Activism in sports is not a new concept. Athletes have been using their platforms for decades and while it's taken the leagues longer to get on board, professional sports putting its weight behind social issues is more common than it's ever been. Just think of theme nights and specialty jersey auctions designed to raise funds for local nonprofits, or a league rallying around a cause like Hockey Fights Cancer.
Since we're only a month into the inaugural PWHL season, we don't yet know what the league and individual teams have planned around getting involved with the issues in their communities. Here are five organizations well worth their time and interest.
Native Women’s Association of Canada
Indigenous women in Canada and all over the world face a unique set of challenges caused by racism, violence, settler colonialism, genocide, and generation trauma, to name a few issues. The Native Women's Association of Canada works to "enhance, promote, and foster the social, economic, cultural, and political well-being of Indigenous women, girls, Two-Spirit, transgender, and gender-diverse people in their respective communities and Canadian societies."
No one expects a hockey league to end the oppression of Native people. That said, it would be nice to see this league acknowledge Indigenous fans and players alike by building bridges and working towards a better future for Native peoples of all genders.
Trans Lifeline is "a grassroots hotline and microgrants 501(c)(3) non-profit organization offering direct emotional and financial support to trans people in crisis – for the trans community, by the trans community." They focus on community care through funding, education, crisis help, and so much more.
Maybe partnering with a transgender advocacy group would get the league off their asses about releasing the gender inclusion policy they've been promising for months. Their silence on the issue has become the story: The Ice Garden's very own Mike Murphy and others have been asking the PWHL about the policy since as early as September 2023. Murphy was told by PWHL Communications Director Paul Krotz via email on December 5th, "I’m told the league’s policy is on track for the commencement of the season and will be published when ready." They were contacted for comment four more times between December and the end of January.
A progress pride flag with the trans colors was hung between the league's banners at the inaugural game on January 1st, yet there's still nary a whiff of the policy in sight.
The PWHL isn't short on players who are out of the closet, but most of those players are "safe" in that they're femme-presenting cisgender, easy to market white women. Their appearances are corporate-friendly, digestible, and binary in a way that the reality of queer life often is not. As much as the league might wish it otherwise, the issue of transgender players and their right to safe and fully equitable work environments as professional athletes is not going away.
UPDATE: The PWHL responded at 8:58 AM 1-31-24, two minutes before they'd been previously informed this article was going to be published: "The PWHL is actively working on the development of an Inclusion Policy, through consultation and collaboration with various LGBTQI+ athletic advocacy groups and leaders," said Communications Director Paul Krotz.
Krotz did not offer a timeline about when the policy will be published, or the names of any of these groups and leaders the league is working with.
Black Girl Hockey Club
Frankly it's a bit mind-boggling to even have to suggest Black Girl Hockey Club, since the league should have reached out to them months ago. Founded in 2018, the BGHC describes themselves as "a community space for Black women in hockey and the folks who love us. We are a nonprofit organization that focuses on making hockey more inclusive for Black women, our families, and allies."
The contacts and connections with Black Girl Hockey Club are right in front of the league's nose: PWHL Boston defender Sophie Jacques is on the board. The Executive Director of BGHC Canada, retired pro Saroya Tinker, does PWHL color commentary. How hasn't this happened yet?
Hockey is a notoriously white sport oozing with privilege. Players of color have much different experiences than their white counterparts, and working with BGHC would be one way to show the PWHL is committed to inclusivity in action instead of just in soundbites. Anti-racism isn't about catchy slogans and somber center-ice photos. As Black Girl Hockey Club exemplifies, it's about consistently showing up and doing the work.
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network & S.T.A.N.D. Against Sexual Assault
I can see this one getting some pushback for being 'too mature' or not being 'family friendly,' and that's exactly why we need to talk about it.
RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline and runs programs across the United States to "prevent sexual violence, help survivors, and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice." S.T.A.N.D. is an Alberta-based "community of like-minded people and professionals with a mission to provide peer support to survivors of sexual assault and prevent sexual violence through education, and promote healing through holistic healing practices."
Sexual violence is not a fun topic. It is among the most brutal forms of cruelty human being can perpetuate against each other, and the pervasive stigma around the subject only enables further abuses. It happens everywhere, including in places society holds most sacred, like religious institutions, at home, and at school. In 2022 former Boston Pride and Connecticut Whale forward Tori Sullivan shared that she had been raped during her time at Boston College.
Statistically, with one out of every six American women being a victim of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, there are almost certainly survivors playing in this league. Statistically you, reader, know a survivor, even if you're not aware of it. You may be a survivor yourself. If that's you, please know I see you, and that I believe you.
The greater athletic world has an appalling record around its handling of sexual assault. Anyone who's followed hockey over the past few years knows all too well that this sport is no exception. The PWHL announced in October that they'd joined forces with four men's leagues across North America to form the Respect Hockey Culture Center, which is a positive step. However, I'd like to see the league work to survivors feel seen, cared for, and validated - no matter how uncomfortable some might find the subject at hand.