Dave Feschuk: Women’s hockey tour hits town selling the stuff that dreams are made of

Canada

For Sarah Nurse, it’s a state of affairs that needs to change.

The forward on Canada’s silver-medal-winning Olympic hockey team was thinking back to the Pyeongchang Olympics this week. For that magical moment in time, with the NHL’s best players nowhere near South Korea, women’s hockey commanded one of the biggest spotlights of one of the biggest events on the sports calendar. Canada’s gold-medal final against the victorious U.S., decided in a shootout, turned out to be the second-most-watched TV event in Canada in 2018, surpassed only by Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir’s ice-dancing triumph. The 4.8 million viewers who tuned in to that hockey game were more than watched each of the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards, not to mention the final of the FIFA World Cup.

And as for Nurse, she went from being a fourth-line bit player to one of the most talked-about athletes in the village after she scored the winning goal in a preliminary-round win over the U.S. the week before the gold-medal game. It was a performance that earned Nurse plenty of TV face time, not to mention an Instagram shout-out from none other than Drake.

“It’s amazing what can happen when we’re given that kind of exposure,” Nurse was saying in an interview this week.

Fast-forward 19 months, though, and that kind of exposure and TV ubiquity is as distant a memory as that five-ringed competition that arrives every four years. Which is, for Nurse, the part that needs to change. Not that women’s hockey, or any women’s sport, requires the approval of Drake or any other man for validation. But as Nurse and many of her cohorts around the women’s game have been saying this week, the sport is in dire need of Drake-sized visibility.

These are uncertain times in the sport. In the wake of the demise of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which ceased operations in May claiming financial unviability after a 12-year run, many of the sport’s best athletes find themselves without a professional outlet. Many, of course, also remain members of the national teams of Canada and the U.S., which comes with some level of stability and financial help. And there are some playing in the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League, a five-team circuit set to begin its fifth season this fall.

But the dream, says Nurse, is to see a newer, better women’s league rise from the ashes of the CWHL — a league with the kind of financial backing that’ll make it sustainable and ultimately successful. Which is why some of the best women’s players in the world will descend on Westwood Arena this weekend as part of the Dream Gap Tour. Spearheaded by the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, whose leadership includes former interim CWHL commissioner and Hockey Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford, the Dream Gap Tour is a four-team tournament featuring the likes of Team Canada captain Marie-Philip Poulin and U.S. star Hilary Knight.

Running Saturday and Sunday, with live streaming on CBC’s website, the event is the first of a series of stops around North America that’s part community outreach, part awareness-raising exercise meant to remind the world that women’s hockey exists beyond an Olympic fortnight every four years. It’s all part of a push to secure support for a viable pro league.

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“My best-case scenario is, within a year, seeing a major investor come in and help us create something like the WNBA,” said Liz Fox, a longtime CWHL goaltender turned PWHPA organizer. “Obviously we’re realistic. It’s going to take more than a year to build this dream league that we’re envisioning. But for young girls, if you can’t see it, you can’t dream it.”

Hefford has pointed to statistics that show girls dropping out of youth hockey, among other sports, at an alarming rate and chalked up the cause, in part, to a lack of a women’s professional league.

“The stats about girls dropping out of sports at a younger age than boys — the reality is, we don’t see ourselves on TV,” said Knox. “We don’t see a future in our sport. So it’s a lot easier to lose sight of those dreams through your teenage years if you don’t think being a pro is possible … That’s why a big part of (the Dream Gap Tour) for me is just educating minor-hockey players and minor-hockey parents about why we’re doing this. It’s not for us to gain a benefit. It’s for their kids. It’s to create something special — to leave the game better than we found it, and hopefully create opportunities for them.”

The PWHPA has enlisted help in its quest. Unifor is the weekend’s title sponsor. The National Hockey League Players’ Association is also on board as a partner, as are a handful of other brands. As for the elephant in the room — the prospect of NHL involvement in a WNBA-style product — it persists as a dream of some.

“You’re going to find people on both sides of the argument. Some who say women’s hockey doesn’t need the NHL, and some who say it does,” Fox said. “Me personally, I think we need to partner with somebody who’s been there and done that. Obviously the NHL is the big go-to. But if it’s a broadcasting network, the sky’s the limit. But it needs to be somebody who knows what works and knows how to sell it.”

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In the here and now, there’s hope that a few thousand of those 4.8 million Canadians who watched that gold-medal game 19 months ago might also be interested in seeing a smorgasbord of Olympians up close this weekend. Westwood’s big rink only holds 1,200 fans, but tickets remain available.

“The visibility of women’s sports, and women’s hockey in particular, is very low. And that’s something we want to change,” Nurse said. “When we played in the CWHL before it folded, people didn’t even know that we existed. We want to make a statement and let people know we’re around.”

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If the Olympics proved anything, it’s that women’s hockey can bring the goods when granted the stage.

“Imagine if we were in front of cameras every single game?” Nurse said. “Things happen every single game that are fantastic — highlight-reel stuff. But you never see them, because we’re not in front of cameras. So it just shows what visibility does.”

Dave Feschuk

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