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March 30, 2019 — The price of two leagues

For the last four years, there have been not one, but two professional women’s ice hockey leagues for post-collegiate and Olympic hopefuls to pursue their passion. One league played exclusively in the United States, and one in Canada.

This morning, one side blinked.

It was announced this morning that the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, a circuit which has roots going back to 1999, would be ceasing operations by the end of April.

These two leagues filled a genuine need, borne from the cross-border competition between the United States and Canada, which began with the inaugural IIHF World Championship for women in 1990, and peaked with the United States’ victory over Canada in the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

After the Nagano games, it was expected that a league might form somewhere to allow the Tara Mounseys and Sandra Whytes of the world to keep playing. That league was called the National Women’s Hockey League. Originall concentrated in Ontario, the league developed its own colorful history, borne of its threadbare existence.

The teams had some colorful names: Beatrice Aeros, Calgary Oval X-treme, and Montreal Wingstar. The league merged with the Western Women’s Hockey League and, at one time, had a nearly coast-to-coast footprint, save for Nova Scotia.

But this iteration of a Canadian league ceased operations after the 2007 season. By 2010, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League was formed as a five-team league, one of which (Boston Blades) was American-based.

Five years later, a new National Women’s Hockey League was formed, with teams in Buffalo, Connecticut, Boston, and New York. Both leagues competed for post-collegiate talent, and, after some original resistance to salaried players, the CWHL started paying its players more. A couple of years ago, however, the new NWHL had to impose some financial austerity measures, including 50-percent salary cuts leaguewide.

Despite the lack of sponsorship opportunities and media interest, both leagues took risks when it came to new markets. The CWHL brought in the Shenzhen Red Star team to help China develop players for the 2022 Winter Olympics, and the NWHL brought in the Minnesota Whitecaps, a team which originally played with the Western Women’s Hockey League in Canada.

For me, the NWHL’s gambit came up trumps: the Whitecaps won the Isobel Cup this season. The team in China never contended for the CWHL title.

This makes me wonder what the look of the NWHL is going to be in the next few years. I know an unbalanced five-team league isn’t going to be the most sustainable model, and I think there is going to have to be a bi-national footprint.

I see a league with Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, Detroit as well as the current five teams.

That leaves one slot, which could go to either Calgary, Vancouver, or a town like Brampton, Ontario, a place where women’s ice hockey is very much ingrained into the culture.

 

 

 

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