CWHL To Cease Operations

TORONTO, ON - MARCH 25 - Kristen Richards of the Thunder (left) battles for the puck against Rachel Llanes (middle) and Taylor Marchin of the Red Star's during the 1st period of CWHL action as the The Markham Thunder play the Kunlun Red Star for the Clarkson Cup at Ricoh Coliseum on March 25, 2018. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

In a surprise announcement on Sunday afternoon, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League will cease operations on May 1st. The revelation comes only one year after interim commissioner Jayna Hefford took the reigns for the CWHL.

CWHL To Cease Operations

Women’s hockey is currently surging. Arguably, very few other female sports have been able to compete alongside their male counterparts. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League was the pioneer for this emergence. They began operating in 2007 and have operated across North America and even China. With this past season’s Clarkson Cup setting an audience record of 175,000 viewers, things seemed promising. So why did the League announce its plans to fold exactly one week later?

What Went Wrong?

The CWHL and rival league National Women’s Hockey League were rejoicing through a breakout 2018-19 season. The CWHL began paying its players following the NWHL’s lead. Both leagues expanded the prior offseason into China and Minnesota respectively. Brianna Decker of the Calgary Inferno and Kendall Coyne Schofield of the NWHL’s Minnesota Whitecaps took the NHL All-Star Skills Competition by storm. Hockey fans were tuning in to watch these emerging role models in record droves. Nevertheless, women’s hockey will carry on without the CWHL.

While many factors led to this point, the primary is the League’s flawed economic model. With most sports leagues having privately owned franchising cooperatively competing under a governing organization, the CWHL was a bit different. Each club was owned and operated by the League itself. Being that it operates on a vastly smaller financial scale than its NHL counterpart, franchises rely heavily on outside investors to fund their equipment, travel, etc. As such, having a franchise operating in China makes it difficult to attract North American partners as well as spectators so the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays existed on life support based on the success of the other five clubs. Losing out on key investors was the primary chunk of the CWHL’s failure.

What’s Next?

This is a huge blow to women’s hockey. Many players are naturally devastated and unsure of the future. Despite the setback, the sport’s surge will continue to roll on. While obviously being easier said than done, all eyes will be on the NWHL.

Calls for a merger between the leagues were not rare. Founder and commissioner of the NWHL, Dani Rylan even went so far as to describe it as “imminent”. The primary setback came from logistics issues. Professional hockey is merely a secondary job for these women due to their low salaries. As such, players couldn’t afford to take long road trips across the continent much less to China.

But everyone knew competing leagues weren’t doing any favours for the growth of the game. Having superstars such as Hilary Knight and Amanda Kessel play in separate leagues only separated fanbases. In a sport who’s future relies primarily on exposure, conglomerating marketable players is essential. While it’s uncertain what to expect for sure, the NWHL should look to absorb what profitable assets the CWHL had and expand to create one united league. Today’s sad news can give way to a brighter future in growing the game of hockey for everyone regardless of gender.

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