On Sunday morning, the CWHL announced that after a conversation with their board of directors, they will cease all operations and close their doors at the beginning of May.
The news comes after twelve years of professional women’s hockey in Canada and the states, meanwhile, most recently, they expanded with a sixth team, the KRS Vanke Rays in Shenzhen, China.
The movement is led by interim commissioner and hockey hall of fame member Jayna Hefford who took over for Brenda Andress who stepped down in July of 2018. As per the press release provided from the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, the business model for the league has proven to be economically unsustainable.
Along with Jayna Hefford, new management and a new board were appointed during the summer and fall of 2018 and have since proactively worked with a number of league leaders to establish an adequate revenue base, good governance and high quality hockey on the ice as well.
However, as the release goes on to say, unfortunately the business model that has been the foundation is not sustainable for the league financially. During a recent meeting at the Westin Harbour Castle located in Toronto, Meg Hewings, general manager of Les Canadiennes de Montreal, mentioned that in spite of regular sellouts, the league has been having trouble turning over a profit.
That in mind, given the fact that the CWHL is a centrally-funded, not-for-profit organization, all teams are required to raise a certain amount of money through ticket sales as well as team merchandise, meanwhile, they all receive equal access to funding to ensure equal opportunity and competition too.
In taking a deeper look at how it is that the CWHL is affected by finances, the league lost a major financial backer back in November when Graeme Roustan of Roustan Capital withdrew his company as a title sponsor of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
While on the ice, you wouldn’t know that there were difficulties being had behind the scenes, Anissa Gamble of the Toronto Furies recently took part in a research project at Ryerson where it was discovered that while NHL players make on average a $2.9 million salary, CWHL members are only making $3,000 on average.
That being said, females playing the same sport earn 0.103% of a males salary, just another difficulty at hand that was causing problems for the CWHL. It’s also worth keeping in mind that as a result of this, majority of these athletes come from their day jobs to take to the ice, while very few of them are partnered with Hockey Canada, which allows those girls to be financially secure.
While of course the money plays in to making the league successful on the business side, support and sponsorships do too, something that the league was working on over the course of the season.
Given that the CWHL is already partnered with the Calgary Flames, Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL, the league added to their list of sponsors the NHLPA to help further fund women’s hockey growth and development.
While local sponsors have attempted to step up where they could to provide support, it simply was not enough to help the league turn a profit and therefore, forcing them to cease all operations.
Since its founding by players and community members back in 2007, the CWHL’s mandate was to grow the sport of women’s hockey, a goal they have more than achieved since then.
Just one week ago, the 12th edition of the Clarkson Cup Final took place in Toronto where more than 175,000 fans tuned in to watch the game on TVA Sports, NHL Network and Sportsnet. As cited in the press release, this made for a new record in viewership as Calgary went on to defeat Montreal.
While there are plenty of unknown answers as many continue to process to the surprising decision, the NWHL has already prioritized their next steps for expansion as they look to add a team or two for the coming season.
In response to requests for comment about the players and fans of the CWHL in Canada, Dani Rylan, commissioner of the NWHL, said in a brief statement about the next steps, “We will pursue all opportunities to ensure the best players in Canada have a place to play. Those conversations have started already and have quickly become a priority.”
Rylan would then go on to say, “The great players and passionate fans in Canada deserve professional women’s hockey. They have our attention and we will continue to be leaders to advance the game and value of these extraordinary athletes.”
Just hours following the news break, a source requesting anonymity from the NWHL spoke with Hailey Salvian of The Athletic where they said about the varying likelihood of the league adding Canadian teams to the mix, “The NWHL will “absolutely” look at adding one or two Canadian teams for next season, with the top options being Montreal and one of the Greater Toronto Area teams due to cost and travel considerations.”
For as long as the league has been open, women’s hockey has been known to be fast, skilled, and generally high scoring, making for excellent entertainment. This was seconded by Jayna Hefford who spoke with The Athletic’s Hailey Salvian on Sunday who said when asked about the future of professional women’s hockey in Canada, “It’s a sad end to the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, but it’s not the end of professional women’s hockey. It’s too good. It’s too entertaining. There are a lot of people supporting the game and want to see it grow. And hopefully, they step up.”
While the theory for many has been that this was done to attempt one league, Laurel Walzak, the CWHL’s chair of the board of directors told Hailey Salvian about the decision, “This was not a bow out (in order to get to a one-league solution). We have no control over what the NHL does. This was a decision made based on good corporate governance and what we need to do for the organization and the players and the various people we employ.”
As noted by Hailey Salvian, just last week, all league GM’s met with Jayna Hefford and her team and the conversation was said to be all positive with no indications of trouble at the time. This of course was until an email was sent out about an urgent phone call on Friday evening.
I spoke with Kristen Richards, Markham Thunder forward, on Sunday evening about the CWHL’s decision to fold and in speaking about the future of uncertainty ahead, Kristen said to me in a written statement, “I think we’re all still processing everything at this time. I wish I could tell you the answer to what comes next; we’re all trying to figure that out.”
Richards has been an integral part of the Markham Thunder for four consecutive seasons and when speaking about what the organization, led by Chelsea Purcell and Jim Jackson, has meant to her, she told me, “Being a part of the Markham Thunder was the best thing that happened to me both as a player and a person. I’m incredibly thankful for my teammates, coaches, GMs, staff, volunteers, and fans.”
As you might expect, Richards, who spends her day job working as a teacher at The Hill Academy, was blindsided by the news, but spoke highly of the on-ice performance in the CWHL. To this regard, the Thunder forward said to me in a statement, “What I can tell you is that I believe in the product we put on the ice and I know the strength of my teammates and competitors. These are not the type of people who will take this lightly. When one door closes, another one will open and I know that there are already people knocking today.”
When the league first broke the news, many of the girls were in Espoo, Finland, however, that didn’t stop them from sharing matching statements on social media about women’s hockey in Canada. While Richards is not one of those, she still answered the hard hitting question when she said about where they will look next in attempt to continue inspiring young girls, “The question is, who will answer? Women’s hockey has a ton of forward momentum and there’s no way that this is the end.”
“We will continue to advocate for our sport because we know there is a bright future for women’s hockey. To the little girls who I coach, keep dreaming — it’s going to happen.”
It’s not the news anyone saw coming and it’s certainly not the news that anyone wanted, but as for the current time being, it is what the league is dealing with, though they’re talent remains on display at the women’s world championship.
It all gets going overseas on Thursday morning from Espoo, Finland with the first of many games taking place at 9:00amET as Team Canada opens up Group A play against Team Switzerland.
It is the first time that the tournament will feature an expanded schedule with 10 countries involved, but it will give Canada the chance to reclaim their first women’s world title since 2012.
Amongst the valued members named to Team Canada’s roster this year are Marie-Philip Poulin from Les Canadiennes and Natalie Spooner from the Toronto Furies. While uncertainly may lie ahead with the CWHL’s closure at home, the focus remains on the ice for Team Canada as they look to reclaim the gold medal abroad.