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What's The Future Of Women's Hockey In North America? (Update)

Players from the Boston Pride (NWHL) and the Les Canadiennes (CWHL) shake hands following the Outdoor Womens Classic at Gillette Stadium on December 31, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
Photo: Maddie Meyer (Getty)

The disbanding of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, and the narrowing of North American women’s hockey back down to one professional league—the USA-based NWHL—is not exactly surprising, even if the sudden announcement on Sunday may have come as a shock. For a quite a while now, the people in a position to create one unified women’s hockey league have been talking about doing just that. One league makes sense, and it would have been beneficial for players, fans, and the competing leagues not to have their size and talent pool limited by the separation. Technically, now, one league is a reality.

The problem with the CWHL folding, however, is that the one-league solution has now been forced on North America without any of the advantages it would bring. Rather than the combined resources of the NWHL and the CWHL expanding the scope of women’s hockey, the NWHL is now saddled with the burden of filling the void left by the CWHL while staying afloat financially. By all appearances, they’ll be trying to do that without any help from Gary Bettman, which makes the task even more difficult.

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Back in 2018, it looked like one league was going to happen more smoothly, with cooperation from both the CWHL and NWHL. “One league is inevitable,” NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan bluntly told the AP in October. “We will get this done. It’s on us, and we embrace the challenge.”

In July, interim CWHL commissioner Jayna Hefford said that one league was “a priority.”

“It’s certainly something we have to figure out,” she said. “I’m trying to understand what the challenges are, what the roadblocks are and try to figure out a way to get us to the point where we have one truly professional women’s hockey league.”

The most powerful person in North American hockey, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, has also expressed support for one league, though in a more backhanded way.

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“There are two leagues. The business models are a little challenged. I’m not sure there’s enough talent at this point in time for two leagues under the right circumstances,” Bettman said at the 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame induction press conference.

The CWHL and the NWHL met in January to talk about the steps needed for unification, and had planned to do so again in April. Now, the NWHL’s hand has been forced by the CWHL’s demise. According to The Athletic, an NWHL source says that the league will look at acquiring one or two Canadian teams for next season, though they’d almost have to be teams from Montreal or Toronto because of the prohibitive travel costs of having a team in, say, Alberta.

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“The CWHL’s Calgary franchise would not be viable unless a major donor stepped in to help the NWHL with costs,” the article said.

This is as good a place as any to note that the NWHL has its own well-documented financial issues. While the league saw success this season with relatively high attendance for the expansion Minnesota Whitecaps, who are led by Kendall Coyne-Schofield and won the title in March, Rylan said the Whitecaps are the first NWHL team to turn a profit. In past years, the league made more headlines for slashing already-modest salaries than for anything that happened on the ice.

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The fact that we’re down to one women’s league, and that the NWHL doesn’t have the resources to cover the territory left behind by the end of the CWHL, sets up a perfectly logical way for women’s hockey in North American to continue: The NHL taking the role of that necessary “major donor” and picking up the tab as an investment to grow the game. But that seems very unlikely for the time being. In a statement released after the CWHL’s announcement, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly essentially said that the NHL would only step in to support a league in a worst-case economic scenario.* (See update below)

“We recognize the importance of women having options to play the game at a professional level,” he said. “If those options were to become unavailable in the future, we would certainly consider doing what’s necessary to fill that void. But that’s not the case currently.”

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That echoes what Bettman has said in the past, which is that the NHL is only interested in a women’s league if they can start it from scratch without competition. “If at some point the leagues say, ‘We’ve had enough, we don’t see this as a long-term solution, we’d like you to start up and we’ll discontinue operations,’ then we’ll do it. But we’re not pushing it,” he said in September. “If we’re going to get involved, it cannot fail, which means it has to be on us.”

It’s not that the NHL has refused to support women’s hockey in other ways. Several NHL teams are or were partners with teams from the NWHL and CWHL, allowing the women’s teams to host games at the men’s practice facilities and lending them help with marketing and promotions. The NHL also stepped in to help resolve a pay dispute between USA Hockey and the women’s national team, giving money to help establish a living wage for those players in order to stop a boycott of the 2017 World Championship.

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That’s an example of the NHL’s willingness to support women’s hockey in the worst of crises, but the folding of the CWHL presents the league with a long-term opportunity that by all indications they’re not going to take advantage of. It makes a certain amount of sense that Bettman has misgivings about investing in a league with a spotty financial record where he wouldn’t have control over operations. But an influx of NHL cash could expand the NWHL beyond what’s essentially a New England regional league and attract the best possible players with increased salaries. That expansion could do wonders to increase hockey’s popularity with young women—who are already picking up the game in greater and greater numbers—like the WNBA did over 20 years ago. Even if it’s not the ideal situation for the NHL, their support would reap plenty of benefits. For now, however, the NWHL appears to be more or less on its own, and North America will only get a league backed with NHL dollars if they fail.

Update (1:19 p.m., 4/2): ESPN’s Emily Kaplan is reporting that Dani Rylan met with Gary Bettman yesterday, and that the NHL agreed to “significantly up” its contribution to the NWHL. The NWHL expects to have teams in Toronto and Montreal next season.

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