Levine: Walzak, Galas On CWHL Closure, Sit-Out, Next Steps For Women’s Pro Hockey

For as long as the Canadian Women’s Hockey League has been fully functional and in operation, the game that is women’s hockey has constantly been presented with its fair share of challenges.

Not only has it been voiced by staff members, but more than ever before, the players are stepping up to make sure their voices are heard and their future is as bright and successful as it can be.

Now, this is where things start to get tricky, dating back to the league’s inaugural season back in 2007. When the CWHL was first developed, not only was it brought up as a not-for-profit organization, but it was built up as a parity league both managed and operated by the players.

Michelle Jay/NWHL

Years later, it would officially add on Brenda Andress as the league’s first commissioner of hockey operations. Now, if professional women’s hockey could be grown in and around Canada, what would this mean for the talented athletes in America?

And that is where things got increasingly interesting when Dani Rylan established the NWHL. The league very quickly became the Canadian rival, giving American women the chance to compete at the highest level of professional hockey. Keep in mind Rylan brought up the league based on a for-profit organization.

Now, fast forward 12 years later with Canadian Olympian Jayna Hefford now holding the reigns, things very quickly began to look gleam for not only the staff, but for the players and the league as well.

Michelle Jay/NWHL

Why? Let’s dig in deeper, shall we? We shall. Now, because of the business model put in place when the league first became a professional establishment, it meant that all participating teams were given equal access to funding from the league to ensure equal opportunity and competition as well.

While the financial side always struggled, that is where the league would later step up, adding the Boston Blades out of the United States before bringing on the Kunlun Red Star from China as well.

Given the Red Star now cease to exist, there is still a market in China for hockey, and so the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays fell into the mix, becoming the seventh team belonging to the CWHL.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

This is where smarts play in because as a result of an addition like this, the league instantaneously began CWHL Live, the official live stream channel for the CWHL. Today that applies not only overseas but to all North American organizations as well.

Because of the viewing demand that quickly start to build in the women’s game, the league was able to grow a revenue, a light assist to the questionable model put in place. Now fast forward to March 31st when the CWHL announced they were folding, perhaps it was more shock than surprise to the extent that making a profit would prove to be difficult.

What do I mean by this, as the following days ensued consisting of anger, confusion and sadness, reports started to come to light indicating that the league was not bringing in the money to meet their requirements.

Michelle Jay/NWHL

Each year, alike the NWHL, they are due to pay the players and staff as well as their creditors and at the end of the season did not have enough to provide their players with full stipends and bonuses as agreed upon.

This sent Jayna Hefford and the board of directors turning to their sponsors for a reimbursement of cash that would allow them to properly pay off those remaining salaries that were owed.

This is where things get interesting. Back in November, Canadian businessman Graeme Roustan withdrew his application to supply the league funds which as I noted in an earlier piece likely contributed to the folding of the league on Wednesday May 1st.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

As a result, the National Hockey League has had to step in, donating $50 thousand to the CWHL to ensure all players were paid fairly and evenly ahead of the Worlds and before the league shuttered.

This of course all came before the NHL became the leading investor of the NWHL. How did they accomplish this? by reallocating funds, donating an additional $50 thousand in support of one league after the CWHL closed.

With the merger no longer in the picture, this is what brings us to the present on Thursday May 2nd, now one month following the initial announcement, 200+ players now threatening a sit-out.

Chris Tanouye/CWHL

After four weeks of negotiations between all players and respective staff members, a coordinated release was sent out on May 2nd, stating the massive sit-out as they await the next steps.

Just hours later as the solidarity act began to go viral, Furies forward Sarah Nurse joined Tim & Sid in the evening on Sportsnet to discuss the decision at large while talking what’s next for women’s hockey, a topic of minimal discussion and detail at this time.

Now, not everyone has been in agreement with regards to if this is the right move or not as Kristina Rutherford wrote in a piece on May 2nd that the hockey community is divided as a result.

