When Kendall Coyne Schofield and 15 members of the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) play against a team of Sharks alumni Sunday at the team's Fan Fest, they'll have another purpose beyond the day's exhibition.
Sunday's "Legends Game" at SAP Center is one of three events in North America the PWHPA is participating in this weekend. A squad of New England-based PWHPA players scrimmaged Boston College's women's team Saturday, while four PWHPA teams are playing at a weekend showcase in Toronto.
The latter event is the first leg of the group's "Dream Gap Tour," a multi-city barnstorming tour that the organization hopes is the first step towards creating a "realistic equivalent" to the NHL for women's hockey players. Sunday's game carries a similar purpose, Coyne Schofield said.
"[Right] now, in the current state of the professional game for women, it's not good enough," the Olympic gold medalist and Sharks broadcaster said in an interview with NBC Sports California this month. "We don't want to put these girls in our skates one day, and have them get treated like we get treated. That's our ultimate goal and that's what we're fighting for, and we're working towards it every single day."
Up until March, there were two professional hockey leagues in North America. That was when Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL), a six-team league that had just completed its 12th season, folded. The National Women's Hockey League (NWHL), a five-team league based in the United States, remained.
Coyne Schofield played there last season, but she and around 200 other players joined the PWHPA in May. They announced in a press release their intention to not play professionally during the 2019-20 season "in order to build a sustainable league … that will provide financial and infrastructure resources to players; protect and support their rights and talents; provide health insurance; and work with companies … who already have voiced support for women's hockey."
The CWHL began paying players a maximum stipend of $10,000 per season in its second-to-last campaign in 2017-18. The NWHL increased its salary cap to $150,000 this season, and players now receive a 50 percent share of revenue from the league's media and sponsorship deals.
As a result, many women's players need to work additional jobs in order to support playing professional hockey. American players on the national team earn around $70,000 before performance bonuses after the women renegotiated their contract with USA Hockey, but just 23 players suited up for the United States at the IIHF World Championships in April.
"For us, if you're not one of 23 players to play in the Olympic games, (it's like,) ‘Well, sorry,'" Coyne Schofield said. "You're probably gonna have to a job after you play college hockey because there's no option for you to play this game, make a living playing it and call yourself a professional."
ESPNW reported in July that the PWHPA has 173 dues-paying members, each of which is a member in one of eight regions in North America. The players will train with one another in each region, scrimmaging against local teams and other PWHPA regions as well.
Fifteen of the 16 players who are expected to take the ice at SAP Center are American, including Coyne Schofield, 2018 Olympic gold medal shootout-winning goal-scorer Jocelyne Lameoreux-Davidson and seven others from the gold medal team. But a significant chunk of the PWHPA's members are Canadian, as they comprised the bulk of the rosters of the defunct league's Canadian franchises.
The United States and Canada have faced off in the gold medal game in all but one of the six Olympics in which women's hockey was played, and 18 of the 19 IIHF world championships. Their rivalry is as fierce as any in sports, yet Coyne Schofield said it was easy to put that aside.
"I think that speaks volumes to the current landscape of the game," Coyne Schofield said. "That all of us, regardless of countries, medals, achievements, personal agendas -- all of that's been put aside because we're able to look at each other, (all of us) in the players association, and say, 'What we have right now in the professional setting of women's hockey is not good enough.'
"We cannot just keep accepting the breadcrumbs of women's hockey and look at the future and say (to young women), 'We hope you're here one day.'"
The NWHL season -- sans Coyne Schofield and other stars -- is set to begin on Oct. 5. Meanwhile, the PWHPA will host another showcase in New Hampshire that weekend, and then a third in Chicago from Oct. 18-20. The organization just announced a partnership with the NHL Players Association, and Coyne Schofield said earlier this month she was hopeful that they're just getting started.
"Once we start seeing players on the ice with those PWHPA jerseys," she said, "it's gonna show where we've come in these long and hard-fought months to get players on the ice in these events."