The Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) blew everyone’s doors off earlier this month with the announcement that it will be expanding to China with a sixth team. However, it also blew right past one of women’s hockey’s biggest questions: will the players be paid?
For now, the answer is still both “yes” and “no.” International signees to China’s Kunlun Red Star—which so far are Kelli Stack, Noora Räty, and Zoe Hickel—will be paid as “sport ambassadors,” helping to grow the game on the ice and off it. It stands to reason that if those players agreed to move their entire lives across the world, they would receive a living wage—and Raty has indicated that it’s the most she’ll have been paid in her career—but the question remains for the CWHL’s five North American teams.
Commissioner Brenda Andress had previously stated that this upcoming season was the soft target to pay players a salary and she and the league communications staff have said that they remain on target. Whether that means paying the players just an elevated rate from past years, when travel, equipment and performance bonuses were paid out, or a base salary, which would allow players to quit their day jobs, is still up in the air.
It’s apparent that CWHLers were not part of the decision to expand, nor do they know when they’ll receive the equivalent pay to that of KRS players. The Chinese club is backed by an ownership group, as well as Hockey China, which is investing its own money into not only the team, but in China’s future prospects for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games. CWHL teams are not owned by private investors, making bi-weekly paychecks a tricky proposition.
What do the players think of this? Big questions abound, but support for the decision to expand and faith that the league is on the right track is evident. Most, if not all of the players, found out about expansion when the public did, at the June 5th announcement at Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame. Travel logistics is one of the big questions players have, since they have part- and full-time jobs that will have to be somehow put on hold while they’re out of the country for a week or more at a time.
I spoke with four players from the Boston Blades and Calgary Inferno, while still hoping to hear from Montreal, Toronto, and Brampton. Iya Gavrilova, 29, moved her life from her home in Russia to play hockey in the U.S. and now Canada with the Inferno. Jacquie Pierri, 27, also of the Inferno, related her experience traveling to Japan for an exhibition with the team last year and shared some of her concerns. Megan Myers, 25, and Dru Burns, 26, (a close friend of Stack’s), both of the Blades have played under Digit Murphy, who’s set to coach KRS this year. Burns, incredibly, has family and friends in east Asia who’ve never seen her play hockey and who can now arrange to finally do so.
The following are their thoughts on expansion and the prospect of paid salaries.
How did you find out about expansion and what did you think?
Pierri: I have a lot of questions about what some of the practicalities will look like. But as a women's league and as a group that's still growing and trying to make a name for itself, I think you have to take bold steps like this. I'm really happy our leadership has done that because if we don't take bold steps like this, we're just gonna stay in the status quo, and that's not good enough right now.
Myers: My first reaction was, “Holy cow, that’s huge.” It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A lot of our team has enjoyed the press coverage of it or just imagining playing hockey across the world. I found out via the press conference. I called my parents right away.
Burns: My friend, Julie Allen (Toronto Furies) went to the press conference and was texting me live updates.
Gavrilova: It's great for our league, it's great for women's hockey, not just in Canada but all around the world. I think it's good for development.
Thoughts on KRS paying its players
Pierri: To be frank, [KRS players being paid as ambassadors] is a loophole, but they're just opening the door for an opportunity for those girls that I'm not gonna complain about, that's for sure. I think it [reveals] some questions about logistics. I'm not sure what's going to happening with salaries this year. It's a tough call, right? I don't ever want to see anyone held back because the rest of the group isn't ready to be paid. If that means that a few of us aren't getting the same opportunities for a few years...
Gavrilova: We’re hoping for [salaries] year after year, but it’s a very complicated question. Who knows if [KRS] brings more exposure to the league, maybe we’ll have new sponsors.
Burns: To ask someone to pick up their life and relocate around the world, it's only fair to give them some money. That's a life-altering move. That's fair, I'm not offended by that at all. I have full faith in the CWHL working it out so that other players are compensated as well. I don't think they're not going to pay attention to that, it's a priority for them. I trust Brenda, I trust the league. You have to do it at the right time and not too early when it might not work out.
Myers: The CWHL has brought me a long way and I have trust in what their process is and I always have. When they made [this decision], my first instinct was to trust them. It would have been cool to be part of the decision process, but we're here to play hockey and I believe in full force what they're doing.
Every girl growing up wanting to play hockey wants to get paid to play hockey, that's the dream. That's still the dream. I'm gonna continue to play the game I love, paid or not. Getting paid would be a bonus for me. [I'm] able to hang out at the rink all day with my best friends, playing the best hockey in the world.
Pierri: I'm a mechanical engineer, and in the past it's been tricky being able to get vacation time [away from work]. The schedule being released will really help me at the office to plan. I do work full-time, it's not critical for me, but it's an important step for creating some legitimacy in our league and opening doors for future generations.
[Travel logistics] is one of my biggest questions for the league. For me, that Japan trip, while it was an amazing opportunity, it wore me out. During hockey season, it's really easy to get worn down and additional travel and additional games will be a new challenge. But I don't think that's a reason not to do this. I think it's a net benefit.
[Japan] was an incredible experience for us. Traveling as a team is really unique and it brought us closer together. Hockey was very specific to one area in Japan and I think we're going to see that in China as well.
Burns: The hardest part is getting the days off work. I'm fortunate that my boss loves hockey. He loves that I play in the CWHL, he's totally behind me doing things for the Blades and for the league. I think it's important everyone puts the effort in to get over there because it's not just about getting to play hockey in China but it's also a life experience.
Gavrilova: It's gonna be tough because I'm also working full-time and playing for the national team.
Myers: Looking forward to playing there will surmount all of the other things that come with it.
Growing the game
Burns: It's going to be really important for Olympic exposure, and it's always important that women's hockey showcases a good tournament.
Pierri: I think it's wonderful that one of [China's] main goals is to expand options for young girls and guys in China to find hockey.
Would you consider moving to China to play?
Pierri: A lot of us, when we came out of college, considered [playing in] Europe or Russia and it's exciting to have another option. If I was coming out of college as a recent graduate, I would have jumped at that opportunity. Now, I'm pretty established in my career and it would be a bigger jump for me at this point.
Burns: It's a really tough question and I think it shows a lot about the person and how much they care about the growth of the game, that they're gonna take the chance and put their faith in the league. It's a leap, you know? Kelli [Stack’s] gonna have fun over there and I wish she was on my team but I'm excited to see her and play against her. But I couldn't imagine making that decision.
What are your impression of Digit Murphy? How will she perform as coach of KRS?
Myers: Digit is very intelligent, has tons of skill, has lots of connections in the hockey world, she's a great coach. She's been growing the game of hockey for a while.
Burns: She's just a ball of energy, she loves women's hockey, and she wants to do everything she can to grow the game for the next generation. When you see someone like that involved, you just feed off of that.
Pierri: She’s the perfect person for it. She's got the energy and the determination to make it happen and not take no for an answer.