If the NWHL had a trophy equivalent to the NHL’s Lady Byng, there’s a good chance that Rebecca Russo would have won it. In 55 career regular season and playoff games Russo has taken just a single minor penalty. More importantly, the speedy, maximum-effort winger has twice been named an NWHL All-Star. The quality and style of her play and her enthusiasm with fans of all ages off of the ice has made her one of the league’s most popular players.
Russo is a member of a select group of players who have taken their games to a new level in the NWHL. The most visible player of that group is undoubtedly Northeastern alumna Hayley Scamurra, who earned a spot on the United States women’s national team as a result of her outstanding play on the wing for the Buffalo Beauts. Scamurra took the #ForTheGame pledge on social media; Russo did not.
Russo isn’t alone. 2018 MVP Alexa Gruschow and Connecticut Whale captain Emily Fluke are other breakout NWHL stars who have not taken the #ForTheGame pledge, but have also yet to sign on for another year of NWHL hockey.
In reality, many of the players who are in neither the PWHPA or the NWHL camp are undecided or uncertain because they have to be. It’s no small thing to pledge yourself to a 24-game season with two practices each week, especially when many of your teammates and peers are boycotting the league itself.
The question marks surrounding Russo and others should remind us of the large gray area in the debate that is currently shaping the climate of professional women’s hockey.
So many of us want to think of this situation as binary — you’re either in the PWHPA and you’re For The Game, or you’re not. But that reductionist perspective is problematic. It fails to take into consideration factors like finances, relationships, peer pressure, and other conflicting interests. In truth, grouping players like Russo, Fluke, and others who have yet to disclose their decision and/or intentions together can be problematic. It neglects to consider each individual’s reasons and/or decision to remain undecided.
How many players have abstained from making the #ForTheGame pledge because they aren’t active on social media or because they need more time to think this over? How many chose not to make a statement because they quietly retired or knew they couldn’t play next year, regardless of their opinion? How many of them are waiting for other pieces of their life to fall into place?
We may want to know where every professional player stands on the “PWHPA or NWHL” matter, but that doesn’t mean we get to know. Every individual has the right to make their own decision at their own time — and, yes, being undecided is a valid decision that we need to acknowledge and respect.
It may sound obvious, but the quality of the NWHL’s product for the 2019-20 season will come down to breakout stars like Russo. She and others stood out in the 2017-18 season when USWNT players were in residency for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang. That year, we learned a lot about the depth of talent in women’s hockey. With or without Russo and other NWHL veterans, we are going to learn more about that depth next season.
One final note: there hadn’t been an NWHL signing for two weeks before Grace Klienbach signed with the Connecticut Whale on July 15. When Klienbach signed, skeptics took to social media to question the validity of a fifth NWHL season with just 32 players currently under contract. For the record, 32 of the players who signed NWHL contracts last offseason signed in August and September.
As things currently stand, chances are good that we’ll have a 2019-20 NWHL season. But, just like it always has, it will take some time for it all to come together.
Editor’s note: a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Amanda Boulier had not signed in the NWHL yet, when in fact she had. We have corrected the article to reflect that.