The CWHL v. NWHL: Women Are Battling For Pro Hockey Notoriety

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TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY, 11 Team captains Carlee Capbell (right in white) and Natalie Spooner get up close and personal during the ceremonial puck drop. Canadian women's hockey league (CWHL) is holding its all-star game at the Air Canada Centre (ACC) in Toronto. 34 players from the league of 5 teams were on hand in Toronto. The CWHL is the premier professional women's league in the world. February 11, 2017 Richard Lautens/Toronto Star (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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Earlier this month, the NWHL announced that they are expanding for the 2018-19 season. The Minnesota Whitecaps will be the fifth team to join the league. Seen as a bright spot for the league, they decided to boast about the move on Twitter. Which, is quite fair for their all intentive “purpose” of promoting the league and its new team. The NWHL should promote the Whitecaps in all their glory, but what glory is there if nobody is watching?

The CWHL v. NWHL Conflict: Women Are Battling For Pro Hockey Notoriety

Women’s professional hockey has always been stigmatized for its lack of physical play and interesting play. One does not have to look too far to find that. During the Toronto Maple Leafs first few games of the playoffs against the Boston Bruins, rival fans were referring to the Leafs as a “women’s hockey team”. Even TSN 1050’s own Scott MacArthur made the comparison after Game 1 of the series.

This paints a clear picture of the mainstream ideal of women’s hockey. Although this picture is inaccurately drawn. Anyone who has watched a CWHL game will quickly learn those ideas of women’s hockey are no more than just stereotypes that do the actual product on the ice NO justice.

And whenever the Winter Olympics are on, everyone tunes into the women’s hockey. Has women’s Olympic hockey ever disappointed? No! Look no further the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Gold Medal game.

2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Gold Medal game

The crowd in Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi, Russia was quiet. It was filled with mostly Canadian women’s hockey fans that were hoping to cheer on Canada’s women to a third-period comeback against the rival United States.

In the gold medal game, the Canadians were down 1-0 the US. The States wanted nothing more than to stop Canada’s gold medal streak at three. The Americans were firing on all cylinders, getting a goal from Alex Carpenter to make it 2-0 with 15 minutes left to play in the third period. With the States upping their physical game, Canada knew that they had to use their edge at speed and skill to get back into the battle. Canada started to bring the game to the States as they laid back idly holding onto their two-goal lead. With three minutes and a half minutes left to go in the game, Canada’s Brianne Jenner got her first goal of the tournament, making it a one-goal game. With a minute and a half left, Canada pulled their goalie.

For 40 seconds, Canada threw all that they had at the States. The puck never left the US’ zone. As the Americans fought hard to clear the puck, Canada’s Marie-Philip Poulin was in the right place at the right time. Poulin got the puck on her stick. Making no mistakes, Poulin put it into the back of the net. Bringing a worrisome nation to its feet well bringing the high and flying Americans back down to Earth.

Going into overtime, the momentum had changed in Canada’s favour. The States were shocked that the game had been tied, with a mere matter of minutes separating Canada’s comeback goals. The crowd at the game was relatively small, maybe a few thousand people were there, but the nation watching back home was massive.

For the remainder of the game, for both Canadians and Americans, time stopped. Women’s hockey was their only focus. The analysts for both countries, Canada’s CBC broadcast, and America’s NBC broadcast were respectively saying that no matter the outcome, this game was an instant classic!

Overtime started, both teams opted to lay back and not take any chances. Almost halfway through overtime, the Americans got themselves into penalty trouble, going down two women to Canada. On the ensuing five-on-three, Canada’s Marie-Philip Poulin managed to get the puck on her stick. Poulin passed it around. Each pass with precision and accuracy. Canada’s Rebecca Johnston passed the puck to a wide-open Poulin. As Poulin received the puck, the whole arena, as well as the millions watching, dropped into silence anticipating what was to come. As soon as Poulin felt the puck on her stick, she one-timed it over the American goaltender’s shoulder and into the back of the net. Lighting up the world of many Canadians and breaking the hearts of Americans. Bringing women’s hockey to its pinnacle.

The peak of the pinnacle

Despite the fact that women’s hockey had reached the pinnacle of its popularity that day, four years later, nothing has changed and women’s hockey remains lost in a sea of sports in North America.

Although there were winners and losers in this goal medal game, in actuality all of women’s hockey won this game. The game showcased the talent of women’s professional hockey and broke the outdated stereotype that women’s hockey could not be physical like their men’s counterpart. All well opening the eyes to many people of what they were, and still are, missing out on by not watching or supporting women’s hockey. Players felt like they were on top of the world.

“The outpouring of support from everyone across the U.S., to my knowledge, was unbelievable,” said Team USA captain Meghan Duggan. “People were coming from everywhere, and if you look at social media, everyone’s followers went up. People were contacting us, emailing us, writing us. And even coming home, and bumping into people in airports, or in the mall…things like that. The exposure was fantastic.”

Canadian legend Jayna Hefford, a four-time Olympic gold medallist, said 2014 had a positive lingering effect because that final game was so exciting. At her speaking engagements and at her hockey school, people wanted to talk about the 2014 Winter Olympics. They wanted to touch her medal.

