Pucks in Deep: Two Leagues, One League, No League

by Sam Stockton | 4/8/19 2:05am

Pucks in Deep: Two Leagues, One League, No League

Two weeks ago, with a record-setting television audience watching the game, the Calgary Inferno defeated the Les Canadiennes de Montréal 5-2 to capture the Clarkson Cup as Canadian Women’s Hockey League champions. 

The game featured 17 Olympians. Brianna Decker, who made headlines at this year’s National Hockey League All-Star Skills Competition by posting a better time at the Premier Passing event than any of the NHL players participating, won MVP in the championship, scoring a goal. Unfortunately for Les Canadiennes, who boast a record four Clarkson Cup wins in the league’s 12-year history, Marie-Philip Poulin was unable to play due to an unspecified lower-body injury. Poulin, the league’s regular season MVP, can stake a legitimate claim to being the greatest player in the history of women’s hockey. Yet even without her, Les Canadiennes could still skate a team with one of the biggest stars in the game: Hilary Knight. Knight, an American forward, was recently named in an NHLPA Player Poll as the best current female hockey player. This starpower, along with the success of Decker and Kendall Coyne Schofield at the NHL All-Star Skills Competition and the recent “Rivalry Series” between the U.S. and Canada, made this game perhaps the most heralded women’s professional hockey game ever. While the Olympics offer the sport a spotlight every four years, women’s professional leagues had never previously garnered the same attention as international competition.

Last Sunday, the CWHL announced that it would be closing its doors. The announcement came less than a week before the International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Championships would kick off in Finland, so instead of riding the sport’s recent momentum, the conversation has immediately shifted toward making sense of a murky future for women’s ice hockey.

Founded in 2007, the CWHL sought to provide the top female hockey players in North America the opportunity to continue playing their sport professionally, providing more regular competition than the international slate could offer. The league operated as a not-for-profit and did not pay its players until 2017. Even once the league started paying its players, it only offered stipends in no way approaching a living wage.

As the juxtaposition of fan interest with international and professional competition shows, getting a new league off the ground is difficult. It can take years to establish rivalries, identify star players and cultivate fan bases. The casual hockey fan may be quick to say that if a women’s league wants to succeed, it must find a way to turn a profit as men’s professional franchises have. In saying this, said casual fan misses the vital importance of financial assistance in the form of government-funded stadiums or revenue sharing checks to the success of American sports leagues.

One major barrier for the CWHL was the presence of a competing league, the National Women’s Hockey League, whose founding as a for-profit business in 2015 helped spark the CWHL to pay its athletes. Everyone from players to journalists affiliated with both leagues acknowledged that a two-league system is far from ideal. Even prior to the shocking announcement of the CWHL’s closure, both sides believed the eventual formation of one league was the only solution.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had repeatedly stated that he does not want to heavily invest the NHL in women’s hockey as long as two leagues existed. The NHL eventually invested in both leagues (more on this in a moment), but Bettman claimed that he did not want to be perceived as forcing his own preferred solution into existence.

With the CWHL folded, the women’s game has arrived at a crossroads, and the NHL is the most significant power broker in determining the sport’s new direction. In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, the NWHL announced that it would begin the process of expanding to Montreal and Toronto and that the league expects the NHL to increase its investment for the upcoming season. Out of this announcement, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported that the NHL would go from investing $50,000 in each women’s league to $100,000 in the NWHL.

The simple fact of the CWHL’s closing is that the number of jobs available for women’s hockey players was effectively lopped in half. Star players like Knight, Decker and Poulin will undoubtedly find new homes in the NWHL, but depth players for CWHL teams will likely be unable to do the same. Likewise, the arrival of CWHL stars means that NWHL depth players will, in many cases, find themselves out of work as well.

Even with this sudden spike in unemployment, LeBrun’s report is perhaps the most devastating news of all. In 2018-19, the minimum annual salary for an NHL player was $650,000, yet the league offered just 1/13 of that figure to each of these two women’s leagues as they fight an uphill battle to establish themselves. The NHL could easily have saved the CWHL if it had wanted to while bearing a microscopic impact on its own bottom line, but the league chose not to.

Though I am often skeptical of Bettman and the league’s decision making, I do not wish to suggest that this decision was inexplicable. If the NHL truly believed that it could or should not intervene heavily with two existing leagues, I can see why they would not want to bail out a league that had stumbled upon financial hardship. The league did provide the CWHL with $100,000 this week to ensure that it would be able to pay the stipends and bonuses owed to its players.

However, the decision to watch the CWHL fold puts an immediate onus on the NHL to lay the groundwork for the one-league solution everybody wanted all along. There has never been more momentum surrounding the women’s game than there is right now, and the NHL would be utterly foolish to ignore that. Leaving aside the obvious issues of gender inequality that currently prevail throughout American sports, a robust women’s league will only help increase fan interest in the sport of hockey.

Now is the time for the league to announce a firm financial commitment to the long-term success of a single women’s professional hockey league. As to the question of whether that should be the NWHL or some new NHL-founded league, I cannot comprehend why the NHL would feel the need to begin its own women’s league rather than use the existing NWHL. I do not see a reason to undo the difficult work that the league has already undertaken in generating fan interest and establishing itself in America’s biggest hockey markets.

A newfound commitment to the growth of the women’s game does not have to mean creating a 30-team league immediately. Development will be a deliberate process. Commitment means helping forge strong connections between NHL franchises and women’s ones, including sharing practice facilities and training staffs to help women’s teams with their costs. It means providing players with a wage sufficient for them to be full-time hockey players unburdened by the day jobs required to afford to participate. The NHL easily has the funds to make this happen, and it should feel obliged to do so after sitting idly by as many players lost their lifelong dream of playing professional hockey. In the end, that was the mission of the CWHL from its founding — to provide women with the same opportunity to chase their hockey-playing dreams as men have. Ultimately, the league simply did not have the cash to complete that design, but the NHL does. Now it is up to Bettman to create a sustainable women’s league.