Women’s hockey players staying optimistic despite uncertain future

Canada forward Laura Stacey scores on an empty Finland net during third period of 2018 Four Nations Cup. (Liam Richards/CP)

Laura Stacey will admit this off-season is “a little bit scary.”

Many of the most elite women hockey players on the planet would probably agree with that sentiment. As it stands, this off-season is shaping up to last longer than your standard couple of months.

Stacey, the 25-year-old forward who helped Canada win Olympic silver a year ago, is among nearly 200 female players who aren’t on a club team for the 2019-20 campaign, because there isn’t yet one in existence that she and others want to play for.

Following the abrupt folding of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League this past April, Marie-Philip Poulin, Shannon Szabados, Kendall Coyne Schofield, Natalie Spooner, Noora Raty, Stacey and many other stars joined the #FortheGame movement, pledging to sit out this coming season unless a viable and professional league forms in time. The National Women’s Hockey League, the lone pro women’s loop in existence on this continent, does not fit the bill in their minds. “We aspire for it to be way better than what it is now,” Stacey says of a new league. “I think that’s very possible.”

And so, this off-season, Stacey is working out and skating to prepare for what’s ahead, which is totally up in the air. (She’s training at her old high school in Vaughan, Ont., The Hill Academy, along with buddy and fellow alumni Mitch Marner, whose future is also up in the air).

“There’s a lot unknowns,” Stacey says of the pro women’s game. “We’re not exactly sure what’s going to happen when September comes around. We’re pretty optimistic about what’s going to happen, even if it’s not a season.”

There’s been talk of showcase weekends where players come together and play tournament-style games, and then return home.

All Stacey and other Team Canada players can be sure of for now is that there will be a national team training camp in September, and so it’s business as usual when it comes to training and preparing.

“We all knew getting into the movement that this was a big possibility and this is what could happen,” says fellow Team Canada player, Erin Ambrose, of the lack of league for next season. “We’re taking it all with a grain of salt and being ready for whatever is going to be thrown our way, whatever opportunity we are provided with and whatever opportunity we provide ourselves with at the same time.”

As far as what these women want when it comes to a pro league, that players are hoping for NHL involvement is no secret, but Stacey says it’s tough to even wish for an ideal situation, “because we’ve never really seen what ideal could be,” other than what the NHL provides for its players. She says female players aren’t expecting that level of support, but medical staff and insurance and health coverage “and a little bit of money to get by” would be nice.

There have been flashes that show women’s hockey can thrive. Stacey points to the viewership during the Olympics—Team USA’s shootout victory over Canada was the most watched late-night program in NBCSN’s history, the network reported, and 4.8 million Canadians reportedly tuned in for that game (only Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir drew more viewers in the ice dance finale).

“There’s little flashes and glimpses of it, but it’s not consistent, and I think that’s what our dream is, is to have this consistent league that’s going to be viable forever,” Stacey says. “We want the little girls who can come out to our games to have that, which we never did.”

But if no viable pro league pops up in time for this upcoming season, don’t expect a bunch of these players to come together and light up some random league in Toronto, Montreal or Calgary, where the bulk of them live.

“We’re trying to stick together, so we’re trying not to all spread out and play in different leagues and organizations,” Stacey says.

Both Ambrose and Stacey say it was “a no-brainer” to join the #FortheGame movement and sit out this upcoming season if need be. Still, many elite players — though none from either the Canadian or American senior national teams — are opting to play in the NWHL.

“[The NWHL] did have a great season, but so did the CWHL,” Ambrose says. “It was our most successful season ever. Sometimes, you never know. I am all for whatever is going to make the game better for us and better for those in the future.”

Players are optimistic that an ideal professional league is on the horizon. “We’re going to sacrifice and work as hard as we can this year to make sure it does grow and can happen,” Stacey says. “I have no idea about a timeline, but I am optimistic it really is going to work out for us.”

If it doesn’t work out in time for this season, Stacey will be without an organized club team for the first time since she was three years old. Her parents signed her up for the first time when she was four.

“That’s the weirdest part,” she says. “When September comes around, you have a group of people that you’re going to be surrounded by and you usually have a goal in mind, you want to win a championship, there’s this common factor with the group you’re training with.

“For the first time, we have no idea what the future holds, especially for this year. I think it’s scary, but it’s also really exciting.”

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