No League of Their Own: Liz Knox and Sasky Stewart Look Back on The CWHL Closure
Monday January 20, 2020 at 11:48am
On March 31, The Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) announced that the league would be discontinuing operations on May 1, 2019.
Liz Knox played in the CWHL for 8 years. She was a goalie for the Markham Thunder, a Clarkson Cup Champion, and voted as a captain for the CWHL all star game.
“Honestly, the last season was the best season in my 8 years. We had the most Olympic, world champion, and national team players under the CWHL. Our viewership was increased, the competition level was the best season I’ve ever played from top to bottom. Our top 5 teams were playing incredible hockey. You go to the rink and you have to earn every game. That’s the type of entertainment value that we needed”.
photo by Heather Pollock
To Liz, who was also serving as co-chair for the CWHL players association, the announcement that the league was closing came as a complete surprise.
“When the league called this urgent meeting, we all thought we were getting another team or we were going to expand, maybe the China team was going to pull out. We were expecting something that might rock the boat a bit but not our world. We had no idea.”
As soon as the phone call had ended, the announcement had already been sent to the media. Many players, including Liz, felt angry and betrayed.
“ A lot of us play because we love hockey and now you’ve taken away this opportunity. We’ve given you our lives and you just dropped it that quickly. That was the part that hurt the players. I didn’t do this for money, I didn’t do it to make the national team. It was a real shock to us.”
Saksy Stewart served as Director of Communications and Marketing for the CWHL from 2015-2017. Sasky had previously worked for the NHL as a Social Media Coordinator, so working for the CWHL was a change of pace. She went from being the only women in the NHL situation room with a plethora of resources, to being one of six on an all female staff at the CWHL.
For Sasky, the announcement was less of a surprise.
“Even though I no longer worked for CWHL, I was still the go to girl most people went to for CWHL news.”
On March 30, Sasky recalls receiving messages from friends and colleagues, asking her questions about the CWHL.
“I had a feeling that a big announcement was coming, and it was likely that the league was going to close. I have never wanted to be wrong about something more in my life.”
As a not for profit organization, the CWHL always had its struggles. There was never a certainty and talks of closure happened often. Money wasn’t always available. The players weren’t paid for many years, and when they were, it wasn’t much.
photo curtesy of Sasky Stewart
“One of our players used to work at a sports store with a bunch of hockey guys and she was the only girl on staff. They asked her “what do you guys make a year?” and she said “27”. He said “ Oh, 27,000? That’s not bad. That’s a part time job.” and she goes “No, I made 27 dollars this year”.” Liz remembers.
The closing of the CWHL left the future uncertain for the future of professional women's hockey.
“I was sad for the girls, and I was sad for the future of the game” Sasky said, “The league closing was another feather on the hats of everyone who said it wouldn’t work out”.
For some of the players, the league closing was a wake-up call. After years of working full time jobs alongside playing professional women’s hockey because hockey couldn’t pay the bills, the players decided to fight for their future.
“When the league folded, we really had to self reflect and say “maybe we should be asking for a little more now” Liz said. “We have to be better, we have to elevate what we’re asking for from a professional league so that the girls who are coming up at a speedy rate don’t have to.”
The Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association was formed in response to the league closing. Over 200 elite players from Canada and America pledged to sit out of the 2019-2020 season in hopes for a single, viable professional league in North America.
There is still hope for the future of women’s hockey. The players are wanting to make a difference and create an environment for success. Liz Knox, who is now retired from hockey and serving as a board member for the PWHPA, believes that they can make an impact for young girls.
“We’re women's hockey players. We pull our socks up, we don’t have time to sit and complain, and we get to work right away. It kind of brings out that competitiveness, stubbornness or whatever it is that keeps us as elite athletes.”
She Shoots... She Scores will explore the history and legacy of women’s hockey as well as highlight women that have broken down barriers in a sport that has long been dominated by men. Developed with resources and artifacts from the Hockey Hall of Fame, this exhibition is an exploration of the development of amateur, university, professional, and international women’s hockey. The opening reception will be held Saturday, January 25 from 4-6 pm. Brianne Jenner, Olympic gold medalist, will be holding a meet and greet. Brianne played for Team Canada during the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. Former World Champion Nathalie Rivard and PWHPA board member Liz Knox will be speaking. Opening receptions are free to attend and all are welcome.
“She Shoots...She Scores” runs until April 11 in the Upper Gallery.