Yes, Somehow The Best Pro Women's Hockey Players Owe Their Team Money

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Take a minute: Read the below comic, or click on this link.

@Hilary_Knight/Twitter

Hilary Knight created that image two weeks ago, then posted it on Twitter. The text accompanying the image is a little "inside baseball," requiring specific knowledge, but essentially the Olympic hockey star is talking about how she and some of her teammates on the Boston Blades are falling short on their ticket sales quota and have taken to social media for help.

A day before releasing the comic, Knight sent out the following tweet: "So it's our last home game @Bdecker14 @AGagliardi92 & I havent raised enough ticket money-Please attend this weekend under our names #thankU." This missive drew a particularly poignant response from @BadgersWHockey -- Knight played for Wisconsin in college -- who wrote: "@Hilary_Knight this is the saddest thing I've ever heard from such a talented athlete."

Hard to disagree with @BadgersWHockey.

Some background: The Blades are the only U.S. club in the Canadian Women's Hockey League, which was founded in 2007 and also features teams in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Alberta and Brampton, Ontario. Boston, launched in 2010, is composed primarily of American players, and the four Canadian teams are almost exclusively Canadian.

Translation: If you're an American women's hockey player who wants to play after college ... welcome to Boston!

This past weekend, the Blades won the Clarkson Cup, the CWHL equivalent of the Stanley Cup. But that opportunity didn't come cheap: The Blades had to pay the CWHL $35,000 to compete for the Cup, a league requirement for all teams. Of that amount, each player on the team had to raise 1 percent ($350). Players could do so by selling tickets or coaching clinics or just writing the club a check.

The rest of the fundraising work landed on the shoulders of Boston coach Digit Murphy and general manager Aronda Kirby, the latter of whom wasn't a fan of Knight's drawing. "To put it simply, I didn't appreciate Hilary's comic," Kirby said. "I had a conversation with her: 'I get where you're coming from, you wanted to poke fun at it.' But I wanted to offer her, and all the players, another perspective. We have to demonstrate to sponsors that we can sell the product, that we can put people in seats. And when someone like Hilary Knight makes a statement, it makes a huge impact."

And it has caused a splash. Knight said the point of the comic was to bring awareness to the Blades and the current financial reality of playing pro hockey. "The truth is we don't have the same resources as our counterparts on the men's side. Our sport is growing, but things like paying for gas to drive to games and practice, paying for parking and equipment -- even taking days off work to go play hockey -- these are all just part of the daily grind for us," Knight said. "And the comic was about raising awareness and drawing attention to these issues, just in a playful way."

That's exactly the silver lining: The comic has opened the door to an interesting conversation about the future of women's hockey, about its professional viability and about the current generation of female hockey stars, who find themselves in an awkward space. A select few (Knight, for example) can generate enough sponsorship to solely play hockey, but the majority of the players are performing a juggling act.

For example: The Blades beat Montreal, 3-2, on an overtime goal by rookie Janine Weber, who is from Austria. After the game, the 5-foot-10 forward received an invitation from the Hockey Hall of Fame to donate her stick, an honor the young star did not want to decline even though she had only one other stick to use in next month's world championship -- and it was broken.

A day later, a message surfaced on Twitter that ended with the following sentence: "Can any hockey equipment company help out this CWHL rookie who has to pay for her own equipment?"

Later that night, the equipment company STX responded, asking exactly what Weber needed. The Boston Blades replied to STX, outlining the kind of stick Weber uses. STX followed through and mailed additional gear to Weber. Appropriately enough, the motto for STX hockey is, "Focus on your game, we'll focus on your gear."

Hundreds of women's ice hockey players likely wish they could do just that.

Of course, there's nothing new about female athletes not earning much money. But this is a little different. These are female athletes -- Olympic medalists and national heroes, to be specific -- who actually owe their team money, who are responsible for a chunk of ticket sales and who don't have enough money for basic equipment.

By no means is the CWHL the only league where players share costs, but it's notable because the sport includes some big names (Knight, for one) and also because women's hockey feels poised on the brink of professional viability, much like the WNBA was nearly 20 years ago.

These women, many of whom are Olympians, essentially work three jobs to keep their hockey dreams afloat. They hold regular 9-to-5 gigs, or some variation thereof, while trying to play hockey on the highest level. (A sampling of jobs currently held by members of the Blades: second-grade teacher, baker, assistant college coach, fitness instructor, employee at a biotech company, assistant at the district attorney's office.) In addition, these women also ostensibly work part time in ticket sales and promotion for the Blades, as all professional contracts with the Blades are for three years -- no other option exists -- and all must meet their "fundraising" goal.

Before Knight created the comic and released it on social media, she and 14 of her teammates owed the club $350. The day Knight sent out the comic, Kirby, the general manager of the Blades, sent an email to every player on the team calling the comic "unprofessional and immature to say the least" and adding that "it's not just about the $$, it's about putting fans in the seats at our games so you feel like you're playing for someone that values you as athletes."

Kirby isn't wrong.

It's just ... how, in 2015, is this reality?

Playing for peanuts is one thing; paying peanuts to play -- when you're the best in the world at what you do -- is another thing entirely.

But all this begs the question: What the heck is going on with women's professional hockey?

Part of this is about numbers, about a sport that's actually in its infancy here in the U.S. Here's a bit of context: When women's hockey made its Olympic debut in 1998, there were 19 Division I women's hockey programs and 28,000 female athletes registered as participants. Today, there are 35 Division I programs and 70,000 girls and women registered.

The sport is growing, yes, and the next step is a legitimate professional outlet.

Just a little over a year ago, USA Women's Hockey was the toast of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Even though the team lost a dramatic final against Canada, the game set Twitter ablaze and sparked discussions about the future of women's hockey in the U.S: Could the 2014 Olympics launch the sport, the same way the 1996 Olympics launched women's basketball and the WNBA?

Look at women's basketball or women's soccer. The WNBA has 12 franchises, a handful of which share resources with their NBA counterparts. And in soccer, the U.S. (along with Canada and Mexico) actually pays the salaries for its national team members who play in the NWSL.

Women's basketball has won five straight Olympic gold medals; women's soccer has won three consecutive, and four of the last five. But women's ice hockey hasn't won gold since 1998.

The reality is, if the CWHL didn't exist, the U.S. would have almost no way of developing existing talent, no structured way of allowing its players to stay in shape between Olympic years. As it is, the Blades practice only twice a week, from 8:10 to 9:40 at night.

This is hardly the stuff of Olympic dreams.

"It's an interesting relationship between USA Hockey and the CWHL," said Reagan Carey, director of women's hockey for Team USA. "We need to grow and have viable options here in the U.S. Now there is a bit of a tipping point for us. There are enough players that we can start to sustain this. It's important to recognize all the growth and now the pressure and demand to keep that momentum going. The big opportunity is on this post-grad group and how do we maintain a training ground for them."

Added Carey: "The biggest thing that has come up as we look to the future: How do we pay these players?"

That's what Kirby wants for the Blades, too. She wants, someday, to be able to pay these players, rather than pin them with fundraising goals, rather than watch them hand over equipment to the Hall of Fame but not have a replacement.

Part of the solution is awareness.

In that way, Knight's comic actually helped jump-start the conversation.

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