In its 10th season, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League is getting assists from the NHL in the form of bricks and mortar.
Sunday’s Clarkson Cup in Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre between the defending champion Calgary Inferno and Les Canadiennes de Montreal will be the third CWHL game played in an NHL arena this season.
The league held its all-star game in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre in February. Les Canadiennes edged the Inferno 1-0 in the first ever CWHL game played in Montreal’s Bell Centre on Dec. 10.
The NHL teams in those markets do more than just provide the building, according to Inferno defenceman Meaghan Mikkelson-Reid.
“They lend us their support staff as well, so we’re not only playing in an NHL facility, but we’re kind of treated like NHL players too, which is really amazing for us,” Mikkelson-Reid told The Canadian Press.
“I think a big piece of that is the marketing, advertising and the social media. All that support they give us is a huge piece of it.”
It’s a widespread belief in the women’s hockey community that they need the NHL’s help to get to their hockey nirvana — a league in which women get paid to play.
The CWHL also added the NHL Players’ Association, which has been providing human resources advice, as a sponsor this season.
Tapping into the NHL experience and expertise is a no-brainer, says CWHL commissioner Brenda Andrews.
“Absolutely it’s important because they’re 100 years old,” Andress said. “They’ve got a lot of lessons to share with us.”
Andress says the CWHL’s budget has gone from $100,000 in its infancy to $2.2 million now.
While the players aren’t paid, the league covers their travel expenses and health insurance and pays for their ice time, coaching staffs, general managers and athletic therapists.
The league now provides $45,000 in bonus money doled out to the Clarkson Cup champions, the regular-season championship and the season’s individual award winners.
“This year we gave mental health training to all our players, all our therapists and all our coaches,” Andress said. “No, we don’t pay our players in one aspect, but we take care of our players.”
Many women in the five-team league work while juggling the on- and off-ice demands of playing hockey at a high level.
Andress continues to adhere to a business plan of slow-and-steady growth. The rival U.S.-based NWHL that does pay players cut salaries in half in its second year of operation.
“Does it take pressure off me because the NWHL slashed their salaries? No. Did it surprise me? No,” Andress said.
“Off course I want to pay the players. That’s why I started to build a business plan. I totally believe women are worth being paid. Myself, the board and the staff that work here, we do everything we can to make that dream come true.
“There’s no short cut to success. We’re exactly where we should be after 10 years. Most people didn’t think we would be here. In most sports, women’s organizations professionally, they’ve tried and failed. They’ve failed because of lack of fans, lack of sponsorship.”
The Inferno downed Les Canadiennes 8-3 in front of an announced crowd of 4,082 to win last year’s Clarkson Cup at the Canadian Tire Centre, which was the first played on NHL ice.
The CWHL had a two-year agreement with the Senators to play their championship game there. Andress would not say whether that agreement had been renewed.
The Bell Centre regular-season game drew 6,000, while this year’s all-star game attracted 8,100 to the ACC.
On television, last year’s Clarkson Cup and the 2017 all-star game both averaged 89,000 viewers, according to Sportsnet.
The 2017 Clarkson Cup features the Inferno laden with eight players named to Canada’s team for the upcoming women’s world championship.
Les Canadiennes don’t have as many, but they do have Canadian captain Marie-Philip Poulin.
“For me, personally going into the Clarkson Cup last year, I’d won an NCAA title, a world championship, an Olympic medal, but things didn’t kind of seem complete for me, in terms of winning the complete package without the Clarkson Cup,” Mikkelson-Reid said.
“In your career, it’s something you want to accomplish. It’s pretty cool we have something to play for like that now with our league.”