer" move.
The 23-year-old had started a master's degree in sports leadership at Boston's Northeastern University, but took a leave of absence to pursue her dream.
"Hockey has been a huge part of my life. So, for me to give up hockey completely, I knew that wasn't going to be in the cards," she said.
The puck dropped for the league's inaugural season in September, and Fratkin made an appearance in the NWHL's first All-Star Game in January, after being among the league leaders in scoring.
Kaleigh Fratkin at the NWHL All-Star skills competition in Buffalo, New York. (Photo: Michael Majewski / NWHL)
If you've made it to "The Show" -- the National Hockey League -- you'll play in front of big crowds, get big-time sponsorships and make big-league salaries. In 2013-14, the average NHL player made $2.58 million.
But players in the NWHL face a starkly different reality: the average salary is $15,000 -- with the potential to cash in on 15 per cent of jersey sales with their names emblazoned on the back -- and the league's stadiums see crowds of about 900 fans per game.
Their salaries seem paltry in comparison to their male counterparts in the NHL, but Fratkin says the league has been a "saving grace" for her and other elite players not on national team rosters.
"For a lot of people's careers it has allowed them to continue the sport beyond college and give themselves the opportunity to make money at the same time," said Fratkin, who spent four years playing for the Boston University Terriers while earning an undergraduate degree in journalism.
"A lot of girls have to give up the sport at such a young age, before you even hit your prime," she added.
A paycheque from the NWHL means Fratkin can treat hockey like a profession: she gets paid to attend team workouts, paid to attend practices and paid to work on her craft.
"It is a lot of work and it is draining," said Fratkin, reflecting on the challenges facing players who balance full-time jobs and university with playing professionally for no pay.
"If you want to compare it to the working world, like people going to work and not getting paid, for how many years can you do that?"
That doesn't mean life in the newly formed league is easy. Most players have to work 9-5 jobs to subsidize their income -- Fratkin coaches youth hockey -- and then attend practice sessions that last late into the evening.
But ultimately, Rylan, the NWHL's commissioner, says paying the players even a "small salary" is about "respect."
"They're too good to be ignored … To go from competing at the highest NCAA level, or even the international level playing for the national team, to going to a men's league or another post-collegiate option … is kind of sad when you think about it," said Rylan.
"When you work your whole life to be the best at what you're doing and there's a market for it -- you can sell tickets, you can sell merchandise and there's a business around it -- there's no reason for these athletes not to get paid for being the best."
Rylan said the league's salaries were a "first step," and eventually hopes it will bring in more sponsorships and hockey-related revenue to the point where players won't need to hold down secondary jobs. The NWHL currently employs a salary cap that limits teams' collective salaries to $270,000. There is also a maximum of $25,000 for individual salaries, and a minimum of $10,000.
The league has a sponsorship deal with Dunkin Donuts, as well as broadcast agreements with NESN and ESPN3.
The average NHL player made $2.58 million in 2013-14.
The average NWHL player made $15,000.
The NWHL's inaugural season is in the midst of wrapping up, with the playoffs slated to conclude this week. The winning team will take home the Isobel Cup.
And despite some difficulties -- including Denna Laing suffering a spinal injury during part of the NHL's Winter Classic -- Rylan is optimistic about the league's future.
Over the course of the season so far, Rylan says the teams developed "passionate" followings that consistently show up for games on a weekly basis.
The NWHL set up its four teams in the northeastern United States in an effort to tap into existing hockey hotbeds. It also allowed the league to save money by using buses instead of planes to transport teams.
"That's something we want to grow upon, and we obviously want to sell more tickets, but at the end of the day we're not looking to sell out Madison Square Garden," said Rylan.
"We're looking to pack small (major) junior-like hockey rinks and create an atmosphere that makes the fans want to come back."
While Rylan said the NWHL is "considering" possible expansion to cities across the U.S. and Canada, she said the focus remains on making its founding-four markets "as successful as possible."
Meanwhile, Fratkin's vision of the league includes financial backing from the NHL, as well as expansion and a merger with the CWHL, which also says it is working towards paying its players for the 2017-18 season.
"I think when that happens, that's going to be the real deal and that's going to be the one league that every player can aspire to play in," said Fratkin.
The NWHL receives no financial support from the NHL. However, Rylan says the NWHL brand received a "boost" from the exposure of its outdoor game at this year's Winter Classic, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has expressed support for women's hockey.
This stands in opposition to the NBA, which spent more than $10 million a year to help keep the WNBA afloat during the mid-2000s.
One of the biggest challenges facing the NWHL is capitalizing on the momentum from the Winter Olympics. Rylan says there's often a "post-Olympic hangover," where the stars of women's hockey teams go from heroes to zeros nearly overnight.
Rylan said the players didn't previously have a way to maintain their status in the sports world.
"That was a huge part of starting this league, to provide a platform for these players to shine between those Olympic years.
"There's been this preconceived notion that these women can't be professional athletes, and as soon as the exposure has increased for these players, the opportunity and the fan base has grown with it," she added, citing UFC fighter Ronda Rousey and Serena Williams as examples of female athletes who have become household names after getting a stage for their talents.
And it is through this new platform that Rylan, and players like Fratkin, hope to inspire the next generation of women and girls to take up the sport.
The league's commissioner grew up idolizing Canadian goaltender Manon Rheaume who tried out for the Tampa Bay Lightning of the NHL, and later suited up in two exhibition games for the club. Rylan herself dreamed of becoming the first defencewoman to play for the Lightning.
She said one of her proudest moments this season came during the Buffalo Beauts' home opener when she spotted a young girl holding a sign that said "2027 NWHL first-round draft pick."
"(It showed) this league is not only affecting the generation that gets to play and get paid for the first time, but also that next generation who will not know any other way and they can dream of being a professional hockey player too," she said.