Where To Look Next For Professional Women’s Hockey In Canada

It has now been one month exactly since the CWHL announced that it was folding and the aftermath hasn’t been great with plenty of questions raised amidst future concerns.

While the NWHL, run by Dani Rylan, has offered to expand into both Toronto and Montreal, the reaction that has been voiced has been is it a viable solution? Now, whereas the Canadian Women’s Hockey League was led as a centrally funded non-for-profit organization, the NWHL on the other is run as a for-profit organization.

Now the question is what exactly does that mean? The answer is the following. When the CWHL first opened back in 2007, it was born as a parity hockey league that was both managed and operated by the players.

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With this in mind, the business model allowed all participating teams to receive equal access to CWHL funding to ensure equal opportunity and competition for all players involved. This, amongst other things, quickly allowed for the league to become the premier, professionally-run women’s hockey league in the world.

Now, in a recent piece from Hailey Salvian and Katie Strang for The Athletic, they made mention of the fact that just weeks later, concerns have started to rise with the potential for a boycott to take place in the NWHL.

Obviously, this would entail players taking time out of the regular season, perhaps making way for the future’s next step, combining one unified league under the NHL’s direction.

Chris Tanouye/CWHL

With discussions still on-going between players and staff with regards to their next steps, there are still hoops to jump through given the two-week absence of 28 players who recently took part in the Women’s World Championship, held this year in Espoo, Finland.

While the tournament was in full swing, the CWHLPA released a statement where they made mention of the fact that they are still weighing the possible outcomes as they await the arrivals of all those that took part. The holdout also consists of strategic planning as they seek other ways to continue playing as well.

Putting that thought aside, within a week of the notice being released from the player’s association led by Liz Knox, Graeme Roustan, a Canadian businessman, offered to replace the board of directors, removing those such as Ryerson professor Laurel Walzak in order to maintain CWHL operations.

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Roustan, for many years, was one of the league’s biggest financial sponsors, though, he withdrew his application back in November, perhaps leading the way for the league to fold. Of course, the CWHL has the support of the Canadiens, Maple Leafs and the Flames, however, they did not have the full support of the National Hockey League backed by Gary Bettman.

That being said, the commissioner still stands by that notion after donating $100K to the NWHL upon the abrupt close of the CWHL led by interim commissioner Jayna Hefford. Now, while that money would go to player salaries while potentially assisting in the expansion as well, this does make the National Hockey League the biggest funding sponsor of the NWHL.

The question standing in its way would be is it enough to lure players from Canada to the U.S. to maintain their careers? That is the question that will likely be answered in the coming weeks and over the summertime months as well.

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In response to this way of thinking, Bettman left the door wide open for possibility when he said about the current state of professional women’s hockey in North America, “What we have said is that if there’s no opportunity for women to play professional hockey we would explore what makes sense or might be appropriate but by the same token I didn’t want to be presumptuous or even bully-like by saying we’re going to start a league and put them out of business. I didn’t think that’s appropriate.”

Since then, Bettman has been welcomed on Sportsnet 590 to discuss the future and when asked about the boost of confidence the NHL handed off to Dani Rylan and the NWHL, Bettman said he told her that “if she is successful, we will not interfere.”

While not much progress has yet been made, leaving confidence at an all-time low, it has also left many wondering including Markham Thunder general manager Chelsea Purcell. In a statement when asked about the future and the potential for the NHL’s assistance down the road, the former league executive said about the commitment that it would take, “You know if the NHL says its willing to do something, they will do it right. The worst-case scenario for me is, you do it, it fails, OK we tried, let’s go back to a different model. I think when you have the opportunity like this, if this is what the players want, and it seems some of them do, as long as we stand together, and speak as one, we will push for whatever the players want and will support them. Really, we want what is best for the players and in my own opinion, an NHL league is the best option right now.”

Willie J. Allen Jr./The Associated Press

While the future is certainly grim at the conclusion of the IIHF Women’s World Championship, perhaps there is a light hanging low at a very far end of the long and winding tunnel.

Further to that regard, conversations are expected to resume to figure out the best possible situation for all players left hanging with some speaking out more than others as the protest for one league carries on.