Post-Olympic Depression

As time passed by, the attention that the gold medal game garnered for women’s hockey slowly started to fade away. The hockey fans that loved women’s hockey never got the opportunity to see it played again professionally on live TV. Once the NHL playoffs started in 2014, women’s hockey was forgotten. That pattern repeated itself this year after the 2018 Winter Olympics.

“Some people say, ‘Post-Olympic Depression,’ ” Duggan said. “There is all this buildup, all this excitement, all this media attention…and then the Olympics come, and then they end after two weeks, and then it all just goes away.”

Going back “home”

After the Winter Olympics finish, the vast majority of the women playing in the tournament turn to their respective Canadian Women’s Hockey League (or National Women’s Hockey League clubs) to continue to play the game that they love. These leagues are the women’s closest thing to the NHL.

The CWHL is made up of five North American teams: The Toronto Furies, Markham Thunder, Les Canadiennes de Montreal, Calgary Inferno, and Boston Blades.

The CWHL is rivaled by the NWHL. The NWHL was formed in 2015. The league consists of four teams: the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters, and now, the Minnesota Whitecaps. The NWHL does not have any television sponsors. Some games are aired on ESPN3. The NWHL streams most of their games on their YouTube channel.

The CWHL’s expansion to China

In June 2017, the CWHL announced that it would be expanding the sport into a new market – China.

For the 2017-2018 season, two new teams were added to the league: The Kunlun Red Star and Vanke Rays. This expansion move was thought to help the effort of growing women’s hockey globally. Along with promoting the CWHL. The higher-ups in the league were hoping to receive some publicity with their expansion into China.

To the CWHL’s credit, they were able to gain some publicity, but most of it was lost at the start of the 2018 NHL regular season. The Canadian mainstream sports media focused much of their coverage on the NHL and the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.

The CWHL’s inception of player wages

Since the CWHL started in 2007, the league said it was getting closer to paying its players a wage. That was always the goal. Ten years later, the CWHL has started to pay its players a ‘modest wage’.

The pay is not a lot, but it is a step in the right direction. Each player will earn a minimum of $2,000 and a maximum of $10,000. Each of the league’s seven clubs will get a $100,000 salary cap. That pool of money is divided up as each team sees fit. A similar formula to that of the NHL’s.

When the CWHL announced this move, it was a victory for women’s hockey. Especially after the expansion into the Chinese market. Yet such a feat was not reported on by many of the mainstream sports publications. It mostly flew under the radar.

Fight the powers at be

That was surprising, considering the attention the US women’s team got when they threatened to skip the world championships and stop participating in the US’ hockey program. It was a fight at its best. Women were battling for equality. They lost some scuffles and they won some. A noticeable loss would be when the University of North Dakota swung the axe on its Division 1 women’s hockey team due to budget constraints.

It was a powerful movement that the hockey world got to witness. Something that Meghan Duggan saw as encouraging.

“Certainly a historic day in women’s sport,” U.S. captain Meghan Duggan said. “I can only hope women continue to stand up and fight for things and move the needle in that aspect.”

Once the dispute was put to an end, the story resided and much of the sports world had forgotten the women’s battle for equality. The mainstream sports leagues once again took centre stage.

The idea of merging both leagues

With the CWHL and NWHL failing to gain the attention of casual hockey fans, the burning questions still remain, why are the two leagues rivals?

The two leagues have been rivals ever since the NWHL’s inception. The thing that both leagues are fighting over is players, attention, and sponsors. The CWHL is winning all of those battles.

Former Canadian Olympic team captain Cassie Campbell-Pascall has recently resigned from the CWHL’s board of governors to speak publicly about it. It’s awkward to be critical of the two leagues while serving on the board of one, so Campbell-Pascall stepped down to voice her opinion.

“I believe in something that’s bigger and better than what we have right now,” Campbell-Pascall told The Canadian Press. “I’ve gotten to a point where if I don’t say something, I believe it’s going to take longer to get where we want to go.

“I’m not at odds with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and I’m not at odds with the National Women’s Hockey League. I’m at odds with why we haven’t become one.

“I understand there are issues, I understand a different governance structure in both leagues and I understand there are legalities of how difficult this is to become one, but it’s not impossible. It’s time. Just make it happen. To me, it’s about two weeks of meetings.”

U.S. women’s team captain Meghan Duggan supported Campbell-Pascall’s stance on social media:

“She’s always been one of, if not the most influential ambassador for our sport. Power move by @CassieCampbell,” Duggan tweeted. “Future of women’s hockey is a huge priority for us all!”

Going forward

Women have fought for equality and have made it so they can actually be paid salaries to play in the CWHL. That is an accomplishment in of itself. It has been noted that the merging of both the NWHL and CWHL would be what is best for both leagues.

As of right now, the leagues constantly fight for a small glimmer of attention that the mainstream sports publications and networks are giving to them. Women’s hockey still is stereotyped as second-grade hockey. Hockey traditionalists see women’s hockey as everything they do not want the NHL to be. Women continue to fight for the game. The idea is that they should not be fighting the winless fight against themselves. The only way to bridge the gap and grow the sport is to grow together.

How does the hockey universe help grow women’s hockey?

CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress has an idea.

“If the fan truly wants to help us build this game, we just want them to buy a ticket,” Andress said. “Because if I fill an arena, I don’t have to bang on the sponsor’s door. They will bang on my door.”

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