TORONTO — Billie Jean King has been through this fight before. The legendary tennis star was a pioneer in the push for equal pay in her sport over 40 years ago, so she has a clear understanding of what women in pro hockey are going through at the moment.
However, while the desire for change may burn intensely, Jean King is also quick to point out reality.
“When you live history, it’s very slow,” says Jayna Hefford of the advice she received from the tennis star and equity crusader. “And when you read it, it’s very fast.”
Hefford, a five-time Canadian Olympic medallist and Hockey Hall of Famer, is trying to accomplish for her sport what Jean King did for tennis. She’s among the leading advocates in the #ForTheGame women’s hockey movement.
The 42-year-old Hefford, who retired from competition in 2015, is an operations consultant with the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA), which recently staged its third successful showcase of female talent. Known as the Dream Gap Tour, the event was formed after some 170 women’s players pledged to sit out this season of pro hockey in North America because they want a league that pays a living wage.
“The purpose is to shrink the ‘Dream Gap,’” Hefford says. “For me, as a young girl playing hockey, I wanted to play in the NHL. That’s all I could see. How do we get to the point where a young girl who wants to play hockey sees it as a viable option? We always talk about keeping girls in sport longer. Girls are smart enough at the age of 10 or 11 that if they don’t see a future in the sport, they leave the sport.
“How do we get to a point where every young girl and every young boy in this country can have the same dream, whatever that is?”
Sportsnet caught up with Hefford on Wednesday following her induction into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. She was among eight members of the 2019 class, which also included former NHL goaltender Martin Brodeur and freestyle skier Alexandre Bilodeau. Here is a partially edited transcript of that conversation.
Sportsnet You met Billie Jean King at the recent Dream Gap Tour event in Chicago. What was that like for you?
Hefford: It was incredible. Having a chance to meet someone like Billie Jean, who is really just a legend, an icon, someone who has such an incredible story of advocacy and fighting for what she believed in. She is very much on our side in women’s hockey and trying to push the sport forward and create some positive conversation around the game. It’s certainly a moment that I’ll remember for a long time.
Editor’s note: Billie Jean King Enterprises, a company founded by the tennis star, is providing pro bono support and advice to the PWHPA.
SN: What did the two of you talk about?
JH: She’s been an adviser to the PWHPA. She’s very much about, ‘You gotta fight … It’s really about staying the course. It’s about standing up for what you believe in. It’s about creating a united voice.’ That’s what we’re trying to do to create change in this sport. She was very much a leader and someone who comes and lifts us up with those powerful words and wisdom.
The other thing she kept coming back to was that we stand on the shoulders of the people who came before us. That’s a big thing for us, as well. For me, I look back at Angela James, Vicky Sunohara, those people that started to grow the game. When I played, I always felt like I represented them. And now, the young players feel like they can carry on this tradition and they represent my generation and there’s going to be more to come.
SN: You tweeted that meeting Jean King “energized you.” What did you mean by that?
JH: She is a 75-year-old woman who has this excitement and drive in everything she says. She comes into the room and she brings this energy that we should have at age 30 or 40. It was energizing to see someone who has done so much work for her sport and now she’s coming here and putting all of this behind hockey now. To me, if she can do that and this isn’t her sport, but she believes in what we’re trying to do, that can give us the energy to keep fighting. It’s not an easy fight, but it’s one that we are going to keep down this road and try to create change.
SN: You are a leader of a movement yourself. What does that mean to you?
JH: That’s what this is all about. The sporting accomplishments are wonderful and obviously, if you’re an athlete, you’re trying to excel and win. But to be recognized for trying to make the sport better or trying to make our country better (matters). Sport unites people in a way that nothing else can. I see that no more vividly than the Toronto Raptors last (season). They united a city and country in a powerful way. To try to facilitate and better sport in Canada, that’s a huge honour to be able to be a part of that.
SN: What exactly does your role entail with the PWHPA?
JH: As the operations consultant, (I have) the lead role in the day-to-day. I work with Billie Jean’s group, I work with the player board. I’m sort of in charge of the showcases, making sure our strategic plans (are in order). What direction we are going, where do we want to go from here, facilitating conversations with the NHL. Just sort of that overall leadership role.
SN: What stood out to you so far from the Dream Gap Tour stops?
JH: The biggest thing is the response. We’ve sold out three events in a row. We’re getting a response from fans, better than we’ve ever had. The overall thing that I walk away with is the feeling at those events. All the players would agree that when they see the people there, there’s this energy in the building and it’s about being there for a purpose as opposed to being there to watch a hockey game. It’s quite evident when you’re in the building. The players salute the crowd. Everybody’s standing for what they’re standing for and that’s very clear and it’s a pretty cool thing to be part of.
To be honest, it gives you goosebumps. It gives me goosebumps thinking about it right now just because you see all these young girls — I have daughters myself — and the opportunity to talk about what this is really about. My daughter has already said, ‘Why do only boys play football?’ That’s the only thing she’s seen and she is six years old. So, it’s a great conversation starter around opportunity and allowing people to dream, to be what they want to be and supporting those dreams. It’s incredibly powerful when I feel that energy in our buildings. I’m proud of what the women are standing up for.
SN: After witnessing three events now, how do you evaluate its progress or impact?
JH: I think we’ve made a great impact. Three sold-out events is a huge accomplishment for us. It’s not just one game in these events, its four games over the weekend. That’s huge. I think the talk we’re creating online, social awareness is growing, our sponsorship portfolio is probably bigger than what it was in the CWHL in four-to-five short months. I think we’re really seeing the conversation change. That was the first step: To get people to understand where the game was at. The need for something bigger and more sustainable. I think we’re down that road. We don’t expect this to be easy or short. But we do expect that we’re going to keep moving forward and we’re pretty happy with the progress that’s been made to date.
SN: The schedule for the Dream Gap Tour is now over. What’s next?
JH: We’re going to have a number of new events for 2020. This will be the end for 2019. We (will spend) the next five-to-six weeks doing some other training within the regions, but we’ll be announcing some new events in the new year.