Q&A with CWHLPA co-chair Liz Knox

The Canadian goaltender was co-chair of the CWHL Player Association

On Sunday morning, the CWHL announced they would be ceasing operations as of May 1, 2019. The news came as a shock to many, including the players.

Markham Thunder goaltender and CWHLPA co-chair Liz Knox spoke to The Ice Garden on the phone Sunday afternoon to give insight into how her morning went, #NoLeague, and more.

The Ice Garden: How did you guys all find out about this?

Liz Knox: The league put the PA members, the general managers, and the coaches on a call at 9:30 a.m., and then at 10, the rest of the league and internal communications and everybody else was welcome to join the call. It was pretty much the same call, back and forth, which is consistent with their media release that was just to say we’ve decided to cease operations. So that was that, it was very quick.

The Ice Garden: Did you guys have any indication that this was happening, any warning? Were there any signs on the player side?

Liz Knox: No. (pause) None, whatsoever. So part of the challenge in today and weeks to come, it’s just to try to answer the media questions at the same time that we’re trying to regroup and, you know, we haven’t had any time to prepare for this. So we’re trying to figure it all out very quickly.

The Ice Garden: Everyone’s been seeing the #NoLeague tweets from the players. They’ve all had the same exact language. Who spearheaded that initiative? Was it the PA?

Liz Knox: It was a PA initiative for sure. I think the important thing to understand is that this came quickly and we’re human. That’s our initial reaction and that’s basically just saying like, “Yeah, we don’t have a league right now. There’s no league for us right now.”

Is it dramatic? Maybe. Is it intentionally? Yes.

People need to understand that girls in our league sacrifice their jobs and their families and their locations to play, and to get told that [the league is over], it’s a natural reaction for us to be like, “Well, these are the facts,” right. Moving forward, obviously, things need to be constructive and we can’t just sit back and feel sorry for ourselves. There’s nothing we can do now about the CWHL or anybody involved.

We’re now on our own. We’ve got a task force in place of reliable players and GMs and coaches and even just people that want to make a difference. So in the next month we’ll be focusing our energy on that.

But I think it’s important to get, you know, a human reaction from the players and the fact that all of our players have jumped on board — you know, it wasn’t something we said “everyone have to do this” — it was just kind of, “This is some content if you guys are at a loss for words right now, some content that we feel encapsulates how we’re all feeling right now.” I think it’s kind of a fair reaction.

What we know (and what we don’t) about the CWHL ceasing operations

The Ice Garden: So it’s kind of a very organic movement by you guys. It was like, “Here’s some stuff you can say if you can’t figure it out” and it just kind of took off organically.

Liz Knox: Definitely organic, I think, is a good term because, you know, that part of it is that we’re trying to figure out how to feel right now. As much as we would love to just go to social and be angry or frustrated or sad or whatever, we do represent more than just ourselves and our playing careers. So we just wanted to give the players something that kind of encapsulate all of that.

It’s a tough time. There’s room for growth now. You know, there’s nothing standing in our way. But at the same time you know we do have to take a minute and just kind of feel how we feel, which is a little bit devastated.

The Ice Garden: Rightfully so. One of the other big storylines this morning around the announcement has been the timing of it. Worlds starts in a few days and the CWHL has sent, I think, 25 players to Worlds. What’s your reaction to the maybe poor timing of this? That’s a little editorializing on my part, but I find it to be poor timing.

Liz Knox: My initial reaction was same as you. I was like, “These girls have much bigger fish to fry.” They’re representing their countries and they’re in a different country and now you’re trying to deal with the communications.

But, after talking to a couple of teammates and getting through our emotions, you know, maybe in a way it was it was timed such that those are our biggest voices, and better them knowing. (pause)

It’s tough, right? (pause) Of course, from a performance level, let them play, then find out. But at the same time, knowing what a stage that puts them on and knowing what a lens that puts them under from the people that we want to try to get their attention, the hockey powers that be, maybe we can use it to our advantage at least. I’m not saying it was the right thing to do, but I am saying that with the timing of this... it’s tough. We need to be able to use it to our best advantage, which is: if they’re going to be in interviews and they’re going to be talking to people in the organizations of Hockey Canada and USA Hockey, at least everyone’s informed.

The Ice Garden: A bit of a blessing in disguise, almost.

We don’t have time to sit back and feel sorry for ourselves or to sit back and be angry.

