Natalie Spooner (Richard Lautens/Getty Images)
Natalie Spooner wants to see the CWHL flourish to the point the next generation of women’s hockey stars can be paid to play, and that’s part of why she’s taking part in the Fuelling Women Champions initiative.
When Natalie Spooner was young, her goal was to play in the NHL. Years later, she has done the next best thing: made a career for herself in the CWHL and as a member of Canada’s national team. However, she wants to make sure the next generation of women’s hockey stars can focus solely on being professional athletes.
“There’s more challenges as I’m getting older,” Spooner told thn.com. “When I was young, I was just playing the game. Now, getting older and having to realize where my future is and wondering if I can work, I think that’s the biggest barrier that can hopefully be broken in the future – that having women’s sports, or women’s hockey, be a fulltime job or being a career. Because right now it’s not.”
And that’s why Spooner – along with fellow Olympians such as curler Jennifer Jones, soccer star Desiree Scott, wheelchair-racer Chantal Peticlerc and bobsleigh-racer Kaillie Humphries – have teamed up for the Fuelling Women Champions program in association with Dairy Farmers of Canada.
The initiative encourages young women to get involved in sport, with hope that increased participation and viewership will create a bigger market for women’s athletics. As it stands, the Canadian Association of Advancement for Women in Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS) reports that of available sponsorship dollars, 99.6 percent are given to men’s athletics. In addition, CAAWS notes only two to four percent of sports coverage is of women’s athletics even though women make up 40 percent of athletes.
Spooner sees the initiative as an opportunity to change the financial landscape for female athletes. Part of that is creating exposure and turning the tide when it comes to coverage of women’s sports. While the Olympics have helped put women’s hockey on the international stage, the CWHL has proven the skill level translates to league play.
“Women’s hockey, every year, the level of the hockey just gets better,” Spooner said. “Especially this year – the Boston Blades had a lot of U.S. Olympians and the other four teams were strong enough with Canadian Olympians. Going into the Clarkson Cup, anyone can win it. That was proven not this year, but the year before when Toronto ended up winning.”
The Clarkson Cup being televised has helped the league immensely and there has been continued growth over the past several years. In The Hockey News’ January Money & Power issue, Matt Larkin noted viewership has risen each year, and the same goes for attendance.
“For our home opener for the Furies this year, we got quite a few fans out and I know I heard from a lot of them that they couldn’t believe the caliber of women’s hockey and how good it has become,” Spooner said. “Some told me they enjoyed it just as much as watching the men’s game.”
Obviously, contracts competitive with their male counterparts would be preferable, but the money doesn’t add up yet. However, Spooner is confident in the CWHL, even with the incoming NWHL, which will offer paid contracts next season.
“I’ve heard about the (NWHL), but I guess I’m a little bit skeptical still just because of the money and where it’s coming from,” said Spooner. “I’d like to hear more about it, for sure. For now, I’m hoping to just help grow the CWHL and helping to get it to be a league that can pay its players.”
And that’s really all Spooner wants – through this campaign, with her career, for the future. She wants to make the game lucrative for the young girls who watch now to have a place to play for their careers. As part of the Fuelling Women’s Champions initiative, Spooner will meet with a number of young female athletes and get the chance to speak to them. Her message? If you love the game, don’t let anything stop you.
“As long as you’re enjoying it and having fun, keep playing,” Spooner said. “There definitely is going to be a future in women’s hockey. A lot of us are still playing now. And even if it’s not the amount of money that the men are getting paid, there’s still opportunity.”