Q&A: CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress on growth of the women’s game

Brianne Jenner and Caroline Ouellette discuss their favourite moments in the CWHL, as well as give their take on how far the league has come in these 10 years.

Ahead of the 2017 Clarkson Cup on Sunday, CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress sat down with Sportsnet to talk about the growth of the women’s game, the process of trying to pay its players, and the 10th anniversary of the league. You can watch the Clarkson Cup final at 4:00 ET on Sportsnet.

In your speech at the CWHL awards, you cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” and tried to distinguish between a dream and a plan as it pertains to the CWHL. As the commissioner of the league, what’s the difference for you between the dream and the plan?

It’s funny because a lot of people ask me, “What’s your plan?” and I kind of laugh. The plan is the action part of life. When Martin Luther King stood up on the podium, he didn’t say, “I have a plan and we’re going to do this, this, and this.” When I talk about the dream, I’m speaking for people who have come before me and for those who will come after.

The dream is to get our players playing in a professional league and to get opportunities for women. And the plan — the action — comes from all those people out there that can let down their fears and their comfortability. Fifteen years ago, women carried their own hockey bags, they didn’t have any of [what female hockey players have now], and they paid their way into hockey. After that, we became comfortable with saying “Life is good. It’s not perfect, we could be better off, but you know, it’s OK.” We have to push the limit, we can’t be “OK”. We’re not being paid and we’re not being covered in the media or seen on TV.

Girls have a dream about coming on to an ice surface and having fans cheering them on. All I’m doing is speaking to the heart of their dreams.

Have you noticed a level of comfort settling in with the players or the league?

You see it a little bit but I would say to them, “Let’s not forget how far we have to go.” People in the entertainment industry that have an opportunity to speak about our world have used their voice. In the sports world, we haven’t used our voice. We haven’t heard from major sports groups or people who make massive amounts of dollars as to their feeling on our world out there.

In my speech, it wasn’t just about the fear of not growing in hockey but about the fear of us as women and the comfort we have with where we are with our jobs, with what we’re being paid.

What did you think of the Women’s March in January and was there CWHL involvement?

We had players march. We went out and marched because something was wrong. I want to march because there’s something that’s right. We don’t need somebody to point out that they’re taking something away from us when we know that they’ve been taking it away from us for a while.

What have been the most important signs of growth in the CWHL the past couple of years?

We’ve been fortunate the last few years with Sportsnet. Scott Moore has put his neck out and said, “Let’s help them grow the game.” That’s phenomenal for us, it’s an opportunity to grow the game in a different way. You can’t get that from being in the small communities. We’ve seen what the Montreal Canadiens have done for Les Canadiennes by opening up the Bell Centre so 6,000 people could see our game. Those are people who’ve probably never seen the inside of the Bell Centre and they became fans. From that point on, Canadiennes games were packed this season — they created new fans.

It’s not just making hockey fans of women. You can be both an NHL fan and a CWHL fan because you love the game. And can you say it any better than Curtis Lazar, who just came over in a trade, he’s wearing a Calgary Inferno hat in his first interview.

Not that it’s the only sign of growth but the subject of paying CWHL players is a fascinating one. Will it be possible to pay players next year? Is there a soft target?

We’re right on target with our strategic plan. But I’m not a fortune teller. We want to make sure that when we pay our players, we’re not going to take money back from them or discontinue paying them.

We keep giving our players a better experience every year. The All-Star Game [at the Air Canada Centre], the Clarkson Cup [at Canadian Tire Centre], the Bell Centre game — we’re providing them with opportunities to grow themselves, to make their own legacies. We pay players in many different ways. Our players have top-of-the-line health care. No matter where they travel around the world, they’re covered by us completely. We’re monitoring concussions, making sure our players are safe, we’ve upped our therapist money, doctors money, we did mental health training this year with players, coaches, and general managers.

Do we want to pay them? Of course, that’s the dream. When we do pay them, it’ll be because everything will be in place. We’ve always targeted the beginning of next year, we hope that that’s true, but if it’s not true, we’ll still be on target because we want to do it correctly.

It’s the 10th anniversary of the CWHL this year. What do you personally like to reflect back on?

I say this from the bottom of my heart: I’m so lucky that I get to work with phenomenal people. I get to witness moments that nobody else gets to see. When our players engage with kids, I see the look on their faces when Marie-Philip Poulin signs her autograph — I don’t even think the players get to see it after the player moves on; the chatter of the young girls.

Do you still get a chance to play hockey yourself?

I love the game. I play in a rec league once a week. When I put my skates on, I forget that I’m a 58-year-old and think I’m a 16-year-old playing for the first time. I hope that I never lose that feeling. I love to skate and I probably always will.

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