Ryerson Rams head coach Lisa Haley knows the talent of female hockey players. She was behind the bench in Sochi when Marie-Philip Poulin notched Canada’s gold medal-clinching overtime goal.
Her long career has put her in a good position to understand the state of women’s hockey and how the women at the top of the game compare to their male counterparts.
“The intelligence, understanding of the game and willingness to be your best is probably the same on both sides,” she said. “When you’re talking about high performance athletes it doesn’t matter what their gender is, they’re very driven.”
But she, like many of the Rams athletes she has coached, also knows that opportunities for female players are limited once they finish their university careers.
This season, Ryerson’s women’s hockey team finished last in the Ontario University Athletics, but that’s not to say its roster lacks ability. Captain Jessica Hartwick and fellow veterans Melissa Wronzberg and Paulena Jakarsezian hung up their skates this year, after each had joined the team in its inaugural 2011 campaign. Hartwick and Wronzberg may join the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) next season, one of two professional female hockey leagues in North America. “There’s a draft in August and hopefully I get a call from one of the teams the following year and play in either Toronto or Brampton,” Wronzberg said.
The CWHL is comprised of five teams and the regular season is 24 games in length. Of course, this is significantly shorter than the standard 82 game NHL campaign. But the biggest difference between men’s and women’s pro leagues isn’t the length of the schedule. Rather, it’s the low pay or complete lack of a paycheque. Rams skate training specialist Kori Cheverie plays for the CWHL’s
Toronto Furies and isn’t fazed by this reality. “Does professional mean you get a paycheque? Or does it mean you start acting professional first and then you get a paycheque after?” she said.
Cheverie and her teammates practise twice a week and have two games on the weekend on top of any personal training outside the sport. Combined, games can take between 10 and 16 weekend hours. The players do it all without getting paid. “You’re pretty much trying to juggle two full-time jobs through the run of a week,” Cheverie said. “It’s not happened yet, but we’ve all been working hard in the league to make sure, that down the road, the girls are paid.”
Aside from team meals and travel accommodations players are on their own financially. So, should Wronzberg join the CWHL next season, she hopes to land a job in journalism. “One disadvantage of being a girl playing at the pro level is it isn’t your job, it’s something you do because you really love it,” she said. “Girls can’t make a life off just playing hockey.”
Still, things are moving in the right direction and on Oct. 11, 2015, the puck was dropped at the first National Women’s Hockey League game. Today, the league is composed of four teams and is expected to increase in size. Olympians Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, Molly Engstrom and Meghan Duggan (among others) are each being paid to play in this new league, and each team has a $270,000 salary cap. Players are responsible for negotiating their own contracts and treat the position as a part-time job. Salaries range from $10,000 to $25,000 and each skater has gear provided to them and is eligible for health insurance.
While both leagues are professional, the next step is to increase airtime on mainstream media. “There’re tons of amateur female athletes playing high performance sports, but the coverage that they get on mainstream media is four or five per cent,” Haley said.
Attracting less attention than their male counterparts is something many of the female athletes also encounter while on campus.
For example, at Ryerson, the women’s hockey team isn’t promoted as aggressively as the men’s team. There are fewer of the so-called “beer nights,” which means less exposure.
“When you see that the boys are having a $4 beer night it’s all over campus,” Hartwick said. “You see it on every sign, so for us it’s a little less promoted.”
As far as the game itself is concerned, Haley, who has coached both men and women at the competitive level, says she sees more similarities than differences. One of the biggest differences is that in men’s hockey hitting is encouraged, but because body-checking isn’t allowed for women, it forces them to find other ways to drive the game. Rams forward Emma Rutherford played boys’ hockey until she was 14 and says she had less time and space with the puck.
“I found it’s a lot more hitting and less finesse, whereas women focus more on passing and hands,” she said. Rams men’s hockey assistant coach Johnny Duco agrees, and says he values the nature of women’s play. “In the women’s game, because there’s no contact, there’s more bumping and hooking and holding,” he said. “If you do that in the men’s game they seem to call that every time.”
People close to the game say that the drive and skill set of female hockey players is never in question, but their lack of exposure is an issue hindering change. Moving forward, if women continue to demonstrate their talents the support will come, and Haley says that makes her excited. “It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. If you win, then the support happens,” she said. “Hopefully someday we can fill the Mattamy and I hope it’s in my lifetime.”