In March 2019, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) announced it was folding due to its business model being economically unsustainable.
Funding was always an issue for the league during its 12 seasons and it wasn’t able to start paying its athletes until 2017. Even then, salaries were small with players only receiving anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 in total for a 28-game season making it a necessity to work other jobs to survive.
Knowing a change was needed, in May of 2019 over 200 of the top female hockey players in the world banded together to create the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) with the goal of building a sustainable professional league to properly showcase their talent.
Looking to raise awareness about the current state of women’s hockey, in 2019 and early 2020 the PWHPA organized the Dream Gap Tour and visited several cities across North America for games and community events. In January, the association earned even more exposure when 20 of its members participated in the Elite Women’s 3-on-3 event during the 2020 NHL All-Star Skills competition.
Hamilton, Ontario’s Sarah Nurse is one of the highly skilled athletes involved with the PWHPA. She won a silver medal as part of Canada’s 2018 women’s Olympic hockey team, a bronze medal with Team Canada at the 2019 IIHF Women’s Ice Hockey World Championships and played as part of the NHL All-Star Weekend. She’s also emerged as one of the association’s leading voices.
Nurse spoke with us for Go Magazine about promoting yourself and your work, changing people’s expectations, the benefits of being part of a high-performance team and building for the future.
You’ve had a lot of coaches throughout your athletic career. What’s one of the most memorable pieces of advice you’ve received from them?
My dad coached me when I was young and taught me a lot of great lessons. One of the most important ones was that you can’t take things personally. I think that’s something that works for sports and can also be extended to the business world and really any aspect of life. I’ve learned that when I have a coach or mentor who is giving me feedback – whether it’s positive or negative – it’s because they want to see me succeed and be the best I can possibly be. It’s important to remember that when people give you criticism it’s not an attack on you. It’s to help you grow.
Hockey has been a major part of your life for a long time now. What are some things that still excite you about it?
I’m a really competitive person and love to compete. When I go to the rink or to the gym I get excited about the opportunity to better myself and compete. Also, with hockey – or any sport for that matter – your game is never the same. It’s always changing and evolving. I find that really exciting too.
Does playing alongside so many other high performing athletes help you elevate your skills?
I think with any high level sport, you have to be passionate, dedicated and have the drive to want to be the best you can possibly be. If you don’t have that, odds are you’re not going to make it that far because there are so many hurdles and struggles that you have to go through. I think surrounding yourself with other high performing athletes helps push you to want to be better. It holds you accountable and it really just gets you excited to continue to do what you do everyday.
How did the idea for the PWHPA come about and why is it important for the association to exist?
When our CWHL league ended, we had to take a step back and really weigh our options. Although the CWHL folding was a demoralizing moment, it honestly made us step outside our comfort zone and really push for better. We decided to form the PWHPA because we believed that there wasn’t currently any place that professional women’s hockey players could play and we wanted to raise awareness about that.
Why isn’t there a league anywhere in the world that consistently showcases the best product of women’s hockey, pays its players a living wage and has the infrastructure to set the game up to succeed?
I think there are a couple reasons why there’s not a current professional landscape for women’s hockey. I think some of that comes from us – the players – accepting the status quo and really not pushing for better. Then there’s also a huge visibility piece. You’re out of sight, out of mind when you’re not seen by people and women’s hockey is really only seen every four years at the Olympics.
I think most people don’t know about women’s hockey, so they don’t ask for it. They don’t think to watch it because they never see it or hear about it. So obviously a lack of media exposure plays a big role. Another huge issue was that we didn’t have the resources and the infrastructure surrounding us to truly create a professional climate and push our product.
Why is it important for the PWHPA to find ways to boost visibility and raise awareness about the sport?
With the CWHL, most people didn’t even know there was a league until they heard about it folding on every single major news outlet in Canada. That was probably the most media coverage we ever received in all 12 years of the league combined.
I think we really have to promote ourselves because nobody else is going to do it for us. With the PWHPA, we’ve been pumping ourselves up and really making a lot of noise. I think we’ve actually made a lot of traction so far. In the US, we were picked up by ESPN for streaming. We had CBC in Canada too. Those have been a huge help to us, but there’s definitely more that we can do.
It sounds like many members of the PWHPA have gotten a crash course in marketing and the business side of the sport. Have you enjoyed this?
Yes, definitely! I have a marketing degree so I had a little bit of experience with it beforehand.
I think that as female athletes, we’re judged on our brand. People look at our social media and go from there. We have to really be the ones promoting our product because you’re not seeing commercials about us on major sports networks. You’re not seeing us on the daily news. So, if we want to grow our brand we have to work and work and work for it.
Earlier this year you participated in the NHL All-Star Weekend. What was that experience like?
When the NHL reached out to us it was so exciting because we were really able to showcase our game, which was exactly what we needed for people to see. It was really cool being in St. Louis. The arena was packed and the response on social media was great. People said they absolutely loved it and thought it was arguably one of the best parts of the weekend.
The NHL is a great corporation and the leader of our sport and so we’re looking to continue to follow their lead.
It’s great to see that the PWHPA is also looking to the future and working to create something that not only provides support for young athletes but also promotes diversity and inclusion at all levels of play.
When we decided to create the PWHPA, we looked at it not only for ourselves, but also for the future of this game. We looked at the women in university who are all fantastic hockey players and that aren’t going to have anywhere to play. We looked at the girls growing up. We see videos of them online all the time, and think about how they’re also not going to have places to play.
So when we came together, it wasn’t completely for us. Even though we’re working to create a league that’s sustainable, viable and ultimately will be able to pay a living wage, we know that we may not reap the benefits of this. But hopefully in 10 – 15 years there will be players that do.
One of the goals of the Dream Gap Tour was to inspire young athletes to dream big. Why do you think this is important for all people to do, regardless of their age or occupation?
We should all have the desire to leave the world in a better place than what we got it in. If you look at people who have children, they want their children to have it better than they do. I think a mentality like that should really apply to all aspects of life – our relationships, our jobs and everything else we do.
You can follow Sarah Nurse on Twitter here.