Questions and new options abound as CWHL set to officially fold

Liz Knox, goaltender and former Director of the CWHLPA, joined Good Show to talk about the closure of the CWHL and what she sees for women’s hockey going forward.

The Canadian Women’s Hockey League is hanging by its final thread, with the league officially ceasing operations as of May 1.

What’s coming next as far as pro women’s hockey in this country is uncertain. As CWHL co-founder and Toronto Furies GM Sami-Jo Small puts it: “I would describe it as a mystery.” But while the future is murky now, it won’t be for much longer.

“Today being the day that they have announced ceased operations,” Small says, “the likelihood the players make an announcement soon is pretty high.”

Pro women’s hockey in Canada next season is likely to look one of two ways going forward: Either a new league is going to start up, or CWHL players will decide to take their talents to the American-based NWHL, which announced expansion up north — in Toronto and Montreal — in time for next season.

Here’s a run-down of the state of the nation of pro women’s hockey on the last official day of the CWHL:

1. There are “three front-runners” when it comes to viable options provided by investors who are interested in starting a new Canadian-based pro women’s hockey league.

CWHLPA co-chair Liz Knox says one of the proposals comes from venture capitalist Graeme Roustan, formerly the CWHL’s largest investor, who pulled his support last November after the not-for-profit league wouldn’t disclose financial details, like how it approved expenses.

The CWHLPA will be meeting with Roustan soon, and they’ve already sat down with a couple other potential stakeholders. The two other investors who lead the pack—they’re confidential— are “familiar faces,” Knox says. “You wouldn’t find anybody looking to build a new league or invest in reviving an old league if they weren’t fans.” She adds: “I think each of them offers an optimistic future for women’s hockey.” Yet none stands out as the definitive answer.

Small calls the proposals “nothing too extravagant or out of the ordinary.”

“I wouldn’t say that there’s a best option at this point,” Small adds. “I would say yes to probably multiple proposals at this point and feel confident.”

2. The proposals vary in terms of what a new Canadian-based league might look like.

Last season, the CWHL had six teams—four in Canada, one in the U.S., and one in China. “There’s a couple options that have more teams, some options have fewer,” Knox says.

3. The NWHL is a “top five option” for CWHL players for next season, Knox says.

The NWHL is coming off a record season and announced just days after the CWHL folded that it was planning for expansion to Toronto and Montreal, adding to existing franchises in Minnesota, Buffalo, Connecticut, Boston and New Jersey. Knox says the CWHLPA has been in “constant communication” with the NWHLPA. “It’s all just trying to go through it and figure out what our players want.”

Toronto Furies and Team Canada star Sarah Nurse said last week via email (she’d lost her voice) that players were still looking for further details on what the NWHL’s expansion to Canada might look like, but that it could be good opportunity.

“Obviously their league is trying to act quickly and provide players a place to play,” Nurse wrote. “We want to play in a league that is sustainable, because nobody wants to get a conference call at a world championships, in five or 10 years from now, telling us that our league has folded, again. We want to be part of a league that little girls aspire to play in.

“A few girls from the U.S. National team have left the NWHL in the last few years [including Brianna Decker and Hilary Knight] so that obviously raises some red flags. If the NWHL can fit the bill and provide us the best play to play and develop as players, I think that it would be a viable option.”

If CWHL players decide the NWHL is the way to go, many will lose their jobs, with just seven teams in one league compared to 11 teams in two leagues this past season.

4. Currently, 150 CWHL players have no idea where they’ll play next season

Nurse put it best when asked where she’ll be playing her 2019-20 campaign: “Honestly, I can’t believe this is something I have to think about,” she wrote. “We finished a record season with the Furies, I had incredible relationships with my teammates and staff and we were already planning for next season. Things were exciting in Toronto and it felt like the rug had been pulled out from under us.”

We’re leaving it to the 24-year-old from Hamilton, who’s part of the powerhouse sporting Nurse family, to lay out what she wants pro women’s hockey to look like in North America: “We would have one league. A backing by the NHL would be great and we would have at least a 40-game schedule. We’d have access to laundry. A support staff, a team doctor and medical team. Someone for social media, marketing, promotion and ticket sales. I would love for our coaching staff to have an office and access to proper programs for cutting and showing video — things that most professional sports organizations have.

