CHICAGO -- Billie Jean King was a pioneer in helping women tennis players earn better opportunities and pay. Now she's helping the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association try to do the same.
Billie Jean King Enterprises partnered with the Magellan Corporation for the Women's Hockey Showcase in Chicago, the final stop on the PWHPA's Dream Gap Tour, a series of showcase events played with the mission of closing the gap between what boys and girls can aspire to achieve.
"These three things totally pertain to the hockey association, and that is, any girl born in this world, if she's good enough, will have a place to compete," King said on Saturday. "Number two, she should be appreciated for her accomplishments and not only her looks, and number three, the most important one, to be able to make a living."
The PWHPA was formed by more than 200 of the world's best women hockey players in May to promote, advance and support a single, viable professional women's ice hockey league in North America. The Dream Gap Tour also went to Toronto in September and Hudson, New Hampshire, earlier this month. More than 35 Olympians competed in games on Saturday and Sunday at Fifth Third Arena in Chicago; arena general manager Andrea Hahn said 1,600 tickets were sold for the games.
King, who dropped the ceremonial first puck with partner Ilana Kloss before the championship game on Sunday, said she, Kloss and BJK Enterprises are standing with the women's hockey players.
"Ilana and I are willing to get sponsors, whatever it's going to take," King said. "Just like Magellan Corporation, without them, we wouldn't have been able to do this showcase at all. The Blackhawks have been fantastic; everyone in Chicago's been unbelievable. My hope and my prayer is that someday we'll have that vehicle of opportunity, a league, where we'll have hundreds of women playing professional hockey. And so little girls and boys, but little girls, in particular, have to see it to be it, and they'll actually see the end product, where they can go like the boys do now with the NHL."
On Sept. 30, 1970, King was one of nine women's tennis players to sign a $1 contract with World Tennis publisher Gladys Heldman to form the Virginia Slims Circuit, which later became the Women's Tennis Association. In 1971, King became the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000 in prize money in a single year.
Angela Ruggiero, who as a defenseman won gold with the U.S. women's team at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, said the PWHPA couldn't have a better advocate than King.
"She's a leader, she did this 50 years ago for tennis," said Ruggiero, who's known King for 20 years. "Women's hockey can't be successful? Well, people said the something about tennis 50 years ago. And slowly but surely, having that infrastructure over the last half century, now you see what you see. Women's tennis is synonymous with the men. People aren't relating it. And they're finally getting the equal pay. It's taken a long time, which is why we need to start now [in women's hockey], and I think Billie understands her voice is so important in this."
Hockey Hall of Fame forwards Cammi Granato and Jayna Hefford coached teams in the showcase's championship game on Sunday with Team Granato winning 4-1. Fans could sign a giant poster featuring Canada forward Marie-Philip Poulin and U.S. forward Hilary Knight. Messages left on the poster included: "I want to make it to the Olympics." "Every kid has a chance to play." "Girls need better opportunities."
Players also had an autograph session with fans following Saturday's games.
"I think that's what we want to come in here and do is showcase our talent, and it was awesome to see all the little girls in the stands and to sign autographs for them after," Canada forward Natalie Spooner said. "Just to know they have that hope and see us playing in real life. When I was little, I don't think my dream started until I met [former Canada forward] Jennifer Botterill and saw her in person and saw her gold medals and realized, they're real people and I could be that. So, I think this is really important what we're doing and hopefully it's inspiring lots of little girls to play hockey and continue playing."
Cailey Kramer, 14, who lives in Hickory Hills, Illinois, about 20 miles southwest of Chicago, loved being at the Tour.
"It's so nice that it's so close, and it's mind blowing that these women were in the Olympics for the same thing I'm doing," said Kramer, who plays for the Chicago Fury 14U in Orland Park, Illinois. "The sport's definitely growing and I'm so excited about that. I mean, I've been in it since I was 5 years old and the sport wasn't that big for girls back then. It's grown so much and I'm so happy to be a part of something this big."
PWHPA members know there's a lot of work ahead, but they're encouraged by the reception they've had on the Dream Gap Tour stops, and the potential of what they can create.
"The bigger picture is to give the young girls who have been showing up at these showcases with signs and waiting in line for autographs, hopefully, a future that they can dream about," U.S. forward Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson said. "I mean, you have to be able to be willing to risk it all if you want to change the landscape of what has been for so many years. Look what Billie Jean did, and the opportunities that's created for so many women, not just in the U.S. but across the world. If you look at this group of players, this will be the proudest thing that any of us will have accomplished in our careers if everything comes to fruition. And we really believe one sustainable, professional league in North America with the best players is the next big move for women's hockey.