When news emerged that the professional league she’d dominated for years was folding, Marie-Philip Poulin was among a slew of superstars who Tweeted that it was “hard to remain optimistic” that she and the other best players in the world would have a place to play next season, a message accompanied by the very sad hashtag: #NoLeague.
Well, all of that changed on Tuesday. Kind of.
No, the CWHL didn’t rise from its grave, but in yet another bombshell announcement in the women’s hockey world, the National Women’s Hockey League — home to five teams, all in American markets — announced its plans to expand to Toronto and Montreal in time for puck drop this coming October.
To boot, the NHL is now “one of our largest sponsors,” NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan said.
Thank goodness. For 48 hours or so, you had reason to doubt there’d be pro women’s hockey in this country next year. This is all good news, without question, and the two markets chosen are home to some of Canada’s brightest stars, like Poulin and Natalie Spooner and Renata Fast and Sarah Nurse.
But hey, as good as this news is, don’t jump to any conclusions just yet.
First, the NHL contribution looks to be miniscule (we’ll get to that later), and secondly, CWHL players aren’t about to immediately jump ship to the NWHL. In fact, CWHLPA co-chair and Markham goalie Liz Knox says it’s “not likely” that the 120 or so CWHL players will all be interested in the NWHL next season, things being as they are currently. In fact, Knox says, “the majority” of the CWHL’s players aren’t interested in playing in the NWHL.
“It’s not so much that the NWHL isn’t attractive — it is,” Knox told Sportsnet. “It’s a place to play, and it’s an opportunity. It’s that we’re in a position right now to change the climate of women’s sports, and if we go to something that’s comfortable, we’ve lost the power and the leverage to ask for more and demand more of these bodies that have kept us in the backstage for the last 20 years.”
Knox added: “All those things we’ve been asking for, all the things we want for the future of our game, they’ve collectively piled up. And it is this moment. This is what we’ve been waiting for. We want more, we want what we deserve.”
The NWHL, with teams in Boston, Minnesota, Buffalo, New Jersey and Connecticut, just came off its fourth and most successful season yet, but there are obvious improvements players are looking for. The NWHL paid players between $2,500-$10,000, had a 16-game regular season schedule, and most teams practiced just a couple nights a week.
Rylan says the game schedule will improve in time for next season, up to 24 games per team (that’s a 1/3 increase), and the commissioner says she’s also working on improving player salaries, though she wouldn’t say whether that would happen in time for the 2019-20 campaign.
Knox, a CWHL all-star this past season, admits she has never seen an NWHL contract, has never spoken to Rylan, and has only heard from NWHL players about some of the problems the league is having in some markets (definitely not Buffalo, though, which is the gold standard for women’s hockey, owned by the Pegula family). “It might look great on the surface,” Knox said, “I just don’t think it’s as appealing as some people might think.”
Players want to “build something” that is appealing, Knox says, and it’s not to say that this couldn’t happen in the NWHL. “If something can be formed out of what we already know as a pro league, maybe that’s an option. Whether it’s adopting what the NWHL has in place to make the best league ever, if that’s the answer, nobody’s going to stop that,” she said. “But it’s not as simple as all of us being like, ‘Ok, that’s great, all of us sign our contracts and go play in the NWHL.’”
Rylan is confident the NWHL will be able to provide players what they deserve. “I think this is an opportunity for us to continue to grow our business,” she said. “We don’t see pro women’s sports as a charity.” Working in the league’s favour currently, while it’s the only show in town (North America), is the fact that sponsors and owners and the NHL no longer have to share their resources with two leagues. “Now that there is one league to do business with, there is one league, one decision to make, there’s no hesitancy there,” Rylan said.
She points out the league is “aggressively” pursuing opportunities for sponsors and partners, and that opportunities have been presenting themselves consistently over the last 48 hours, and “we don’t expect our emails to slow down and our phones to slow down.”
Rylan met with NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman, on Monday. While neither Rylan nor the NHL would disclose the deal they reached, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman says the NHL gave the NWHL the $50,000 it previously donated to the CWHL. And since the NHL has always been fair in its dealings with the two leagues, that would bring their contribution to the NWHL up to $100,000. And, well … that’s peanuts.
