Women Finally Have a Pro Hockey League, but Pay Equity Is Still a Work in Progress

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On Jan. 1, 2024, hockey history was made. On that day, about halfway through the first period, forward Alex Carpenter, a two-time Olympic silver medalist for Team USA Hockey, slid the puck over to her Canadian-born teammate Ella Shelton, who promptly snuck it past the goalie and into the net, all in front of a sold-out crowd in Toronto’s Mattamy Athletic Centre.

What’s so history-making about a simple goal? This was the first goal scored during the first-ever game of the brand-new Professional Women’s Hockey League, the first professional women’s hockey league that gives women athletes a way to make a full-time living doing what they love and do best.

Comprised of six teams from the northeastern U.S. and Canada — New York, Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto — the PWHL has been a long time coming. The first professional women’s hockey league, called the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), was formed in Canada in 1999. Though the U.S. and Canada have a storied ice hockey rivalry, the NWHL eventually incorporated U.S. teams. But in 2021, the since-rebranded league (now called the Professional Hockey Federation, PHF) folded, leaving a gap in opportunities for women to play professional ice hockey.

“When the league first folded, I was still in college, and some of those girls were only making $7,500 a year,” Shelton tells PS. “A lot of them had side jobs or had a full-time job and the league paid just enough for them to play hockey after their day jobs.” Shelton herself worked on her family’s farm in Ingersoll, Ontario whenever she heads home from her team’s home base in New York. Saroya Tinker, a retired player who now works as a women’s hockey analyst and broadcaster, says that she only made $5,000 her first year in the NWHL in 2020 (before it became the PHF).

As is the case with many women’s sports, players were advocating for fair pay. There were signs of progress, but it was incremental. Tinker made $15,000 her second season. “We were on the right track, but still not making a living wage,” Tinker says.

One of the main goals of the PWHL was to change that. “We’ve been at this battle for a very long time. We play very heated matches, but we’ve banded together to create a professional environment that women’s hockey has never seen, and that has created a mutual respect for each other,” says PWHL Toronto’s Canadian superstar center Sarah Nurse, who recently was named the PWHL’s First Star of the Week after her game-winning overtime goal against Minnesota on Feb. 27.

The league is currently striving to pay its members a full-time salary, and some players can make up to $80,000 per season. That said, CBS reports that the average salary PWHL players make is just $55,000 and the league minimum is $35,000. And even the high earners are making nowhere near men’s ice hockey salaries. The minimum wage for the NHL was $775,000 in 2023, according to The Athletic, and the cap for teams is $83.5 million.

When you consider that the six teams in the PWHL are made up of the best women’s hockey players in the world, including Olympic gold and silver medalists, that huge wage gap is especially infuriating. But the word PWHL players use to describe the new league is “sustainable.” They want to create a league that lasts, and to do that, they’re starting conservatively.

Another step in the PWHL’s plan is to increase players’ exposure, says Nurse. Boston’s Megan Keller — who, as a child, insisted on wearing full hockey gear to her first skating lessons — hosts a podcast, The Keller and Kess show, with her Team USA teammate Amanda Kessel. The show aims to get hockey personalities and other female athletes out in front of an audience and shares their untold narratives. “You don’t normally get to hear these stories from players,” Keller says. More exposure can help translate into higher viewership, which allows women’s leagues to secure more funding — all essential as the PWHL strives to pay its members the full-time salaries they deserve.

Another goal of the PWHL is to make hockey more culturally and economically diverse, Nurse says. “Hockey culture as a whole needs to change in regard to how inclusive we are culture-wise, people being welcome in the arena, and the words that are being used in locker rooms,” Tinker says.

In 2022, Tinker, who’s also the PWHL’s manager of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives and Community Engagement, co-founded Black Girl Hockey Club Canada. The non-profit outfits Black girls in full hockey gear, which can cost upwards of $3,000, and gives young Black hockey players a safe space to fully participate in the game. Tinker had formerly volunteered as a mentor with the U.S. arm of Black Girls Hockey Club, and used the platform she built after kneeling during the national anthem in protest of the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor during the 2020 season to raise money to allow her to open a Canadian arm.

Players hope that the PWHL’s commitments to fair pay and a more inclusive hockey culture will contribute to the league’s longevity.

For now, there are two months left of the league’s 2024 regular season, during which the six teams will battle it out for a spot in the playoffs, and the players are enjoying the chance to whole-heartedly pursue their passion.

For Keller, that means playing for what she now considers her hometown team. “Boston has felt like home for a while. After I played at Boston College and graduated, I didn’t want to leave the city — so I was lucky that I was drafted to the Boston PWHL team, which was my number one choice,” Keller says. She shares her hopes to take PWHL Boston to the playoffs for the league’s inaugural trophy. In the off season, she’ll train for Team USA with the goal of making the roster for the 2026 Milan Olympics, where she’d face off against players like Nurse and Shelton on Team Canada.

While Keller is trying to focus on enjoying the present moment, she can’t help but think about what lies ahead for PWHL and, by extension, for women hockey players who hope to go pro. Thanks to the level of talent and the degree of support within the league, she’s optimistic. “I think a lot of us would say it just feels different,” Keller says. “This feels like the one that’s going to last.”


Mara Santilli is a POPSUGAR contributor, freelance writer and editor specializing in reproductive health, wellness, politics, and the intersection between them, whose print and digital work has appeared in Marie Claire, Glamour, Women’s Health, SELF, Cosmopolitan, and more.


Image Source: Getty / Troy Parla Vaughn Ridley Icon Sportswire

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