Pioneers Are Hard To Come By: Janine Weber Signs With NWHL
The first player to sign with the National Women’s Hockey League is a forward, a clutch goal-scorer and an international athlete. She has a season under her belt as a professional player, played 17 games, tallied seven points and was plus-11 ending the regular season. She added another three goals to that total in the postseason, and scored the Cup-winning goal in overtime in March of 2015 for the Boston Blades.
Which is when Janine Weber found herself embroiled in the conversation about why women needed and deserved to be paid for their work.
After scoring the Cup-winning goal against Montreal Stars goaltender Charline Labonté, giving the Boston Blades their second Clarkson Cup in three years, she was asked to donate her stick to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
It was possibly the best moment of Weber’s professional hockey career, but she hesitated to donate the stick. Why?
Weber, who was working to support herself as a teacher at a school for children with autism and developmental disabilities, only had two sticks. The other was broken.
The CWHL only provides certain equipment to players. Sticks are not included among their guarantees.
Her teammates used social media to contact to equipment companies such as STX Hockey and Bauer to ask for someone, anyone, to cover a stick or two for Weber.
Equipment Is Replaceable: People Are Not
STX Hockey did generously provide Weber with the equipment that she needed, but it was clear that this was the proverbial Band-Aid over the bullet hole.
The lack of stick wasn’t the problem; the inability to replace it was.
And as the CWHL had reportedly gone so far this season as to ask its players to sign a three-year contract for no pay, that wasn’t likely to change soon.
At the same time, Weber was aware she had only one choice if she wanted to play hockey at a high level, and that was in the CWHL. There are leagues around the world that have allowed women players in recent years, such as the SPHL in the U.S. or the Mestis league in Finland, but Weber said those leagues were not of any interest to her. She wanted to play women’s hockey, and she wanted to continue to improve.
“I think the level here [in the U.S.] is just way higher than in Europe because there’s more competition and way more players, which just elevates the whole game,” Weber told media on Thursday. “There’s some really, really, good players from Europe, but I think there’s not enough depth…when players decide to get better they come to the US or Canada.”
There has been an effort worldwide to develop girls’ hockey at the grassroots level in recent years with the addition of women’s hockey to the Olympic games, but as Olympic podiums have shown, and Weber noticed, the difference in skill level was tangible. A large part of that is the college hockey system women have access to in the U.S., and which Weber participated in as a graduate student of education at Providence College.
“There’s definitely a big growth [in the development of girls’ hockey],” Weber said, “but I think the college system is really what the big difference is between European hockey and American hockey. You spend 4 years training and playing really good games, where as in Austria or anywhere in Europe, people go to school and play for a club hockey team that has nothing to do with their university. It’s hard to combine those two and the level here is that so [sic] higher, so I think that’s why there’s such a big gap.”
This college system is exactly what gave Weber a chance to play professionally and it is why the NWHL is coming into being. League founders want to give women a place to play at their highest level, beyond what the NCAA could offer. They believed that was beyond what the CWHL currently offered women.
And the NWHL offered Weber not only a chance to compete at a level she desired, but it would give her enough money to truly dedicate herself to it for part of the year. That was the hook, and that was what brought her over to the newest pro women’s hockey league.
Weber’s status as an international athlete (she is Austrian by birth and nationality) is one of the more interesting things about this signing. Her contract with the CWHL was up at the end of the 2014-2015 season and she was free and clear to sign with the NWHL. When she learned about the league she said she was immediately interested, knowing that someone out there would pay her for skills she spent years developing in Austria and the U.S.
However, visas can be an issue for international players. The NWHL has repeatedly stated that it is committed to having the best players in the world on its rosters, and so far is backing up that statement with a camp dedicated to international players that will run in late July as well as a lawyer who will work with each player individually to determine the best type of visa for each of them.
As Rylan told media Wednesday, “there is not one blanket visa that is given to all athletes.” Contracting with a lawyer to work to customize each player’s visa application will not only benefit the players, but the League as well. After seeing barriers to playing overseas drop, one after the other, skilled international players interested in advancing their play will clamor to join the NWHL.
Rylan expects signings to “come in bunches,” so Weber plays an important dual role as the first free agent to sign with the NWHL. Not only does this signal the likely start of a wave of former CWHL players signing with the League, but players from other countries as well.
Pioneers are hard to come by but it is even harder to be one. We ask a lot of our front line and the journey is anything but easy. Not many take it willingly and even fewer thrive on it.
Despite the uncertainty, Weber is a pioneer for these women, clearing the way for many more to join her. This won’t be simple for her, or any of the first wave to join the NWHL, but it will be worthwhile.