“We were previously financial sponsors of both the NWHL and the CWHL,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told Sportsnet. “Given the CWHL’s announcement on Sunday, we have confirmed an increase in our financial support to the NWHL.”
Dunkin’ Donuts has been a league sponsor since Day 1. Rylan called both the NHL and Dunkin’ “one of the league’s largest sponsors,” and didn’t say which was bigger, only that she’s working on pursuing more deals for the league.
Her busy schedule isn’t slowing down any time soon. On Wednesday, the 31-year-old heads to Finland, to take in part of the world championships. There, she’ll see a whole bunch of big name former CWHL players — Poulin, Brianna Decker, Hilary Knight — that she’s no doubt hopeful will be playing in her league next year. “Women want to play in a professional women’s hockey league that exists in North America this fall,” Rylan says. “We’re the league to play in.”
That is, for the time being. Because while the NWHL may be the One League in women’s hockey now, it may not be forever. CWHL co-founder and Toronto Furies GM Sami-Jo Small laughed when asked how many potential stakeholders and sponsors have reached out in the last 48 hours, wanting to revive the women’s pro game in Canada. “Aaah, about 50,” she said. She actually can’t keep up with the text messages.
Where were all these interested people with money before Sunday’s news that the CWHL had to fold, because it wasn’t financially sustainable? Small is wondering, too. “Who knows what’s real and what’s not real and what’s a stop gap and what’s a long-term solution,” she added, of all the interested parties.
Asked if a second league, an upstart in Canada, would change her focus for the NWHL, Rylan said: “Nope.” The goal, immediately after she found out the CWHL was done, was to provide Canadian players with a place to play.
She has done that, and announced it a little more than 48 hours after the CWHL died. If you ask NWHLPA director, Anya Battaglino, players in the NWHL “are in the best position we have ever been,” and they’re excited about the new Canadian markets. Still, she and Knox and their respective players’ associations have been in contact, discussing what improvements can be made for players ahead of next season.
“We are united, we are communicating and we are working with fire in our bellies,” Battaglino said. “We do not have the ironed-out goals and needs for contract negotiations— both the NWHLPA and former CWHLPA members have agreed to hold major decisions for after Worlds.” In other words, expect some more news after April 14, once Poulin and Rebecca Johnston and Brianne Jenner are done trying to win a championship title.
“All of the players are very committed right now to making sure we do this right,” Knox added.
Team Canada and Furies defender Renata Fast said in a text to Sportsnet that news of the CWHL folding is still so fresh that players “are not in a position to be making decisions for next year. At the end of the day, when it comes down to it, the players will make a decision based on what is best for the future of professional women’s hockey.”
As it stands, the present of pro women’s hockey, there are teams in Boston, Buffalo, Connecticut, New Jersey, Minnesota, with plans for Montreal and Toronto. Calgary — the Inferno just won the Clarkson Cup, about a week ago — isn’t yet in the picture for the NWHL’s expansion due to travel and logistics, Rylan said. “We need to make the right business decisions, first and foremost…We’re confident with seven [teams] right now, we’re still exploring conversations and opportunities to continue to grow beyond that.”
Rylan’s hope is that the NWHL can work with current stakeholders and partners in Montreal and Toronto, and she called Small on Monday to sell the Furies GM on the idea. With many of her players overseas at world championships, Small mostly just listened.
“I have given Dani no indication that there is any answer at this point,” Small, a two-time Olympic gold medallist, said. “If the players want a team in Toronto in the NWHL, then I will support them in that endeavour. If they want no NWHL and want a separate entity, with the NHL or another donor stepping in to create a different league and model, I will support them in that. Ultimately, it’s whatever they decide should happen.”
Small wasn’t sure what players would decide to do, because there are still a lot of unknowns. “Do I know there’s an NWHL team next year in Canada for sure? I don’t know that, that’s a what-if,” she said. “If there’s a collective voice that says we’re not playing in the NWHL, then that’s what the players will decide. But I don’t know, they might want to play. We’ll see what happens.”
One thing’s for sure: There will be a pro NWHL team in Poulin’s home city next season. Jury’s still out whether the best female player Canada’s ever produced will be playing for it, though.