CALGARY — As a hockey player, Jayna Hefford strove to make her league viable and respected. She’s now in a position to do that as its leader.
Hefford, who will enter the Hockey Hall of Fame this year, is in her first week as interim commissioner of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
She replaces Brenda Andress, who is stepping down after 12 years at the helm. Hefford has put her name forth as a candidate for the job permanently while the CWHL conducts a search.
The 41-year-old from Kingston, Ont., says finding a way to unite the CWHL and the U.S.-based NWHL into one premier North American women’s hockey league is a priority for her.
"That’s the goal: to get to a point where we have all the players in one professional league," Hefford told The Canadian Press. "Without too much detail, I think the NHL being involved is the best-case scenario.
"How soon that can happen … I don’t know if that’s a one-year thing, a two-year thing.
"I just want to see the sport at a place where I think the athletes deserve it to be. The players have the power. If they want to be in the same league, then we’ve got to find a way to make that work."
Hefford played 14 seasons for the Brampton Thunder in both the CWHL and its predecessor league. The CWHL’s trophy given to the most valuable player is named after her.
She ranks second all-time in scoring behind Hayley Wickenheiser on the Canadian women’s team with 157 goals, 134 assists in 267 games.
Hefford won a combined 11 gold medals appearing in five Olympic Games and 12 world championships before retiring in 2015.
When she’s inducted into the Hall of Fame in November, Hefford will be the sixth female player to enter.
The outgoing CWHL commissioner says she always wanted one league and predicts it will happen, but how to bring it about is up to her successor.
"I think that will be Jayna’s task moving forward as the new commissioner for sure," Andress said.
"I firmly believe there will be one league. There’s been a ton of discussions behind the scenes. Those are the talks that will continue."
The 60-year-old from Toronto has served as commissioner since the CWHL’s inception in 2007. Currently six teams, the CWHL operates like the MLS in that the league owns the teams.
Andress is leaving to focus on the "SheIs" initiative she started with leaders of other female sports leagues to increase resources, television viewership and attendance.
During her tenure, the CWHL established the championship Clarkson Cup, an all-star game, a player draft, put games on television, signed sponsorship deals and established a business relationship with three NHL teams — the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames.
When they’re not centralized in Calgary preparing for a Winter Olympics, national-team players such as Marie-Philip Poulin (Montreal Canadiennes), Natalie Spooner (Toronto Furies), Meaghan Mikkelson (Calgary Inferno) and Laura Fortino (Markham Thunder) are CWHL players.
The league expanded to China and began paying players this past season. The CWHL’s budget in 2017-18 was $3.7 million, which was an increase of $1.5 million over the previous season.
"I was lucky enough to have the privilege of steering the ship and yes, we had some pretty big storms, and the life jackets were on many times," Andress said. "The sun came out, the waves went down and we kept moving forward."
But the NWHL founded in 2015 by Dani Rylan created a schism in women’s pro leagues in North America.
The pressure to unite the leagues intensified this year as prominent current and former players called for it on social media under the hashtag OneLeague.
"The public has to understand that Dani and I have always had conversations," Andress said. "You can’t fault an entrepreneur from owning her own league and from going out and working night and day just like we did of trying to make it survive.
"She’s a for-profit and we’re a not-for-profit, so it’s not as easy as everybody says."
Hefford and partner Kathleen Kauth have three children under the age of five. Hefford has been taking business courses at Queen’s University and felt ready to return to the game in a leadership capacity.
"Brenda put in 12 years of really growing this league and it’s something that’s definitely appreciated," Hefford said. "I hope I can bring some new vision and some new relationships.
"I know I have the backing of a number of the players."