NHL, Maple Leafs and Flames help defunct CWHL settle debts

The Calgary Inferno's Zoe Hickel (left) and Tori Hickel celebrate with the Clarkson Cup after beating Les Canadiennes de Montreal 5-2 to win the 2019 CWHL championship. (Chris Young/CP)

The NHL, Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames are among contributors helping the defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League settle its debts.

The Ontario Women’s Hockey Association, Hockey Canada and other private donations also helped the CWHL clear its books.

"The CWHL is in the process of paying everyone and will be able to close in an orderly fashion," CWHL board chair Laurel Walzak said Tuesday in a letter that called the donations "large and critical."

The letter wrote on behalf of the CWHL board detailed the demise of the league and what a women’s hockey league requires to survive.

The six-team CWHL ran for 12 seasons and gave the stars of women’s hockey a league of their own.

The Clarkson Cup — donated by former governor general Adrienne Clarkson — was awarded annually to the winning team.

But the league was in "severe financial distress" on April 1, Walzak said.

Licensing fees from the addition of two Chinese teams allowed the CWHL to begin paying players between $2,000 and $10,000 in 2017-18.

The merger of those teams the following season reduced that revenue stream, however. A source has also told The Canadian Press that China wanted to renegotiate the licensing fees.

"The League announced it was winding down one week after the Clarkson Cup because the League had payments due April first and was forecasting a significant deficit and believed based on response from the corporate marketplace that revenue would not increase materially in the upcoming 2019-2020 season," Walzak wrote.

Walzak wrote that $5 million to $6 million was required to keep the CWHL running, and closer to $10 million was needed for a fully functional pro league.

The U.S.-based NWHL that sprung up in 2015 "fragmented the potential sponsorship dollars," she added.

The five-team NWHL continues to operate, but roughly 200 players including the female game’s stars refuse to play in it.

Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, Kendall Coyne Schofield, Marie-Philip Poulin, Brianne Jenner and goaltenders Noora Raty and Shannon Szabados are among those who believe the NWHL isn’t financially sustainable either.

Widespread calls for one women’s league while two operated kept potential investors on the sidelines waiting to see what would happen.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said the men’s league is unwilling to step in as an owner while women’s leagues were already operating.

The non-profit CWHL merging with a for-profit entity like the NWHL was not an option and if the CWHL went private, it would lose insurance coverage from Hockey Canada, Walzak added.

While the CWHL board of directors supports the players in the collective action for one league, Walzak wrote there needs to be considerable change around attitudes towards women’s hockey.

"It is not smart for all of us to lament the end of the CWHL, while not changing the behaviours that led to its end," she said.

"Today’s top female players obtain a modest stipend ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 per year compared to the lowest annual salary in the NHL of roughly $1 million.

"Successors to the CWHL must find a way for the best women to earn a full salary.

"We therefore urge all hockey associations and levels of government to allocate dollars directly to the women’s game and to ensure that women are at the table when these decisions are made."

Walzak said the board received two offers of less than $20 to buy the league’s assets with no assumption of liabilities, which the CWHL declined.

The league has raised $93,000 from an auction of memorabilia that went towards paying debt. Seven of the 10 CWHL trophies that were up for auction are headed to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

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