HUDSON, N.H. — A squad of 45 or so girls in black uniforms ranging in ages from 6 to 16 squirted and zig-zagged across the Cyclones Arena ice late Friday afternoon, skating, shooting, passing, and scrimmaging under the spirited direction of a smaller group of enthusiastic, high-fiving and much taller women in white jerseys on skates.
The taller women on skates are members of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA), and they were there not only to teach a clinic but also fight for the fulfillment of all the hockey dreams of the little girls.
For the women, it’s a more specific dream, one with a nearer horizon, a dream that centers around earning a decent living wage as professional hockey player.
Reaching that dream involves facing stark truths. If the NHL is the scrawniest sibling of the big four pro sports, then North American professional women’s hockey is more like the sport abandoned by the side of the road.
The Canadian Women’s Hockey League closed up shop completely in July, victim of not enough sponsors and visibility.
The National Women’s Hockey League with its five teams begins its season Saturday, yet the rosters are missing many of the sport’s biggest names.
Hailing from both Canada and the US, approximately 80 of the best women hockey players in the world united for a barnstorming tour that pulled into this arena for a “Dream Gap Tour” stop this weekend. In Toronto last month and in Chicago in two weeks, the Hudson tour stop includes a four-game tournament spread out over Saturday and Sunday. A few tickets, available at PWHPA.com, remain.
But Friday’s clinic was all about the little girls and their big dreams. And the girls got it.
“I feel like that it’s unfair for girls to get paid unequal to the boys,” said Caitlin Tanaki, 7, from North Andover, Mass., before taking the ice. “They do a lot of work to do this and they have to have second and third jobs.”
Maddy Kenney, 8, of Bow, N.H., was not up to date on the latest statistical disparities and inequities in women’s hockey and other sports when she showed up.
When she found out the gist of the issue, she sounded almost offended.
“When I’m older and I play hockey, I have to get as much money as the boys,” she said.
Until this season, Alyssa Gagliardi, 27, played for the NWHL’s Boston Pride, with her Boston pro career beginning with the CWHL’s Boston Blades in 2014.
She moved often, living in Brighton, Woburn, and then Quincy while working a full-time job. She said the bare-bones salary she made at first — there was a $10,000 minimum salary her first season — was followed in subsequent seasons with pay cuts, then loss of benefits as players became “1099” contract employees, paid by the game. She was lucky to have a full-time job with a start-up that offered flexibility if she needed to travel on a Friday afternoon but some teammates worked either two jobs or a full-time job such as a teacher and could not take days off.
When PWHPA formed, Gagliardi left the Pride.
“There’s a lot of factors but ultimately I think a lot of players took a step back to think not necessarily about the short-term for the little bit that’s left of our career but also think of what comes next in the bigger picture of women’s hockey and women’s sports, to truly make it a career and a path, and not just make it a part-time job on the side,” said Gagliardi.
Boston College product and 2018 US Olympic gold medal winner Kali Flanagan said the goal of PWHPA is simple.
“We’re definitely fighting for that living wage,” said Flanagan, 24. “The Dream Gap Tour is all about that idea that little boys can dream about playing in the NHL and make a career and a living out of that and little girls don’t have the same option right now.”
Flanagan and Gagliardi see parallels in the effort by the US Women’s National Soccer Team to gain equal pay to men with their own, but more important first is a viable business model. They like what they see in the WNBA, which receives support from the NBA. Perhaps one day the NHL and a swarm of sponsors and broadcasters will step up for the women. In the meantime, the Dream Gap Tour continues.
The PWHPA has the support of the NHL Player’s Association and the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, too. King herself keeps in touch with the group, and only a few weeks ago addressed them in a group phone call.
“Her biggest message is to stick together and fight for what you know that you deserve,” said Flanagan. “She says that to us every time we talk to her, that she believes in us and that she knows that if we stick together we can accomplish what we want to get done here.”
Michael Silverman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.