VANCOUVER — Early in Game 4 of the 2020 women’s hockey Rivalry Series, Team U.S.A.’s Megan Bozek skated the puck down the ice. As she entered the offensive zone, she lifted her stick horizontally and drilled it into the protective cage of Erin Ambrose, the Canadian defender who had been blocking her path to the net.
After losing Game 3 in overtime two nights earlier, Bozek was sending the message that the United States team would be taking no prisoners.
Body-checking may be illegal in women’s hockey, but intense physical play is the norm whenever the world’s two top hockey nations square off, even when there’s nothing more than pride on the line.
“Used to it. Yep. Nothing different than we haven’t seen before,” said United States captain Kendall Coyne Schofield after her team’s 3-1 victory in a contest in which Bozek’s crosschecking minor was one of 11 total penalties called on the night.
In the so-called “gap year,” the time between the Canadian Women’s Hockey League’s folding in spring 2019 to now, there has been no North American professional league available to the sport’s top players. Bozek and her teammate, Alex Carpenter, have been playing in Russia’s Zhenskaya Hockey League to work on their games, giving them a leg up on the many Olympians and other elite players continuing to boycott the National Women’s Hockey League. But their stories also reveal how hard it still is to make a go of life as a female professional hockey player.
“The physicality has been very helpful,” Carpenter said. “Those teams just never give up and they always go, so I think playing against competition like that and very skilled players is definitely helpful.”
U.S. head coach Bob Corkum liked what he saw from Carpenter when she arrived for the first Rivalry Series training camp and exhibition games in the Pittsburgh area last November. She has since been named Player of the Game for scoring the game-winning goal in the second game of the series.
“I’m not sure what has given her the advantage, but this whole year, she’s been lights out,” said Corkum. “She’s been one of our most consistent players.”
The demise of the C.W.H.L. led to the formation of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, a group of more than 200 players who pledged not to play in a North American pro league this season because of concerns about operations and low wages. The highest announced salary in the N.W.H.L., a five-team outfit now in its fifth season, is $15,000.
The P.W.H.P.A. has made no bones about its desire to partner with the N.H.L. to launch a league styled after the relationship between the N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. The connection between Russia’s top men’s league and its women’s league may provide another template.
“I think it would be great to take a look at that league,” said Carpenter. “I mean, there’s things that we could do better, there’s things that are great already, but I think just taking a look at that overall, due to their backing with the K.H.L., I think would be a really great start for us moving forward.”
After playing her first pro season in 2016-17 with the N.W.H.L.’s Boston Pride, Carpenter headed for China after she was cut from the 2018 Olympic team that went on to win gold medal over Canada in Pyeongchang.
Her father, former Ranger Bobby Carpenter, was coaching the men’s Kunlun Red Star team in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League and suggested she come over and join the women’s side, one of two women’s teams based in Shenzhen and affiliated with the C.W.H.L.
Carpenter returned to China for the 2018-19 season, when Red Star and the Vanke Rays merged into one squad. This season, the Vanke Rays joined up with the W.H.L., which has been backed by the K.H.L. since 2015, giving Carpenter a chance to stay in China for a third year — and to get a sense of how a women’s pro league that’s affiliated with Russia’s top men’s league operates.
“We didn’t know what to expect going into it,” Carpenter said. “We came from the C.W.H.L. and we’d bounce back and forth between China and North America for a month and a half at a time.”
Playing in the same arenas as the men, either before their games or after, came with perks. “We get towels, we get a locker room a week before if we need it,” Carpenter said. “We get a coaches’ room. Small things like that, that you don’t think are a big thing. But they really make a big difference in your travels.”
N.H.L. commissioner Gary Bettman has stated repeatedly that his league is reluctant to get involved while there’s an existing women’s league in operation. Instead, top women’s players have gotten showcases, like at last month’s All-Star Weekend, which for the first time included a three-on-three game between the U.S.A. and Canada.
In addition to the other showcases provided by the P.W.H.P.A.’s ongoing Dream Gap Tour, the current five-game Rivalry Series, in its second year, has provided opportunities for real competition and put the spotlight on the women’s game. All five games this year have been broadcast on national television.
Wednesday’s win gave the U.S. team a 3-1 edge in the five-game Rivalry Series. But even with bragging rights established, both teams are looking forward to another big moment in Anaheim on Saturday, where more than 11,000 fans are expected at Honda Center in what is projected to be the largest crowd ever to watch a women’s national team game in the United States.
“I think this year, our main objective is really to have that big exposure and to get our product in front of fans,” said Canadian forward Sarah Nurse. “We want to be seen by everybody. That’s the only way that people are going to recognize the value in our product.
While the players who have stayed in North America have found ways to keep busy even without league play, some of them admit that the lack of structure has made it more difficult to find a rhythm when preparing for the Rivalry Series and the Women’s World Championship, which begins on March 31 in Nova Scotia.
“I think I would be lying if I tell you it’s easy,” said Canadian captain Marie-Philip Poulin. “The routine is not there at all.”
Carpenter has traveled to North America for the Rivalry Series games and All-Star Weekend, and will be back for the World Championship, but says she’s glad to have been playing in a more traditional league situation this year, where she’s leading the W.H.L. scoring race. “It’s nice to have that competitive environment. where you’re ultimately working with a team for an ultimate goal,” she said. “I think that helps me, myself, carry that over to here, knowing that when it’s ‘go time’ during the games, I’ve been working on that all year.”
That decision may put her in an advantageous position when it is time to name the Team U.S.A. roster for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
“It would be pretty cool to be able to go and be there with some of my Chinese teammates who are trying to make their team.”
If there’s still no new pro league in North America next season, Carpenter said she would love to see more P.W.H.P.A. players join her in the W.H.L. After Saturday’s Rivalry Series finale in Anaheim, Carpenter and Bozek will head back to Russia to finish out their regular season and start playoffs, then return late next month for the World Championship.
With all the international travel, Carpenter’s passport is getting full.
“It is. I need a new one soon.”