When the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) folded in March 2019, most of the best women’s hockey players in the world were in Finland, preparing for the World Championships that were set to begin a few days later.
But not Liz Knox, who had joined the CWHL in 2011.
“None of the Olympians were here. So lucky little me, I had a million media requests,” the Ontario native says.
As co-chair of the CWHL Players’ Association, Knox took two days off from her day job in construction to field those inquiries. At the time, she didn’t have any concrete plans or goals for herself or the players she was representing. But she did know that she didn’t want history to repeat itself.
“Five, 10 years down the road, I don’t want to be having the same conversation again. I don’t want to be in the same position where we are not seeing the sponsorship dollars or the media coverage we want or still relying on our national team players to promote the entire league,” she told the Athletic in a March 2019 interview.
Across the Atlantic Ocean in Finland, American players Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne were also trying to figure things out. “They said, ‘Ok, we need to get everyone on a call. We just need to talk and figure out what’s going on,'” Knox recalled.
It boiled down to two options: they could join the then National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) — which has since rebranded as the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) — and deal with many of the same issues they faced in the CWHL.
Or, they could try something much more radical: stop playing entirely.
They chose the latter.
In May 2019, Knox was one of more than 200 players who announced she would be sitting out the upcoming season. A few weeks later, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA) was founded.
“We can’t know what will happen next, but we move forward united, dedicated, and hopeful for our future and the future of this game we love so much,” Knox said in a press release announcing the PWHPA’s incorporation.
“It was terrifying to step away from the game,” Knox reflects now. “We didn’t have anything. We didn’t have contacts, we didn’t have a resource book, we didn’t have any idea of how a league operated. We were literally just players who stepped away from the game.”
Three years later, the PWHPA is on the verge of announcing something big. There have been reports about potential team locations, player salaries, and season dates, but nothing has been officially confirmed. Yet.
Knox declined to share specific details when we spoke, but didn’t try to contain her excitement.
“To see how far we’ve come in three years, it’s empowering,” she explained. “We’re finally at a point where we’re almost able to be like: This is why it mattered then. This is why it was hard, because it has never been done.”
With details still forthcoming, at least one thing is clear: the future of women’s hockey was built on history. Lessons from the generations of women’s hockey players and leaders who pushed the sport to where it is now, but also lessons from women’s soccer and basketball and tennis, too.
And so, in this moment of limbo, it is worth looking back at a bit of that history. Because the idea of a women’s hockey league is not new. Before there was the PWHPA or PHF, there was the NWHL and CWHL, yes, but there was also another NWHL, as well as the COWHL, plus a USPHL and WPHL that were leagues in name and acronym only.
The story of women’s hockey is a story that goes in circles, and repeats back on itself. It’s a story that makes you ask, ‘Haven’t we been here before? Haven’t we heard that line already?’
“Women’s hockey has always folded in the spring, and had something in the fall. So in three months, something has always been made,” Knox says. “We love and respect the people who did that because it was not easy… But to build something that’s going to last decades, it’s going to take more than three months.”