Liz Knox: I think that’s kind of our takeaway: we have to find the silver lining in everything right now. We don’t have time to sit back and feel sorry for ourselves or to sit back and be angry. And, I mean, it’s a door closed. But you know the old saying: and another one opens. If it means that it’s one less obstacle in our way to getting women’s hockey where I think it should be and probably should have been by now, we’ve just got to take it run with it.

The Ice Garden: There was some chatter on Twitter about how this was a move by the CWHL to force the NWHL’s hand into One League. Do you think that this move predicates any NHL involvement in women’s hockey?

Liz Knox: Any of the conversations around the NHL involvement, I get secondhand, so I can’t really speak directly to it. Certainly on the surface, it looks like that, it looks like this is going to put more pressure either on the NW or on the NHL or both. I don’t really know.

I don’t know how that’s being received yet. I also know we have to tread very carefully right now because I don’t know where our future lies.

Those are conversations that we have to have now, right? Where a week ago they were: theoretically would the NHL or with the NWHL do this? Now, we’re in a very practical situation. So we have to make sure that we have those conversations with our task force first and then make sure that we’re going to the right sources.

So I certainly hope that everybody, not just in the hockey world, but in government and anybody who is a fan of sport and and a fan of the women’s movement in general, is all of a sudden keeping an ear to the ground. That’s how change happens. So hopefully it’s putting pressure on more than just the NHL like you say. Hopefully, it’s putting pressure on a number of people that have have the power right now.

The Ice Garden: So it sounds like the CW didn’t give any option, like, “if X, Y, and Z happens, we could return.” It was just, “We’re done.”

Liz Knox: I know Jayna [Hefford, the interim commissioner] and she’s been a player in the league and now the commissioner of the league. She sees it from a lot of angles. And I think if we could share an opinion it would be: how many how many more years are we going to keep doing that without seeing really the strides that we should be?

Have we seen success in the CWHL? Absolutely. Have we seen growth? Without a doubt.

But we’re in a bit of a hamster wheel here where we’re not seeing the sponsorship dollars that, in my opinion, we should be. We’re not getting the recognition from the major sport organizations that, in my opinion, we should be. So it’s how many more years do you want to spend just surviving it? At what point does it become it gets to that level where it is at the pinnacle of sport?

If you look at the NHL model, they have their Stanley Cup and they have the Olympics. And while there is great pride in representing your country at the Olympics and thats something that’s untouchable, the Stanley Cup happens every year and everybody gets on board.

Ours is our Clarkson Cup and it happens once a year also. But we’re not seeing the same sort of interest for our Clarkson Cup that we do for the gold medal in the Olympics. It’s no question that it’s not where it could be.

Maybe we’re just stuck in a hamster wheel doing the same thing over and over again and we’re not really getting anywhere.

The Ice Garden: I think a hamster wheels are really good metaphors for that because, like you say, you’re just going in circles. You don’t go anywhere.

Liz Knox: We’re working hard. Everyone is trying. Like the media, you guys are doing your part. The players are doing their part. I believe that the people in the administration and on the board of directors, I think everyone’s trying to do their part but like we’re just not getting anywhere.

So maybe this was kind of like a bold move, like “this is it.” This has grown to a point where we can no longer help it. We need somebody else to step in or somebody put in a better business model, and it doesn’t necessarily mean the NHL specifically, doesn’t mean Hockey Canada specifically. There’s got to be a better way. You look at all the sports organizations, semipro and pro — there’s just got to be a better way than what we’re doing right now.

The Ice Garden: What’s next for you? You’re on the task force. Obviously you guys are going to try to come up with some solution. Do you see yourself going overseas, going to the NW, or something less fun?

Liz Knox: The timing of that is really, really crazy. I will stay on with the players association. My primary concern is the players and making sure that they’re taken care of or at least in the right hands moving forward with the uncertainty that we’re gonna face this summer.

But for me personally in terms of a career, we’ll have to see. I’m graduating from my preservice firefighting for volunteer firefighting in my hometown at the end of May, so there’ll be some shifts in focus. I mean, I don’t even know what we’re going to be dealing with in terms of a league.

For me, the NWHL isn’t an option. My life is up here, the time constraints and travel constraints, all that stuff. So that’s not an option and overseas wouldn’t be an option. So yeah, I don’t know. We’ll see. We’ll weigh out the options.

The Ice Garden: Anything closing thoughts?

Liz Knox: The biggest thing for me is that I want the stories to be about the players. We just can’t dwell on what has happened — we have to address what’s happened and how it happened and how that makes us feel. But at a certain point, I want to make sure that our movement is focused on what has always been the heart and soul of these leagues, and that’s the players.

This interview had been lightly edited for clarity.