Blayre Turnbull calls herself “one of the lucky ones.”
Because her hockey shifts are her only shifts.
The reason the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) training group in Calgary convenes in the evenings is a lot of Turnbull’s teammates also have day jobs.
“Last year was tough — our practice times were in the morning, so a lot of the girls weren’t able to make those practice times work with their work schedules and their jobs,” Turnbull said. “This year, we have evening practices, which seem to be a lot more convenient for the girls. It’s really nice to show up to the rink and have pretty much a full team.”
There should be a lot of smiles at their next practice session after a major announcement earlier this week — a $1-million funding commitment from Secret Deodorant to the PWHPA to ensure that the momentum gained last season isn’t lost during the pandemic.
The sponsorship means that when Turnbull & Co. hit the ice for the next Dream Gap Tour, they will be competing for prize money for the first time. The schedule and specifics are not yet official, but the PWHPA is planning a slate of six showcase tournaments starting early in 2021.
“During a time where we just seem to be getting pummelled with bad news after bad news, waking up to that (Thursday) was definitely really exciting and it gives us hope for the future of our sport,” said Turnbull, who has represented Canada at three world championships and won a silver medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
“We’ve all been practising and just training and it’s been so long, it feels like, since we’ve had any games. So knowing there are games in the future and that they’re going to figure out a way to make sure that we get to play in those games, that’s something that is really promising. And secondly, it’s just nice to have support from such a massive company like Secret, a company that’s able to donate $1 million to the PWHPA. It just goes to show that there is support out there and there are people who believe in us and think that we deserve more than we’ve been given.”
The sponsorship announcement — according to the press release, the largest in the history of women’s hockey in North America — was coupled with a reveal of the rosters for the five PWHPA training regions.
The Calgary-based crew, now hitting the ice together three times per week, includes Olympians from a hat-trick of countries — Canada’s Turnbull, Rebecca Johnston, Brigette Lacquette and Meaghan Mikkelson, Kacey Bellamy and Brianna Decker of the U.S. and Russia’s Iya Gavrilova.
The PWHPA has also based squads in Toronto, Montreal, Minnesota and New Hampshire, with 25 athletes in each hub.
They’ll eventually come together to compete.
Most haven’t played a game since a Dream Gap Tour event in Arizona in early March. They were at that desert showcase when they learned the 2020 IIHF Women’s World Championship in Halifax had been cancelled due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
“It feels like forever ago,” Johnston said. “It’s been challenging and obviously different than what we’re used to. Normally, we have national team camp in September, where you get five really good, competitive games in against each other and Midget AAA guys teams. So we would have had that already, and then probably leading up to the 4 Nations tournament, and our league, PWHPA, would have started in October …
“I feel like it’s been a lot of just practices and holding yourself accountable to be motivated to keep going, because it does obviously feel very repetitive right now. You have to get that motivation within and try to keep going and see the brighter future.”
The PWHPA was formed in 2019, shortly after the surprise folding of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, with most of the biggest names in the sport joining the union instead of the National Women’s Hockey League. (Johnston and Turnbull, both forwards, previously skated for the CWHL’s Calgary Inferno.)
Even during these uncertain times, there are plenty of reasons for optimism.
“What we’re trying to fight for is this one league, this viable league, and I think we are making strides,” said Johnston, the proud owner of three Olympic medals — two gold and one silver. “Last year was super successful and now we have this huge announcement with Secret Deodorant, and I think that is a huge step. It’s just continuing to try to grow the game and increase that awareness and that platform we have.
“Last season was great. I think we had really great showcases around North America where we were able to showcase women’s hockey and the talent that we have and we had great turnouts, and they were streamed online. So I think it’s just continuing with that momentum and continuing to move forward. And I think this is another huge step that we’re taking.”
The ultimate goal, of course, is a league that can provide health insurance, competitive supports and salaries that will allow all the skaters — not just “the lucky ones” — to focus on that one job.
“That’s another thing that was really nice about this huge financial commitment we just received is it gives hope for the future,” Turnbull said. “So five or 10 years from now or however long it takes, hopefully sooner than that, when other women want to pursue a professional hockey career, they don’t have to worry about another career on top of it.”