Women in Professional Sport: Insights into the National Women’s Hockey League
Q&A with Rachel Llanes, Boston Pride
Rachel Llanes hails from San Jose, California and played collegiate hockey at
Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. She spent two seasons in the
Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) with the Boston Blades before joining the
Boston Pride in the inaugural season of the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL).
The Boston Pride won the inaugural Isobel Cup and the NWHL Championship back on
March 12, 2016.
Rachel Llanes spoke with the Ladies League about her experiences as a female
professional hockey player, the league, and the amazing impact the NWHL has had on
young girls in sport across the country.
How impactful has sport been in your life?
Sports are obviously a huge part of my lifestyle. I cannot remember not playing them.
Growing up I played every sport I could get my hands on, and when I found hockey I
knew right away. That was it. I could feel passion about just being an athlete. I have pride
Can you describe your experiences as a female in a male dominated sport such as
Growing up there was a girl's team, but the level of skill was very low, because hockey in
California wasn't that big. I played on a boys team, and some boys were all for it, and
they were excited, and other boys didn't like the fact there was a girl on the team that was
as good or better than them. I think that's hard for boys to adjust to. Obviously I took
some cheap shots, and name calling, and stuff like that. When I was younger I didn’t
think about those things. I was like why can't I? Now I'm realizing I did face a little bit
more adversity when I was younger.
Were there times you faced adversity as a female college hockey player as well?
In college I think I recognized it more. Compared to men's college hockey we're not even
on that spectrum. I don't even know how many fans we would get, but it wasn't many.
We would have an undefeated record at school and we still couldn't draw fans, and the
men's team would have a losing record, and still pack the house, and that was frustrating.
The other thing was competing for ice time. I know, the men's team always got the better
ice times. In the afternoon hours, where after school you want to get that ice slot. We
were forced to do 5am practices, or late at night practices. That was unfortunate for us,
because it's harder for student athletes to have to deal with that type of schedule. I think it
was my junior year we actually complained about it, and the school had us switch
halfway through the year, and flip flop the times. We would start with 6am practices, and
halfway through the school year the men had to do the 6am practices. That's how they
tried to even it out.
I was actually surprised by the turnout in the NWHL- I would get recognized on the street by fans, and that was a cool experience, because I never expected that kind of recognition through women's hockey.
Can you describe your experiences in a start up league with the NWHL?
Going into it I didn't really know what I was really getting into. I mean it was cool, like
the salary. I was hearing "Oh, you get a salary," The minimum would be 10,000. To me I
didn't care, I just wanted to play at the highest level of hockey. Paycheck never mattered,
but now that I'm seeing, you're calling it a professional league just because you're getting
a paycheck. And you look the other professional league (NHL), men's leagues, and we're
not even close to what they're making.
I think that has a lot to do with not having the fans for the sport. I mean, there could be as
many women fans out there as men, but we don' get to see that, because obviously the
locations might be a little different. We don't get as much publicity as men's sports. I
knew that going into it, so the paycheck never bothered me. I just wanted to play. Going
in there I just want to play every game at a high level.
Do you have any opinions about the lack of T.V. coverage for the NWHL or USA
Oh yeah. We had a T.V. deal with NESN and we are broadcasted every Sunday either on
NESN itself or NESN+ which is great. But out of state, or out of area you don't get that
channel so that was tough. That's probably the most frustrating thing for us. Knowing
there is a fan base out there and not being able to reach them or get them to come out to
the game or working in. Obviously being broadcast on NBC or a national sports channel
would help out a lot. For instance, with the winter classic, that was hyped up for the
month leading up to it, and we didn't know about it for sure until 2 days before it. The coverage for our sport is not great at all.
How impactful do you think that the creation of this new league is for girls in the
sport of hockey?
It's unbelievable, because our fan base, when you look up at the fans at our games, it's
mostly younger girls, and that's really inspiring because they look up to us as role models,
and they come to see us play every Sunday. I'm hearing girls say things like, "I want to
play in the NWHL." Never in a million years did I think I would hear that, or even say
that. For girls to be about 12 or 13, to have something like that to look forward to, it's
unbelievable, and I think it's great for the sport. You'll get more girls interested, and that
take it seriously, and know how important women in sports really are, and that Women's
Hockey (the NWHL) is going to be up and running by the time they're up there.
You mentioned having to hold down multiple jobs while practicing and playing. Can
you further elaborate on some of that, maybe with what your weekly schedule looks
like? And are there any other roadblocks that you face while playing in the league?
To be honest, 2 years in the CWHL (Canadian Women’s Hockey League) kind of
prepared me for the NWHL, so when I got to NWHL it was a lot easier. My schedule, I
was able to balance it a lot better. It similar to the trend you face through your freshman
and sophomore years of college, you try to get a handle on things, and by junior year
you're good to go. That's just kind of the same thing for professional hockey.
My normal work week starts each day when I'm up around 4am I work from 6am to I
would say about 5pm everyday. It's not just one location either. I work from Cambridge
to Boston. Sometimes I'll go to Foxboro and all of these areas are about 40 miles apart. I'm driving at least 60 miles a day I would say.
How did it feel to win the inaugural NWHL championship?
It's amazing. Right from the beginning you knew every person that's part of that league is
part of history. Being able to say you won the first cup is something no one will be able
to touch. Only 20 players will be able to say they won the cup the first time. It's pretty
neat. When we won it was pretty emotional. I think as a team we faced a lot of adversity,
and to be rewarded with the cup was huge for us.
Do you have any opinions on the lawsuit that was filed by the U.S. Women's
national team for equal pay?
I think that's great. You want it to happen, and it was more about who is going to take
that first step, and they took it. That's unreal for all of Women's sports, and it's great that
they have the Men's support. When I read up on it it was unbelievable the difference
between Men's soccer, and Women's soccer. That's huge. To hear that they're going
through with that, it gives me hope for Women's sports. I know it's still a long way from
being equal, but they're making strides to get there. Which gives, I'm sure, everyone
It's huge. Right now I just want to do everything I can to bring awareness about it, and at
the same time enjoy the game and try not to think too much about how unfair it is. If I
thought about how unfair it was all my life I wouldn't be very happy, and I wouldn't be
able to enjoy the sport as much. I don't want to take anything away from the sport by
being too much about it.
Can you describe how you see the league developing over the next 5, 10 years?
We need to get the word out there. If that doesn't happen, if the league doesn't take more initiative on it I cannot see it going further than 5 years. We need to show that it's going
to be sustainable: what can we do to fill the seats? What can we do to get more people
aware about the league? It's up in the air. I cannot say I know where it's going to be in 10
years, 25 years, I really don't know. I think it will take a couple more years to see what
direction it's headed.