Column: It's time for pro women's hockey, ya feel me?

February 18, 2014

The front page of ESPN.com is usually reserved for major NFL, NBA or MLB news.

On Monday morning, though, Olympic women’s hockey covered the website’s home page.

If former Gophers goaltender Noora Räty has her way, that’s a sign of things to come.

Räty, one of women’s hockey’s biggest stars, announced her retirement Saturday via her personal Twitter account.

In a lengthy open letter, she cited several reasons for her retirement — all of which stem from what she feels is a lack of competition in the women’s game.

There is no paid professional women’s hockey league in North America, and Räty wrote that she doesn’t think the pro league in Russia would challenge her enough.

She went on to say that without proper compensation, financial demands can’t be met through a career in women’s hockey.

“I think she made some good points,” Gophers head coach Brad Frost said. “It’s hard for these elite athletes to train and work all at the same time.”

While it’s certainly a bummer to see Räty retire at 24 years old, hanging up the skates in the middle of her prime might be the statement the sport needs to spur additional interest.

The Olympic competition and the Gophers’ 62-game winning streak certainly helped bring women’s hockey some national attention. But in order for the sport to become more mainstream, a professional league is necessary — at some point, at least.

There’s always the chicken-or-the-egg question of whether the media needs to cover the sport for people to be interested, or vice versa. That’s valid, but the game is indeed growing.

In the NCAA, college attendance at women’s hockey games is up across the board. And more than 5 million people watched the United States play Canada last Wednesday — at 5 a.m.

That’s because people pay to see a good product.

“I think what they need is attendance and people that are drawn to the game,” Frost said.

A women’s professional hockey league may seem far-fetched at this exact moment in time. But 20 years ago, so did the WNBA.

The WNBA wasn’t created until 1996. It’s still relatively new.

Critics still question the league’s popularity, but WNBA players can afford to make a living playing basketball.

It might be years or even decades away, but eventually there will be a sustainable professional women’s hockey league.

Now let’s just hope Räty will still be in playing shape by the time it happens.

Ya feel me?

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