On NWHL salary cuts and playing for the love of the game

Loving hockey and playing for the love of the game aren’t the same thing.

Okay. Let’s talk.

There’s been a lot of information about the NWHL and its player salary cuts in the last 48 hours or so. You can check here for a look at the timeline we’ve compiled with everything we know about the NWHL salary cuts, or you can read some of the players' takes on the situation.

There are roughly 70 rostered players in the NWHL, and not all of them feel the same way about where they should go from here. The Ice Garden spoke to Madison Packer on Saturday about the salary cuts. One of the questions we asked Packer was if she saw a difference in how first-year or second-year players were handling the news.

“I mean, myself and one other player are the only players who differed in their approach to this from the rest of the team. The majority of my teammates are-”

and here she paused for a second before adding,

”-and this isn’t saying that we don’t feel the same way, we’re all grateful for the experience, we’re grateful for the opportunity, we want to see girls’ hockey do well. And that’s kind of the mentality of the majority of my teammates- it has not changed at all from that. This little hiccup is obviously upsetting, but they’re not really letting it get to them.

“For me and a lot of other people I’ve spoken to, who- now that you mention it, the majority of them are second-year players- it’s a frustration with transparency and the way that the situation was handled, the way that a lot of these situations get handled, and we just feel that there’s been a lack of honesty in a lot of it. That being said, I also want to reiterate that I don’t think at any point in time, Dani Rylan or the NWHL set out to screw us over.”

Packer was quick to point out that, while their opinions may have differed, all the players were focused on the same goal: everyone wants to play, and everyone wants to see girls and women’s hockey do well. How they accomplish that goal- well, that’s another story.

This is a league that runs on passion: the passion of the players, the passion of the fans, and the passion of a front office and game day staff that’s mainly run by volunteers.

But when we talk about the NWHL, and women’s sports in general, a phrase that’s thrown around a lot is playing “for the love of the game.” Women in sport are often bound to that tired cliche like it’s a promise: if you truly love the game, you’ll play no matter what. You’ll play on turf instead of grass, you’ll put up with uncomfortable situations surrounding your team, and some will even have to play for free, in front of empty stands in out-of-the-way rinks, and you’ll do it because you love it.

But Packer and others have indicated that, as much as they do love the game, some players  have grown frustrated with this mentality. They’re tired of being asked for the world and not receiving answers in kind. They’re looking for transparency.

The conversation would be much different if male professional athletes didn’t know if they had health insurance, or if Gary Bettman announced that NHL player salaries were being cut in half. And no, we cannot accurately compare women and men’s sports. Men’s leagues have had the luxury of time to grow and develop, while the majority of women’s leagues are just now getting off the ground- the WNBA is the oldest professional women’s sports league at 20 years old.

You cannot pay bills with your passion for the game. You can’t make rent if your check doesn’t come through. And as much as we talk about how this league and these players are building a foundation for little girls, we also have to recognize that the players who are there now may not be able to afford to play.

This feels like a lose-lose situation. Even if the league can meet the demands of the players, some athletes will have to take an honest look at their finances (especially those here on visas) and ask themselves “Can I financially support myself if I continue to play?” Some players may have to leave. Even if they can stay, they’re making a fraction of what they were. If the demands aren’t met…it’s a bleak picture for the league.

Nobody wants this league to fail. Not the fans, not the front office, and especially not the players.

“We don’t want it to go to hell,” said Packer, “and we certainly came out here to try and push it forward, and that’s what we want to continue to do.

“But we also want to make sure we’re protecting ourselves in that process.”

In short, playing simply for the love of the game isn’t enough any more. The players' response shows that, even though they’re as passionate about hockey as much as anyone, they can’t justify playing solely for the love of it, nor should they have to.

If you’re like me, you’re tired of hearing about this. You’re probably worried, you’re upset, and you don’t know what to expect.

I don’t have an answer. I can’t point and say “This is how we can bring in more revenue, this is how we can improve conditions, this is how we can make your job a lifestyle and not a part-time job.”

But the players have taken a step forward. First, it was when they told the league, “We’re going to play here.” Now it’s them saying, “We want to make this work. But not only for the love of the game. For us.”

And by fighting for themselves, they’re still fighting for those who will follow them, too.