Damien Cox: Women’s pro hockey has its growing pains but it’s still growing, not going

The frustration, dismay and anger are palpable and understandable. These things always result when a professional sports league abruptly goes out of business in a cloud of confusion and chaos.

But let’s be clear. Women’s pro hockey as a concept, as a business enterprise, is here to stay. It’s not going anywhere.

Toronto Furies GM Sami Jo Small was a defiant voice after the CWHL announced it was folding. “We know what we have built here is strong,” she told CBC News. “For 12 years, it was sustainable.”
Toronto Furies GM Sami Jo Small was a defiant voice after the CWHL announced it was folding. “We know what we have built here is strong,” she told CBC News. “For 12 years, it was sustainable.”  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

What we’re witnessing right now is a rationalization of the business as various commercial models are being experimented with, some more successfully than others. But even though the Canadian Women’s Hockey League is no more, the women’s pro game is very much alive, with reasons to believe it has a much brighter future.

It’s going to make it.

If anything, what we’ve seen over the past couple of days, as the CWHL made the surprising but not shocking announcement it was disbanding, is very much a reflection of the history of hockey. While the National Hockey League today stands alone, profitable and unchallenged, that was certainly not always the case.

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More than a century ago, the things we’re seeing with the CWHL and its U.S. rival, the National Women’s Hockey League, were happening with a variety of leagues that were attempting to establish roots for men’s professional hockey in Canada and the United States.

The NHL was preceded by the National Hockey Association, which was itself preceded by the Canadian Hockey Association, which was preceded by the Eastern Canadian Hockey Association, the Federal League and the Pacific Coast Hockey League. The history of all these leagues is colourful and filled with confusion, rebel owners, bankruptcies, instability and destructive competition for players.

The NHA gradually morphed into the NHL mostly because of problems with Eddie Livingstone, who owned the Toronto Shamrocks. Eventually, the rest of the NHA had enough of Livingstone, and formed the new NHL without him.

“We didn’t throw Livingstone out,” explained Montreal Wanderers owner Sammy Lichtenhein. “He’s still got his franchise in the NHA. The only problem is he’s playing in a one-team league.”

So what has this ancient hockey history got to do with the death of the CWHL? Just that startup hockey leagues have historically run into trouble with finances, planning and ownership. Businessmen and hockey people often have different visions, and that’s what we’ve seen with the CWHL, whether it’s Graeme Roustan pulling out his money or the league holding merger talks with the NWHL before deciding to go out of business instead.

These are all growing pains. Extremely uncomfortable ones, of course, particularly for the athletes involved. But growing pains nonetheless.

There’s also lots of encouraging things happening for the women’s pro game. Just last month, 175,000 people tuned in to watch the CWHL’s Clarkson Cup final on Sportsnet. That’s a very respectable number. Cassie Campbell-Pascall now calls NHL games as an analyst. Hayley Wickenheiser works for the Maple Leafs. Kendall Coyne Schofield blew everyone away with her skating at this year’s NHL all-star game. NHL franchises like the Leafs, Calgary Flames, Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils and Minnesota Wild have business links with women’s pro hockey.

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In general, the trending for women’s hockey is up, not down.

Establishing a firm footing for women’s pro hockey was never going to be easy. Just look at the WNBA. It’s been in business since 1996, fought off one rival league and has found some success attracting TV eyeballs. At the same time, attendance across the league has been trending downwards for years and teams keep switching arenas, creating uncertainty and confusion.

After 23 years, the WNBA is still trying to figure out its best business model. Given that the CWHL was only 12 years old and the NWHL has only been around since 2015, it seems entirely reasonable that women’s pro hockey has still got a long way to go before it finds a measure of true stability.

At some point, the competing interests and ambitions in women’s pro hockey are going to align more favourably than they do right now. One league, not two, makes sense, just as it did in the days the NHL was waging war with the World Hockey Association.

More affiliations with NHL clubs might be the way to go, although that hasn’t necessarily been the answer for the WNBA in its partnerships with the NBA. Chinese investment and participation in the CWHL was initially promising, but obviously wasn’t a solution.

The question of individual ownership groups, as opposed to the centralized model of the CWHL, is another option. The fact CWHL teams were apparently completely in the dark as to the state of the league and its finances before being told it was closing its doors indicates the current model wasn’t working seamlessly.

“We know what we have built here is strong,” a defiant and confident Toronto Furies GM Sami Jo Small told CBC News. “For 12 years, it was sustainable.

“We want to get the word out that we’re still here, and we’re still viable.”

Similar words came from Kristen Hagg, GM of league champion Calgary Inferno.

“I’m not just folding up my chair and packing it in,” she said.

It’s going to be fascinating to watch the next few months unfold. The most straightforward result might be to see the NWHL absorb some or all of the CWHL teams, although that could see some CWHL players left unemployed.

The concept of female hockey players being able to play professionally without holding other jobs to support themselves and their families is still a ways off. The folding of the CWHL makes it feel even further away.

But that dream is still alive. There are a lot of smart, savvy women working hard to make it a reality. They’ll get past this latest setback. And be ready for the next one.

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

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