In a statement posted on Thursday, May 30th the National Women’s Hockey League cancelled its planned Canadian expansion. The NWHL proposed adding teams in Toronto and Montreal after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded on May 1st. Along with putting its plans for expansion on hold, the NWHL expressed that they would be “ecstatic to have a conversation about a partnership or passing the torch”.
The cancellation and subsequent call for change presents another setback in a tumultuous time for the league and women’s hockey at large. The recent months have seen the CWHL fold, a controversial finish in the IIHF world championships, and a coalition of the games’ stars coming together in protest of the women’s hockey landscape.
With the NWHL expansion off the table and the CWHL gone completely, only questions remain. Questions like “How did we get here?” and “Where do we go now?”
Just six months ago, this kind of upheaval was unimaginable. Women’s hockey was still taking a victory lap stemming from the thrilling 2018 Winter Olympics gold medal game. Without NHL participation in the Olympics, the women took center stage. With the hockey world watching, the USA defeated Canada in a shootout for its first gold medal since 1998.
— #TokyoOlympics (@NBCOlympics) February 22, 2019
The Trail Blazer
The momentum continued into early 2019 when Kendall Coyne Schofield dazzled fans as she took part in the 2019 NHL All-Star Game fastest skater challenge.
History was made and barriers were broke. It was such an honor to be the first woman to compete in the @nhl All Star Skills Competition last night. I can’t wait to see what the future holds! #NHLAllStar pic.twitter.com/Sc125oBGCx
— Kendall Coyne Schofield (@KendallCoyne) January 26, 2019
Coyne Schofield’s blistering lap blazed a literal and figurative trail on the ice that night. Women and girls around the country saw a role model that didn’t just participate with the men but held her own.
Coyne Schofield recognized what this event would mean to girls around the world aspiring to play hockey, saying
“It’s hard to put into words, but I think what’s so special about this week is how many lives were changed, how many doors were opened, how many barriers were broken and how many people were inspired to pick up the sport of ice hockey.”
As a result of her accomplishment, Coyne Schofield became one of the most visible figures in hockey during the early months of 2019.
Despite progress being made, it was clear there were growing pains for the burgeoning women’s hockey movement. Pierre McGuire infamously attempted to explain the game of hockey to a gold medalist when Coyne Schofield served as a guest analyst on an NBC Sports Network broadcast.
Striking While the Iron is Hot
Following up Coyne-Schofield’s breakthrough, Women’s hockey continued its forward momentum with the 2019 USA vs Canada Rivalry Series. The bitter rivals faced off in a series of exhibition games taking place in Toronto, London, and Detroit. Never before had fans flocked to a non-Olympics women’s hockey event as all three games experienced strong ticket sales.
Though the charge was led by national team stars and events, the women’s pro leagues started making waves of their own. Both the CWHL and NWHL held their all-star games in NHL arenas. The CWHL Finals between Les Canadiennes de Montreal and The Calgary Inferno drew 175,000 viewers on the NHL Network. The ratings were a non-Olympic record and demonstrated an audience for the women’s game.
Women’s hockey seemed to have the most momentum it had ever experienced. Then, just as soon as it had picked up steam, it all came crashing down.
Facing an Unsure Future
The CWHL dissolved shortly after Calgary defeated Montreal to win their second championship. As the players openly questioned their careers, the league laid waste to its heritage by auctioning off trophies, memorabilia and anything that wasn’t bolted down to pay back creditors.
NWHL Tries to Pick up the Pieces
The National Women’s Hockey League attempted to remedy the situation. Having just added a team in Minnesota, the league promised it would continue its expansion by adding teams in Toronto and Montreal. The new teams wouldn’t be a landing-place for every displaced CWHL star, but it would be a start.
There was reason to be optimistic about the future of the league. The NHL had long held the stance that it would not supply any meaningful financial aid to either the NWHL or CWHL until there was only one league. Women’s hockey icons such as Hilary Knight had called for the formation of a single league for years. With just the NWHL standing, it seemed the “one league” mantra had finally come to fruition.
The NHL did pledge to raise its financial backing and followed through. However, this came in the form of a $50,000 raise in funding. The same figure it gave to the leagues for years. The NHL didn’t put more skin in the game, they just redirected where it was going. As for the players, it quickly became obvious that although they got what they wanted in the form of just one professional women’s hockey league; the NWHL was not that league.
On May 2nd, 2019, a day after the CWHL closed its doors for good, over 200 women’s hockey players formed a united front via a uniform social media post.
— Brianna Decker (@Bdecker14) May 2, 2019
The statement served as a notice that the most prominent names had no interest in playing for the NWHL. Shortly after, Those involved with the #ForTheGame movement formed the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association in order to create “a single, viable women’s professional league in North America”.
Looking Towards a Brighter Future
Without some of the game’s marquee names, the NWHL product will suffer. Although they plan on going through with this upcoming season, it is hard to put any stock into the long-term viability of the National Women’s Hockey League.
Maybe this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Change is never easy but is often necessary. If the NWHL does cease operations, something new will replace it. Although the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association has yet to state specifically, it is thought that they hope the NHL will create a league of its own. An NHL backed league would have better funding and a better platform to promote the game. This would allow the quality of play to progress even faster than it already has. Most players are unable to live just off of the salary they earn from hockey. Because of this, they are unable to spend their free time working on their game, and instead work a second job so they can pursue their hockey dream.
The NWHL was an ambitious project that sought a better life for women in the pro sports world. Now the league more closely resembles a decaying forest that must be turned to ashes before something strong, healthy, and vibrant can grow in its place.
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