With that in mind, American forward Hilary Knight recently spoke over the phone with The Associated Press last Thursday where she re-iterated the common confusion that many players continue to deal with. In conversation on the subject shortly after making her return home to Idaho, Knight responded, saying, “Yeah, exactly” while she added on in the midst of laughter, “My mom would love to know that, too.”

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As noted by The Associated Press, not only is Hilary Knight 100 players without a place to play, but she is also in no hurry to rush back to the NWHL. To this regard, she then acknowledged she left the league in part due to how it operated, this including player salaries being cut in half just a month into the 2016-17 season.

While the CWHL has fallen as a result of financial concerns, Hilary Knight said she prefers taking a contemplative step back before determining what’s best for her and the sport. When discussing the financial aspect which both leagues have had to test in their respective markets, Knight said in a brief statement, “I don’t think either model has it figured out, to be honest.”

For Knight, the 2018-2019 season was her first playing in the CWHL, playing alongside Poulin, Ambrose and Maschmeyer with Les Canadiennes de Montreal. Prior to making the move, the American defensemen played with the Boston Pride, spending two seasons in the NWHL.

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With details expected to be revealed about the future of women’s hockey in the coming weeks, Knight, amongst others, is rather positive as to where it is she may just end up. To that regard, the Montreal defensemen said, “We want to be confident in something we’re endorsing, and that’s one of the reasons I moved to the CWHL. And now, there’s a lot of different open doors, and we just have to figure out which makes sense for the future.”

The immediate difference between the CWHL and NWHL is the fact that the Canadian league, founded in 2007, operated as a non-profit organization whereas the NWHL is a for-profit organization completely relied upon by private investors.

Much like Hilary Knight, there are other players who are optimistic as well, the list including Markham Thunder goaltender Liz Knox who is CWHLPA’s co-chair. When speaking about the initial announcement and the shock that players experienced, Knox said to that regard, “I think it’s kind of opened our eyes to something that we always knew was there, and to seize the opportunity to really ask for more for our sport.”

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Just a short time following the announcement from Laurel Walzak and Jayna Hefford, Dani Rylan, NWHL commissioner, announced that the board of directors had approved an expansion, one that would allow the league to add two more teams, Les Canadiennes and the Toronto Furies.

While the intentions were made rather clear before speaking about the future with the CWHL, it quickly forced the league to come together and release a statement to voice their displeasure. In part, this had to do with the fact that the CWHL had 28 players at the Women’s World Championship in Espoo, Finland.

Out of respect for those overseas, the CWHLPA opted to wait for all players to make their return home, buying them time to consider all options while using the time to initiate preliminary discussions with regards to the next steps. This also paved way for them to demand they have a say in where women’s hockey will go from here.

Chris Tanouye/CWHL

As Knox went on to say about the women’s game of hockey in Canada, she said, “I see more often, women, especially female athletes, being told to be grateful for opportunity. And certainly we are. But at some point that line of being grateful has to be broken to ask for more or to demand for more. … There’s got to be better out there for us.”

Much like that of the offer from The Hockey News owner Graeme Roustan, Knox has since indicated in limited detail that there have already been “a handful” of proposals kicked around in the last four weeks. Erica Howe has been one of many to host players for strategy meetings back home, only the start to now daily communication between players and executives via text and email.

With the Women’s World Championship now over, the expectation was for discussions to rapidly pick up and while its been relatively quiet to the knowledge of most, it might only be the beginning of a new era on the horizon.

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Since having learnt of the situation causing the CWHL to cease operations, NWHL players have taken a stand, standing with the many women now out of a job. With this being said, the timing continues to be recognized as unfortunate given that the NWHL free agent signing period begins at the beginning of May when team rosters are altered and restocked.

That is where the subject of boycott continues to be a topic of interest among many. Once again, this includes Liz Knox, representing the Markham Thunder of the CWHL who said players need to present a united front in knowing they have leverage in determining their futures.

Should it come to this point, it certainly would not be the first time as it had been mentioned that just two years ago, Team USA threatened to boycott the Women’s World Championship taking place in Michigan. After threatening as a result of player wages, the players won pay raises before showing up to compete.