Michelle Jay/NWHL

Amongst those for the movement include Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados who like many made her thoughts known following the coordinated statement sent out on May 2nd. To that regard, the Buffalo Beauts netminder said she is willing to wait ‘as long as it takes’ to help women’s hockey.

Later in the day, Szabados made an appearance on Prime Time Sports on Sportsnet 590 where she let it be known that the players will wait out until they get what they rightfully deserve. To that notion, the 32-year-old backstop said, “We need to be under one roof and under one umbrella where we could pool all the best resources, where we’re not making investors pick one side or the other. For us players, it’s just about basic necessities and things that leagues that call themselves professional leagues in other facets of the world in women’s and men’s sports provide their athletes.”

Alike those such as Poulin, Knight, Coyne-Schofield and many other players across women’s hockey, the movement is in place to make it clear that women’s hockey deserves the allocation of all necessary resources. With that in mind when being asked about the widespread sit-out, the Edmonton native went on to say, “As long as it takes. Which is hard for me to say, at 32 years old, because I might be retired by the end. But that’s part of this process and what we’re willing to do.”

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images North America

When asked about what stands in the way of women’s professional hockey being a viable sport, Szabados said, “We’ve been in two leagues and we’ve had to make investors and T.V. promotors that want to show games choose one side or the other and ultimately, in a lot of cases, they’ve chosen neither because they have ties to both Canada and the U.S. and it’s really hurt our game. And I think to get to where we need to be, we need to be under one roof to showcase the best game and we haven’t had the opportunity to do that and get all the resources in one area.”

While the talk in recent weeks has mostly surrounded the NWHL, Szabados made it clear that it’s not just about them, but for the CWHL as well. That being said, Szabados said to McCowan on Sportsnet, “This isn’t just about the NWHL. It’s just us saying, ‘Hey we’re tired of being pulled in all these different directions. It’s not a boycott. It’s just, we want to take our time. We don’t believe there’s a viable league for us right this second so we want to hang on and do what’s best to grow our game and to further it.”

Being a veteran, the Canadian goaltender is seeing this from both a different and unique perspective as she has had the hockey experience while playing for both men’s and women’s hockey leagues respectively.

Michelle Jay/NWHL

When speaking to that regard, the Buffalo Beauts goaltender said, “I played Junior A hockey in Canada as a 16-year-old and the league provides housing and places for players to live while they’re on the road. The lowest level of men’s professional hockey provides the same thing for their player.”

That statement obviously comes off the three seasons of experience she spent playing in Columbus with the Cottonmouths minor hockey team, a men’s team that no longer exists, once a member of the Southern Professional Hockey League.

With Szabados joining the bigger picture of women’s hockey and the NWHL this season, the Canadian would wrap up in saying, “We’re not asking for anything crazy. We just want all the best in one area and the opportunity to generate some revenue.”

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images North America

With future successes now on the mind, I recently spoke with Laurel Walzak, chair of the CWHL’s board of directors where she said to me in a statement with regards to the NWHL solidarity boycott, “We are happy to see the players taking a united approach on this topic as we believe they are stronger together when making decisions about their future.”

Walzak was not the only one to voice a stance of this sort in recent days to The Puck Authority as Katrina Galas, Former Toronto Furies Assistant GM, also shared her reaction to the ordeal as well. To that regard, the former CWHL executive said, “As we head into building the next phase of women’s hockey’s optimistic future, let’s all pause to remember that the CWHL and its teams succeeded on various levels for 12 years – perhaps not exponential growth year over year, but growth nonetheless – attracting top players from around the world, welcoming new fans and committed volunteers, bringing in ambitious and very talented medical and business staff, growing ticket and merchandise sales, and increasing television viewership, live streaming and social media engagement – those numbers do exist, and point to observable positive momentum for the sport.”