“It would be amazing if our teams were recognized with the big sports teams in the city. In Toronto, I would love to see our logo on billboards beside the Leafs and Marlies. I would consider it realistic and I think that big things are coming for our sport. The women like Jayna Hefford and Caroline Ouellette were pioneers, they showed the world that women could excel at hockey. We want to continue what they started and have professional women’s hockey be the norm.”

5. The CWHL put its assets up for auction—including trophies—to help pay off debts, but won’t say if it’s close to reaching that target.

Chair of the league’s board, Laurel Walzak, told Sportsnet in a conversation two weeks ago that the board’s No. 1 priority was “reconciling our financials” and paying all of its bills. They had just issued cheques to the players, Walzak said, and she noted the league was feeling “optimistic” that it would be able to pay its creditors.

Asked on the final day of operations whether the CWHL was close to paying off its debts, Walzak said, via email, “we are still reconciling all financials.” That is certainly not a “yes.”

The league also issued a statement Tuesday regarding the auctioning off of CWHL assets, including items like its MVP trophy, which it said was its “fiduciary duty,” meaning, legal obligation. The CWHL board has also been in contact with the Hockey Hall of Fame to try to preserve some of the league’s history.

“The Canadian Women’s Hockey League is hosting this auction in effort to put the jerseys, sticks, and other memorabilia, including trophies, into our fan’s hands. It is our fiduciary duty to maximize value for our stakeholders, including Players, General Managers and vendors, but not limited to these,” the statement reads. “Unfortunately we are not in a position to donate or give these items away. We did speak with the Hockey Hall of Fame and are in discussions with third party entities on privately purchasing some trophies and having them donated to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Our hope is that if these items are in the hands of our fans then the memories can be celebrated and live on forever. We continue to thank the fans for their continued support and understanding.”

Small got offers from a handful of people to help buy pieces of the league’s history that were up for auction, but she politely declined. “Yes it has value and yes I’m hopeful that whoever buys it will value it in whatever way they deem to do, but at the end of the day what I’m most sad about losing is what we created in Toronto,” she says. “The people, being able to go to the rink every day, the environment. That will never be the same again and no amount of stuff can recreate that. That’s what I’ll mourn the most.”

Knox and other players found out the trophies were being auctioned the same way the rest of the public did. “I don’t think that the board members or the administration, whoever is left in the league that is making these decisions, I don’t think that they want to sell the trophies,” Knox says. “I think that’s important to say because they believe in women’s hockey and they’re putting in long hours to see the league operate as best as possible. But, has it really come to this? Are we really selling these symbols of hard work and dedication and success? Inherently those trophies are commemorative of the people that put in an extreme amount of work to get their name on it. And then we’re just saying anyone with $1,000 bucks who wants to step in, here it is…”

A GoFundMe campaign was set up to buy the most valuable items, to preserve these pieces of pro women’s hockey history. In three days (as of publishing this article) it had raised more than $6,200 towards its $7,500 goal.

“You can’t buy something that is inherently earned, in my opinion— it’s just not right,” Knox says. “This will be all we have left when all this is said and done.”

6. There’s ice time on hold in all six CWHL markets.

Small says all CWHL teams have their same practice ice times and dressing rooms booked for next season. They haven’t paid for it, but it’s “on hold,” Small says, “which is nice. It carries over from last year. There’s a lot of other user groups that want it.”

Small has no idea if it’ll get used by a team she’s running next year. “I’m just holding onto it,” she says. “I can pass it off to whomever or whatever else is out there.”

7. What happens next is very much in the player’s hands.

It’s the GMs who have been getting the proposals from investors and passing along the information to players, who ultimately will decide what’s next. “I am sure the CWHL players are working together to have a united stance as they’ve all said they wanted to,” says Markham Thunder GM Chelsea Purcell. “I said from the start it is hard to get that many ladies on the same page, so I really hope they can. What that is, I don’t know, and when it will come…hopefully sooner than later.”

8. Cautious optimism abounds.

Asked whether she was optimistic that there would be a Canadian-based league next season in which players could play and be paid, Knox says: “That’s a tough one.” It’s still too early to know for sure.

“Am I optimistic?” Small says. “I mean, I guess so.”

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