Arguably the best women’s goaltender in the world announced her conditional retirement Feb. 15, 2014, shortly after her Finnish women’s hockey team fell out of Olympic medal contention.
Former University of Minnesota netminder Noora Räty is 24, and possibly hasn’t even hit her prime.
But with no North American professional league that pays, Räty posted a letter on Twitter announcing that she would hang up her skates for good if she couldn’t find a competitive league to play in.
Her problem is one that many women’s hockey players face after their college careers end.
Surviving on a stipend
The best hope for a paying women’s league right now is the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. But the CWHL currently doesn’t pay its players.
When the Olympics end, the top men’s hockey players return to the National Hockey League to compete for their respective teams.
The league minimum in the NHL is $550,000, and top players – like many of those competing in the Olympics – make millions each year.
That’s a far cry from the top female competitors, who make nothing beyond the stipend that some players receive from their national organizations, like USA Hockey.
“You can live on it, definitely, but it’s tough,” U.S. Olympian Anne Schleper said.
Schleper, a University of Minnesota alumna, spent a year after college with the Boston Blades, the only U.S.-based team currently competing in the CWHL.
Räty, meanwhile, has instead turned to men’s hockey. She recently inked a deal to play for a second-tier Finnish men’s league next season, an opportunity she’s excited about.
“It’s going to be really good hockey – a big challenge,” Räty said.
Unlike USA Hockey, Finland and many others countries don’t provide a stipend, which magnified Räty’s problem.
“We’re on our own, so you better have a job if you want to pay your rent and be able to buy food,” Räty said.
Leading up to the Olympics, a typical weekday had Räty waking up at 4:30 a.m. to give private lessons, training and coaching throughout the day, and then sleeping for four or five hours before repeating the process.
It was grueling.
At some point, players have to decide whether to stay in the game. Women’s players often bow out before men do – the average age of the members of the 2014 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team was 27.3, whereas the women’s average age was 23.9.
Creating a viable league
Hannah Brandt, a sophomore forward on the Gophers women’s hockey team, was second in the NCAA in points this season and stressed the importance of her education.
“I’m realistic. I’m a women’s hockey player,” Brandt said. “I’m not going to go anywhere with it, so I know that I need to do well in school [and] get good experience outside of school.”
There are other leagues around the world, but the CWHL has become a hotspot for many of the top American and Canadian hockey players.
Although players aren’t paid, ice time, travel, officials, uniforms and more are covered. In the next five years, CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress hopes to be able to pay players. “I think you’re going to see us grow in ways that most people never thought,” she said. “I think … people are going to be quite surprised at how successful we’re going to be.”
“In order to have a meaningful partnership with an NHL program, we need to demonstrate that we can bring them something, too,” CWHL board member Caitlin Cahow said. “We need to demonstrate that a professional women’s ice hockey team is going to contribute to their bottom line.
“I think what the NHL teams are starting to realize is that we really can,” Cahow said.
A young sport, growing interest Women’s hockey is relatively new compared with the men’s side. It became an Olympic sport in 1998.
Brown University created a college team in 1964, but the NCAA didn’t adopt an official women’s ice hockey championship until the 2000-01 season.
Fans and the media need to be on board for a professional league to be sustainable. That’s something the CWHL is well aware of.
“There’s not one NHL team that would exist right now if the fans didn’t go to the arena,” Andress said. “What matters is if the fan is coming to watch.”
Attendance for NCAA Division I women’s hockey is on the rise.
This season, five programs averaged more than 1,000 fans per game, and two schools – Minnesota and Wisconsin – surpassed 2,000 fans on average.
Wisconsin also set an NCAA women’s hockey attendance record this season with 13,573 fans in its Fill the Bowl game, played against Minnesota.
This year’s Olympic gold-medal game between the U.S. and Canada had millions of viewers, reinforcing the interest in high-level women’s hockey.
Reagan Carey, USA Hockey’s director of women’s hockey, said the number of registered female players has grown 10 percent in the past five years, while the number of youth players is up 20 percent.
Over the past decade, the growth is even more striking. In 2002-03, there were 45,971 registered female players in the U.S. In 2012-13, there were 65,700.
“We’ve got a lot of great progress to grow the sport, and that’s what is important,” Carey said.
Editor’s note: This story was first published in the Minnesota Daily in a longer format. Republished with permission.