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From The Rafter: Survival of professional women's hockey hangs in the balance

Under new salary cuts, womens' hockey players will have to choose between hockey and making rent.

Rafter signs her NWHL contract.
Rafter signs her NWHL contract.

After playing in the inaugural season of the National Women's Hockey League with the Buffalo Beauts, I signed a contract to play for the New York Riveters this season. From the beginning, it's been a no brainer to be a part of something bigger than myself and help pave the way for future generations of young women dreaming to play pro. That's why it was particularly difficult last night to hear that in order to keep the NWHL alive for the remainder of 2017, already lean players’ salaries would be reduced by 50%.

Like many of my NWHL peers, when I woke today I was forced to grapple with how to keep a dream alive versus simply surviving financially. I think I can speak for every NWHL player that we obviously want the league to succeed and are willing to make the sacrifices from our side, as demonstrated through our commitment, energy and time and our willingness to play for below market pay and travel conditions. As women participating in professional sports, we fully understand the limited opportunities and reduced compensation and already went through difficult decisions to participate in this 2nd season. Now, with low salaries slashed in half, and an uncertain future, we must contend with basic needs – can we pay rent, pay for food, transportation etc….

The whole idea and vision behind creating a women's professional hockey league was to showcase the extraordinary talents and skillsets of female hockey players from around the world. Given the proliferation of multiple men’s hockey leagues in 30+ countries around the world, it’s been easy to overlook the explosion in talent on the womens’ side, to the point that the elite in the NWHL are comparable in skill and ability to many of their male counterparts. Not only are these women part of the elite pool of athletes and hockey players in their country, they have uprooted their lives in some form or fashion to make this whole thing go. Sacrifice is not a new concept to us. However, we all have a common dream that a women's pro hockey league will someday exist as a sustainable entity for future generations of female hockey players. That's why we committed to this league. That's what keeps us committed and why we continue to play.

This part of my blog is particularly difficult to write as it exposes my reality. I realize I may not be able to play out the rest of the season, which is sad and painful to consider. I have a median salary, so other players in the league will have financial situations a bit above or below mine.

For the first two months of the season, monthly paycheques totaled $1642, clearly low relative to so many other industries and the talent of the league, but part of the sacrifice. At this stage, at least we could dedicate time and energy towards training and excelling.

We all live simply, budgeting on what we "need" not what we "want" in order to do what we do. There's room to do a few things a month for enjoyment outside of hockey but for the most part hockey is our lives. I have to account for various things like saving for school, which I'm to be enrolled in for January.

Here's a look at what I need to be a healthy, happy and fueled athlete on a monthly basis: Rent $650, Groceries $300, Metro $100, Personal/Misc $200, Saving $300. Let's do some simple math ($1,642 - $1,550). Monthly, I'm left with $92 after all my financial needs have been met. It is clear when I show you this that none of us are playing for the money, but at the end of the day we all have basic financial needs that need to be met in order to lead healthy lives. Our initial paycheques allowed us to do that with limited latitude.

The situation has now shifted to our salaries being cut, around the half way point. As of November 30th, my monthly pay will be ~$742. I will have a deficit of -$808 each month after accounting for the training and living expenses mentioned above.

There are 7 months remaining in the season, and with the salary cuts, my total salary deficit will be around -$5,656 by the end of April. Essentially, by continuing to play and fighting for the future of our sport, I will be putting myself into debt and shouldering a disproportionate amount of risk personally – as will my peers.

After finding out about this situation last night, there wasn’t much leeway to figure something out before the pay cuts take effect. If we don't accept, there's the risk of losing exponential amounts of talent on each NWHL team. This is a challenging period personally with daunting, perilous decisions impending.

I want this league to work. I just need a solution. I say this because over the course of the day, so many thoughts have swirled around in my mind, but I can't help but fixate on one in particular. What the league and the players choose to do right now in terms of finding a solution will impact the future of our sport and women's lives around the globe. What we are doing matters, it’s yet another advancement in the opportunities available for women in the future and glimpse of their unique abilities today.

It's a tough period for our fans, our players, our organizations, and ultimately our sport. I strongly believe this is a pivotal moment in the history of women's hockey. As a message to any girl dreaming of playing professional sports, know that I am fighting for you and so are all the other athletes in this league--we continue to put forth our best efforts.

If you have any comments, questions or answers please feel free to share. It's going to take more than desire to save our game.

Without sponsorship the league will not be able to survive.