The best female hockey players on the planet are currently pushing themselves to the limits of their abilities at the Women’s World Hockey Championship in Finland.
But what happens when the North American players return home, likely with gold and silver medals dangling from their necks? Will they have a league to call their own, somewhere to showcase their elite skills when not representing their countries?
The collapse of the six-team Canadian Women’s Hockey League has plunged the future of the female game into disarray, especially in Canada.
On March 31, just five days before the world championship opened, the CWHL abruptly announced that, because of financial issues, it will cease operations after 12 seasons. The league has four teams in Canada, one in suburban Boston and a sixth in China.
That leaves one remaining professional destination in North America — the rival National Women’s Hockey League, which operates franchises in Boston, Buffalo, Connecticut, Minnesota and New Jersey. The NWHL promptly promised to expand into Canada, adding teams in Toronto and Montreal.
But that doesn’t come close to filling the void that will be left by the death of the CWHL. The bottom line? If the Canadian-based league is allowed to die without a proper replacement, there will be far fewer places for women to play a sport that is considered a birthright on this side of the border.
Hockey analysts who have weighed in on the issue agree there is only one practical long-term solution — a single North American league for women that has the full backing of the National Hockey League. Interestingly, the NHL owns the rights to the trademark "WNHL."
Shortly after the death of the CWHL was announced, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an email, "We recognize that having professional options is important to aspiring young women hockey players. If those options were to become unavailable, the NHL would consider helping to create alternatives."
Well, Mr. Daly, the time has come. Last season, the NHL gave $50,000 each to the NWHL and the CWHL. Now, with the Canadian-based loop no longer in operation, the NHL will give the full allotment of $100,000 to the NWHL.
The cash-rich NHL has a moral obligation to do more than simply collect outlandish ticket revenues from its ravenous fan base. It has a vested interest in growing the game, regardless of the gender of the players.
In the world of pro sports, that is just a drop in the proverbial bucket. The cash-rich NHL has a moral obligation to do more than simply collect outlandish ticket revenues from its ravenous fan base. It has a vested interest in growing the game, regardless of the gender of the players. It’s time for the NHL to step up in a more materially significant fashion.
A single league supported by the financial and marketing resources of the NHL would have the potential to develop into a money-making venture, just as the Women’s National Basketball Association has, thanks to the full backing of the NBA.
"An NHL-backed league, like the WNBA or National Women’s Soccer League, is the obvious solution. Everyone knows it," Sportsnet analyst and Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster Elliotte Friedman wrote recently. "This puts the female players and stakeholders in an uncomfortable position. They don’t want to say anything that causes a problem, but they want the NHL to stop waiting."
When our best female hockey players return home from Finland, the NHL should be waiting to greet them with news of a brighter future rising from the ashes of a troubled past.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.