Kendall Coyne Schofield: Why the top North American women's ice hockey players aren't playing in pro leagues

In an interview with Olympics.com, U.S. women's national team captain Kendall Coyne Schofield explains the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association's ongoing goal to create an environment in which female players are properly compensated for their skills and are able to make a living from the sport.

By ZK Goh
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

It was 2019, and the Canadian Women's Hockey League, one of the two major professional women's ice hockey leagues in North America, had just folded.

The other league, the National Women's Hockey League, had had its own issues since it was founded in 2015. In 2016, it cut player salaries by nearly 40 percent, and even in the immediate aftermath of the CWHL collapse, it was unable to find new investors to improve conditions for players.

Women's players had had enough.

"There were a lot of players without places to play," Kendall Coyne Schofield explains in a recent conversation with Olympics.com. "We all said, 'You know what? There's nothing out there right now that that offers what this game deserves, what we deserve.'"

Just like that, the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) was formed on 20 May 2019, consisting of most of the continent's top players.

The PWHPA decided to boycott all professional women's hockey leagues in North America until such a league was created – and the action continues even now, more than two-and-a-half years later.

Kendall Coyne Schofield (#26) takes a shot on goal during a PWHPA Dream Gap Tour game at United Center in Chicago.
Picture by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

How the PHWPA came about

Relations between the NWHL – which rebranded two months ago and is now known as the Premier Hockey Federation – and the CWHL were strained even before the PWHPA was formed.

So, when the latter league was forced to shut, its players weren't exactly thrilled about the idea of switching to the other league.

Coyne Schofield, the U.S. national team captain and PyeongChang 2018 Olympic champion, says the pay issue was a factor for players, adding that her own salary then was just 7,000 U.S. dollars.

"We can't keep accepting, you know, moderate stipends or pay," she recalls the conversation as having centred around. "Let's take our destiny into our own hands and let's control what we can control."

So the PWHPA was formed, with the intention of boycotting the NWHL and any other pro league in North America that did not meet their minimum standards.

"It's our voice, it's our decisions, and we're set out to create and form a sustainable and viable professional league," Coyne Schofield – a player representative on the PWHPA board – says of the association's goals.

"We're not wavering from the things that we set out to accomplish; we're not compromising on the things that we know this game deserves, until we see something or create something that that offers what we know," the Chicago native adds.

"This game deserves a sustainable, viable professional league that offers women the opportunity to call this their job, to be professional athletes, we're going to continue to fight to create that."

An association for all

The PWHPA has made strides where the Premier Hockey Federation lags behind. Notably, the association secured a million-dollar sponsorship deal with deodorant brand Secret.

Since its inception, the PWHPA has also staged its own games as part of a multi-city tour around the United States and Canada, notably playing at Madison Square Garden and the United Center, respectively home to the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks men's National Hockey League teams.

"We've definitely made progress," Coyne Schofield says, before adding: "but there's still a ways to go."

You might be forgiven for thinking the PWHPA is solely focused on its top stars, the majority of whom make up the American and Canadian national teams.

Coyne Schofield says that is far from the case.

"The game is so far greater than the players who are on the residency [national team camp] rosters for the U.S., for Canada. We have so many incredible players, a part of our players association who are not on these rosters, who are still with the PWHPA."

Those players are the ones on show this season in the PWHPA's tour for 2021/22, which has already visited Nova Scotia and will next be in Toronto.

"They're putting the best product that they can put on the ice professionally during this year."

Kendall Coyne Schofield (#26) playing in a PWHPA Dream Gap Tour game at Madison Square Garden on February 28, 2021 in New York City, the first time women's professional hockey was played at Madison Square Garden. 
Picture by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

"You can't create change on your own"

The 29-year-old knows the constant fight for gender equality in ice hockey is an ongoing issue. Indeed, Coyne Schofield had experience with standing up for women's rights in hockey even before the PWHPA was formed.

In 2017, the United States women's team announced a strike, shortly ahead of that year's Women's World Championships. College players, who USA Hockey tried to approach to play, also refused to cross the picket line.

"We came together as a group," Coyne Schofield recalls. "We were tired of being treated as an afterthought. There's so many things that that we deserved that we didn't have and we needed to come together and we need to fight for those because change wasn't being made.

"We didn't agree until significant progress was made, and it was made two days before the World Championships began," she recalls.

In the end, the national federation agreed to make changes to create improved conditions for female players, including maternity leave, travel and insurance coverage on par with the men's team, and increased bonuses.

"I think we've seen some of the positive changes that have occurred with our national program … as we're here in the residency period [the ongoing national team camp is in Blaine, Minnesota] as well. You know, small things that make a big difference, such as meals after after a full training day. In the past, we never had a meal," Coyne Schofield explains.

That first taste of strike action has informed her and her PWHPA colleagues in their current standoff with the Premier Hockey Federation.

"It just shows when you have the unity, when you have one voice and when you stand up for what you know you believe in and what you know is right, that's your strongest opportunity to create change," she says.

"You can't create change on your own. But when there's so many people who feel the same way and you come together with those feelings and and you, you stick together and until you see the change that not only you deserve, but this game deserves in the future generations deserve. You can really accomplish anything."

Kendall Coyne Schofield speaks to the media after a 2020/21 PWHPA Dream Gap Tour game. In 2019, Coyne Schofield was part of the first all-female NHL broadcast crew.
Picture by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The future of women's hockey in North America

A lot has been said, and indeed done, by the PWHPA.

For her part, Coyne Schofield believes the association has moved women's ice hockey closer to her ideal scenario.

"I think the future of women's professional hockey looks like what we know and see it in men's professional hockey – growing up knowing that you can make a living playing this game if you're good enough to do so," she says. "I think anything less than that is unacceptable," she insists.

"A young girl and a young boy should be able to grow up with the same dream that you can be a professional hockey player as your full time job if you have the talent to do so, you put in the work and you got all the way to the pinnacle of the sport.

"Not being a hockey player and a doctor, or a hockey player and a teacher, a hockey player and a lawyer, whatever the profession may be. This is your job, and if you're good enough to do it, you'll do it."

How soon will this become reality? "I hope not too far off."

The PWHPA, and Coyne Schofield, will continue pushing until then.

GO OLYMPIC. GET ALL THIS.

Free live sport events. Unlimited access to series. Unrivalled Olympic news & highlights.