In speaking about the hard work in which the players have been putting in since, the 200+ players who agreed to boycott the coming season jointly formed with the Ballard Spahr law firm the Professional Women’s Hockey Player’s Association. This of course came about to start addressing their expectations and needs. With that in mind, Galas said about the women’s hockey future, “The dedication of all players, staff, volunteers and fans alike should be celebrated, and held tightly by the newly announced @PWHPA, as its rare to find so many layers of expertise that care so deeply about the players’ success and are legitimately #ForTheGame. They have genuinely put in the sweat equity to help elevate the product on the ice and get it to a level where the folding of a league – wisely co-founded in 2007 by Sami Jo Small when the team owners stepped away – could generate as much attention as it has from media and fans alike and generated “beat” writers from many media outlets (media exposure is said to have increased 14K% after the league folded on March 31).”

Tim Clayton/Getty Images North America

Given her hockey background and her previous position with the Toronto Furies, Galas explained that these players deserve better while eluding to their history in place when she said, “As we look to what’s next, we can’t forget that the rear view mirror reflects the sun setting on a important phase of women’s hockey, creating shoulders that any future league can stand on. As a hockey player myself, I know that there is better out there for women’s hockey….and all the CWHL team supporters have the players back, like they always have.”

Though women’s hockey remains a big question, the NWHL is getting set for their fifth season of play, though, they’ve undoubtedly run into some trouble alongside unrestricted free agency as well. The first set of bumps arose on Wednesday of last week when Kim Pegula, who owns the Bills and Sabres, relinquished control of the Beauts to the NWHL. When Pegula first took the team under her wing, they became the first NWHL team to be privately operated, however, with the future of the league now looming, the decision was mutually made to part ways.

Under the wing of Kim Pegula, the Beauts became a premier example for the NWHL, playing in front of sold out crowds regularly while also playing rent-free at Harborcenter. Harborcenter, run by Pegula Sports and Entertainment, not only was home to the Beauts, but it also became an NHL training facility, playing host to practices for the Buffalo Sabres.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

While this is just one of many troubles facing the NWHL at the moment, it certainly does not stand alone with the Metropolitan Riveters in similar struggle as well. Back on Friday May 17th, Emily Kaplan of ESPN reported that the New Jersey Devils were dissolving their marketing partnership with the organization, leaving the team with new holes, seeking a new arena in the city to call home. It has been mentioned since that the club is set to remain, but will no longer appear at RWJBarnabas Health Hockey House nor the Devils home rink at Prudential Center.

With the future of women’s hockey continuing to loom and remain in question, the Devils have decided to reallocate resources and offer ice time to girl’s and women’s hockey in the area. While the initiative surely raises some questions, it does support the next generation of women’s hockey, something both the CWHL and NWHL have both been actively involved in since their establishments.

Another problem at hand with the NWHL is free agency, something few players are participating in as the joint league boycott carries on. The signing period began on Wednesday May 15th and has since made little progress as only four have agreed to new deals. This includes Kaleigh Fratkin, Madison Packer, Tori Sullivan and Shannon Doyle. Fratkin is an original league player, having spent time with the league’s Boston Pride, meanwhile, for Madison Packer, it is her fifth season with the Riveters in Newark, New Jersey. Doyle, much alike, Packer, is in her fifth season of hockey as well, having signed with the Whale on Wednesday, becoming the fourth player to re-sign thus far.

Michelle Jay/NWHL

As noted by Hailey Salvian of The Athletic Toronto on Monday, both Fratkin and league veteran Packer have voiced their opinions against #ForTheGame, something Katie Strang covered recently for The Athletic as not everyone is on board with the women’s hockey boycott.

With that in mind and now a pair of new contracts in place, each player has released their own thoughts, noting the significance of the actions they’ve chosen. Fratkin became the first on Monday, taking a stance for the NWHL when she said, “It’s easy for me to stand up for the NWHL because it has done a lot for our sport and provided many opportunities for me personally. I will never be able to fully express how much it means to me to be a founding member of the NWHL. It’s something I don’t take for granted. From the very beginning I’ve witnessed the positive impact our league has had on so many aspiring young players.”

