CALGARY — Canadian Women’s Hockey League players will be paid for the first time in its 11-year history, but they’re being asked to do more for the money.
Two new teams from China helped the CWHL achieve its goal of providing cash to its players. Players will be paid a stipend between $2,000 and $10,000 this season.
Now a seven-team league, the CWHL opens the 2017-18 season Saturday.
The North American players who have jobs face a decision when their teams travel to China.
Playing the four away games against the Kunlun Red Star and Vanke Rays in Shenzhen over back-to-back weekends requires a week or more off work.
"I won’t be travelling to China," Calgary Inferno defenceman Hayleigh Cudmore said.
"In terms of the time commitment, it’s something a lot of the teams are struggling with. The money we are getting paid isn’t the salary we’re living off of."
The 25-year-old from Oakville, Ont., is a law student articling at a firm in Calgary.
"The league is providing us with funds this year which we really appreciate, which we need for the sacrifices we continue to make, but the travel is a big concern for a lot of players," the fourth-year CWHL player said.
"Players are being asked not to take the odd Friday off, but a solid week and a bit out of their work. It’s one of the biggest concerns heading into the season."
The addition of the Chinese clubs gives the CWHL buzz in a season in which some stars are absent preparing for the Winter Olympics with their national teams.
The new teams didn’t pay an expansion fee, but signed five-year licensing agreements with the CWHL, according to commissioner Brenda Andress.
Calgary, Markham Thunder, Toronto Furies, Boston Blades and defending Clarkson Cup champion Montreal Canadiennes round out the league. The 2018 Clarkson Cup will be held in Toronto.
The Chinese teams bring international sponsorship and marketing opportunities as well as jobs for players, Andress said.
Nine Canadians are on the Red Star and Rays rosters.
"What China really does for us is two things," Andress said. "It allows us to take the game world-wide and provide opportunities for women.
"It opens up a whole new business opportunity in sponsorship and partnerships we’ve never had before.
"There’s a ton of Chinese companies in Canada right now that don’t have a footprint in the business world. This gives them an opportunity, at a small level people might say as we’re not as big as the boys, but at a small level of getting involved."
The CWHL’s budget has increased $1.5 million this season, Andress said, to about $3.7 million.
Each team has a salary cap that’s been reported to be $100,000, but Andress said the cap has yet to be finalized.
Each player gets a base salary. How much more they’re paid is at their general manager’s discretion.
"The biggest thing is I’m going to have some of my costs offset by the player stipend," Cudmore said.
"Other than pants and gloves, we still pay for equipment. We still pay for skates. We pay for parking at the airport when we have to go fly every other weekend. We pay for food on the road. Some of it is covered by the team.
"The biggest thing we pay for is time and career sacrifices. That’s hard to quantify, but I don’t think there’s really a girl in the league holding down a full time job who would say they haven’t sacrificed in their professional life a little bit."
Sixteen CWHL players, including last season’s league MVP Marie-Philip Poulin of Les Canadiennes, are currently centralized with the national team in Calgary preparing for the Winter Olympics.
The CWHL will not hold an all-star game in February, but instead will take a two-week break during the Winter Games.
Jess Jones, one of the CWHL’s top scorers last season, and two other Thunder players defected this season to the Buffalo Beauts of the U.S.-based NWHL.
But former NWHL and U.S. national team players Kelli Stack and Zoe Hickel have jumped to the CWHL to play for Red Star.
The four-team NWHL has paid players since its inception in 2015, but cut salaries by half last season to a minimum of US$5,000 per player to keep the league afloat.
Andress says every CWHL player was informed in the off-season that a stipend was coming in their league, although players did not know the exact amount they would get over the summer.
"People will say ‘Brenda, you’re moving very slowly. You need to move quicker.’ I don’t want to move quicker," she said.
"I want to make sure every single thing the board and the league decides is sustainable, it’s intact and it’s going to last."