Chris Tanouye/CWHL

When asked for additional comment on the possibilities for the CWHL, Liz Knox, a co-chair for the CWHLPA, said, “Certainly, what the U.S. girls did was courageous to say the least. But that’s very much the situation we’re in.”

The question since has been and now continues to be going forward, will it be an NWHL merger or will it be an NHL backed league that saves women’s hockey? It’s the question that both players and staff alike continue to ponder as much as their fans.

With the next steps yet to be known as discussions between players carry on, Liz Knox said she does not have much knowledge surrounding any pros or cons that a merger would entail while also questioning whether or not players will find themselves having similar struggles if the ends do meet.

Teri Di-Lauro/CWHL

To that regard, the Markham Thunder goaltender said, “The NWHL seems comfortable. And maybe some players want that. So I’m not saying, ‘No.’ But I’m also saying if given the opportunity for more, I think most players would take that.”

With NWHL players fully aware of this situation, Knox concluded in saying that given merger talks, the decision will mainly rely on the thoughts and opinions of both league’s national team players, those such as Laura Stacey who have invested the most in the professional women’s game.

Since the CWHL announced their closure, the NWHL has provided comment to the Associated Press, saying it “understands the players’ desire to consider all options and we are in the process of communicating with them about our plans for the upcoming season.” With many questions still hanging over the heads of many, the National Women’s Hockey League has stated that they are open to addressing any questions or ideas players may have.

Mark Humphrey/The Associated Press

Because of the position they stand in regardless of the statement on the season they offered, the NWHL has declined to provide further updates on their expansion into Toronto and Montreal for the upcoming season. Speaking of which, they also recognized the fact that the next season kicks off in October, less than six months away.

To that regard, an NWHL spokesperson said, “There is a lot of work to be done in a brief time. The opportunity for professional women’s hockey in North America is enormous, and the NWHL is committed to building the league that the players and fans deserve.”

The league spokesperson is not the only one to speak out on the recent developments as Jocelyne Lamoureaux-Davidson, a former U.S. national team member, also provided comment to the Associated Press. To that point, Davidson said players are on the same page, something that has been a work in progress since the CWHL’s announcement at the end of March. She also mentioned that a merger “is too simple to assume”, an ongoing subject of discussion as players continue to weigh all their options.

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In closing, Lamoureaux-Davidson also mentioned how players have been outspoken in future progressions as the hope continues to be that the NHL will play the main role in a new pro league.

With this in mind, the players are not alone in this belief as Jayna Hefford voiced after the CWHL shuttered that she believes the NHL stepping in is the ultimate answer. During Women’s World Championship coverage made available on TSN, Hefford said, “This certainly appears to be the end for the CWHL, but I’m extremely optimistic for what will happen down the road. I think it’s time for change in women’s sports, and we don’t know what that change is yet. But I certainly believe the players need to be strong in what they want.”

Unfortunately for the women’s game, a single factor might hold this attraction back as the NHL has stated they are not in rush and didn’t want to get involved with two women’s leagues still in existence. A reminder of course that a short time after the NWHL’s expansion news, the league donated $100,000 annually in financial assistance, money to both help boost the wages of players and help with the expansion if agreed upon as well.

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A short time after the announcement, it was confirmed by deputy commissioner Bill Daly while Bettman then became aware of the fact with this contribution that it would make the NHL the largest financial sponsor of the NWHL.

With that in mind, it is where we stand at this point in time as Bettman told Dani Rylan that “if she is successful, we (the NHL) will not interfere.” As repeatedly said by both Bettman and Daly, the NHL has been hesitant to assume all controls, however, it goes without saying that it might be the solution that is the most viable and makes the most sense.

That being said, Bettman has repeatedly expressed his opinion of guidance since, saying that it would be not only important, but most ideal to start with a clean slate as the NHL did not believe in either model used by the CWHL or NWHL. With questions still up in the air regarding the future of women’s hockey, it has sparked controversial discussion as well as outrage over social media. However, like the players, it has also united the fans, seeking a sustainable solution for the future moving forward.

Teri Di-Lauro/CWHL

Though it is the end of the CWHL, it is not the end of women’s pro hockey in Canada, but for now, the discussions go onwards as the future of the sport hangs in limbo.

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