CWHL taking steps to grow women’s game

Some of the best skill the CWHL had to offer was on display for the 6,580 fans at the ACC. (Brandon Taylor/CWHL)

For a growing sports league, one day can make a difference.

The Canadian Women’s Hockey League established a TV deal with Sportsnet before the season and even before the first broadcast, players have already witnessed the public’s recognition of the league. Rebecca Davies, former player and now general manager of the Toronto Furies, said a pair of her players saw young women in Toronto sporting Furies gear on the street.

Their reaction, Davies said: “I felt important for two seconds!”

Those two seconds were expanded into a whole game when 42 of the best CWHL players (including 19 Olympians) showed off the league’s talent and progress at the Air Canada Centre last weekend.

The NHL has many priorities when it comes to its own all-star game: sponsors, fans, the host city and team owner, the sponsors again.

For the CWHL and its players, this game was for themselves.

Even the first selections of the player draft were indicative of what this day meant to the league and the people who play in it that draw no salary. Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux and Sami Jo Small are both players and co-founders of the CWHL, the latter having once held the league’s office in her own home.

“Both of them are pioneers of the sport and I have a tremendous amount of respect for both of them,” said Boston Blades forward Hilary Knight. “They are people we’re building this league upon and it’s just a great way to give back and notice all of the work that they’ve done and all the responsibilities that they’ve shared and are passing along.”

Furies forward Natalie Spooner shared that sentiment. “I think it was very classy of the captains (to select Small, Breton-Lebreux).”

Knight and Spooner have faced off many times as part of the Canada/U.S. women’s hockey rivalry, including the gold medal game in Sochi earlier this year in which Knight was in the penalty box when Canada scored the game-winning goal. Now in the CWHL, Canadians and Americans play with one another to create a league where they hope to one day get paid to play the game.

“Being able to play with Americans and not always having that rivalry (is good) because it’s all of us that are trying to build this league and I think this shows that we’re doing it as one,” Spooner said.

At one time, NHLers used to have to supplement their salaries with part-time jobs in the summer. For CWHLers, hockey is often part-time and can sometimes come second to their day jobs.

“They play for the love of it and they work a full-time job,” said Blades coach Digit Murphy. “These players have graduated from Wisconsin, Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton. These kids, they’re leaders — a different kind of athlete. They’re pretty special individuals.”

“I think that’s where we’re lucky as a female league,” said Furies coach and former player Sommer West. “These guys know each other outside of the rink and they respect one another. These are girls that want this league to go to the next level and they’re willing to give up their time and (contribute) ideas and be there for the (CWHL).”

The league has also dealt with recent player eligibility issues, something that commissioner Brenda Andress says is a normal hiccup for a burgeoning sports league. Several games had to be cancelled this season and the CWHL had to apologize to its fans.

“We know how important (our fans) are,” said Andress.

But the league has seen financial growth as well — in addition to the Sportsnet deal — and is now able to have its teams travel largely by plane rather than bus. Teams play in Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Calgary and Brampton.

“A lot of the girls have full-time jobs and taking a day off is sometimes hard and they don’t like to do it,” said Spooner. “It definitely helps and not having to sit on the bus is good for the legs (too).”

“It’s not just jump off the bus and go,” coach West added. “The league has really listened to the girls.”

The all-star game, while fun for the fans in attendance and viewers at home, was actually closely contested and low-scoring with the players clearly playing their best on a big stage now far flung from the Olympics.

“I’m glad we took it more seriously and not just as a joke,” said Calgary Inferno skater and Olympian Rebecca Johnston.

“Our coaches we’re saying ‘Wow, you guys back check harder than (in) the regular season,’” said Knight.

The all-star game wasn’t the only promotional vehicle the players have benefitted from lately. Knight took part in an NHL practice this year, suiting up with the Anaheim Ducks — another example of how the NHL and CWHL are working together to promote the women’s game. Spooner also got some face recognition recently in an appearance with fellow CWHLer Meaghan Mikkelson on Amazing Race Canada in which they finished in second.

The game, though a fun exhibition, was time spent both working for the league and enjoying — for a moment — the fruits of their labour.

Whether it be enjoying fame for two seconds or soaking in the atmosphere of the 6,580 fans in the ACC to witness a promotional contest, there are many long and tough roads ahead for the CWHL. For now, this was one good day for women’s hockey.

Coach Murphy saw it as such.

“We’re moving the needle.”