In follow up to that, Packer would then add on later in the day, “I will continue to support and play for the NWHL as long as my body allows because I feel it is hugely important for kids to have role models they can relate to and interact with on a daily basis. I believe in the future of women’s hockey, and I believe that future lies within the kids who come to our rink every weekend, standing in line waiting to watch us play!”

Michelle Jay/NWHL

With growth being one of many key words for women’s hockey right now, Fratkin also spoke out on the positives that the league has experienced when she said, “What makes me want to come back to the NWHL for another season is the excitement of the fans and how much growth and success the league has had in the last couple of years.”

As for Madison Packer who voiced her thoughts on the NWHL’s impact, she explained, “I’m confident in the direction our sport is headed, and in the plan the NWHL has laid out for a strong season and positive experience for players and fans. It’s important to build off the momentum created by the league’s success last season.”

That being said with the PWHPA now in place, more than ever before, both players and staff are ready to put in the work required in order to ensure that there is a bright future ahead for women’s hockey. Not only this, but in recent days, a new league has come to fruition, their goal to give players a place to play this season, known as the Women’s World Ice Hockey League. While details are sparse at this time, it is known that this organization had been in contact with the CWHL with regards to a team in Vancouver. It did get Jayna Hefford’s attention, but did not gain any further traction from there.

Matt Slocum/The Associated Press

That is where things stand at this particular point in time as the NWHL preps for their fifth season less than five months away at the start of October. Speaking of which, as mentioned by The Ice Garden, the NWHL is publishing salaries for the first time since the league’s second season.

This being said, Packer will get $12K with the Metropolitan Riveters while Fratkin receives $11K and Sullivan signing on for $5K. To add to that, all players will get a 50 percent cut of all revenue from league-level sponsorship and media deals, meanwhile, players also receive 15 percent of revenue from apparel sold with their names on the back.

Another housekeeping note worth making note of at this time includes the fact that the PWHPA is a non-profit organization, not a formal labour union. This vision will allow for them to place nine players on the board respectively, Liz Knox of the Markham Thunder having been selected from the CWHLPA. Knox, the starting goaltender for Markham, was also formerly the CWHLPA’s co-chair.

Dave Holland/CWHL

Once the PWHPA filed with Dee Spagnuolo to officially become a standard non-profit organization, Liz Knox spoke with Kirsten Whelan of The Victory Press to break down the idea and the goals behind it. To that regard, the veteran backstop said, “It’s not a corporate union where we’re fighting against an organization or fighting for rights within an organization, because we’re not within an organization. But basically, it was necessary.”

As Knox elaborated on the idea, she would go on to mention about negotiations, “Until this point, we’ve just been trying to communicate within ourselves and organize ourselves. We kind of recognized the need that there’s a lot of people that want to support us, one way or another. So it’s like, okay, we need to put some people in place, some bodies in place, to make sure that we have the right structure to take in the support that might be out there, the resources that are out there, and just help organize our personnel and make sure that everyone is under one roof. So that’s where kind of we got the idea to incorporate, and our law team at Ballard Spahr kind of took the reins on that obviously — that’s more their area of expertise than us as players. It was a necessary step for us to continue to operate professionally and make sure that everyone stayed aware and involved.”

When asked about the general concept of the boycott in a stance to form one unified league, Knox shared in great length with The Victory Press, “There is this misconception that all the players are just taking a year off and sitting back. And the reality is this year is going to be more work than we’ve ever had to put in playing hockey, and for some of us, playing and working full time. But we are trying to figure out a solution to keep the best players on the ice and in training facilities, whether it’s on ice, off ice. We’re hoping to get some sort of scrimmages or tournaments set up so that we can get in some games — it’s something that we’re working on and something we’ve identified. The biggest thing is to know that we’re not just passively sitting out a season and twiddling our thumbs. It’s going to be a long ride, but we’re working on solutions.”

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