Pro Hockey – Not Just a Man’s Game
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you know you can’t wait four more years to see a high-stakes women’s hockey game.
Congratulations! You’ve won an Olympic medal in women’s hockey! Now what?
If you’re Jessica Lutz, whose goal pushed Switzerland to the bronze medal, you return to work as a barista in Washington.
Several players are going back to U.S. college teams. Most players from Japan and Europe go back to small leagues in their home countries. Russia’s league, which includes American Kelley Steadman, is regarded as the only professional women’s hockey league in Europe.
Why can’t Canada and the USA, who have been the finalists of every World Championships, support a pro league?
But Raty, before signing with her new team, tweeted that the future of the sport depended on the North American powers: “I don’t feel that women’s hockey can grow or get any better in the future if the USA or Canada don’t get a professional league started soon.”
So why not, North America? Why can’t Canada and the USA, who have been the finalists of every World Championships and all but one Olympic tournament, support a pro league?
Olympic players missed much of the CWHL season to focus on their national teams, but a few players rejoined their clubs for the end of the season. The Boston Blades feature Canadian goalie Genevieve Lacasse along with U.S. forwards Hilary Knight and Kelli Stack. The Montreal Stars have welcomed back U.S. mainstay Julie Chu and Canadian scorer Caroline Ouellette. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), which launched in 2007, is trying to get there. The five-team league – Boston, Brampton (Ontario), Calgary, Montreal and Toronto – wraps its season with the Clarkson Cup playoffs this week in Markham, Ontario.
The league has some momentum after a compelling Olympic tournament in Sochi gave women’s hockey a boost. “We have heard from many different sponsors seeking to find out about our league and how it operates,” commissioner Brenda Andress said by email.
The first four Clarkson Cup games were decided by just one goal.
Yet the CWHL doesn’t plan to rush into expansion or any other fast growth. Given the history of other women’s pro sports leagues, that’s a prudent course, albeit a potential frustration for fans. But the fact is, a splashy launch or re-launch doesn’t necessarily lead to a stable league down the road: The heavily marketed Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) only lasted three years.
These days new sports leagues live and die by the buzzwords sustainability and stability. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), recently launched a professional league subsidized by the U.S., Canadian and Mexican soccer federations, but is keeping its spending down. The modest National Pro Fastpitch league (softball) survives with just four teams and average salaries in the $5,000-$6,000 range.
Women’s hockey forbids body checking, but the competition still rages, creating suspense and drama that makes for thrilling watching. The CWHL funnels a lot of good players into a few teams, setting up some close games: The first four Clarkson Cup games were decided by just one goal.
The action at the Clarkson Cup may inspire a few more sponsors and prospective owners to step forward and create a true professional league for the players who put on a classic Olympic hockey final just a few weeks ago. It’s time to place some big bets on a sport whose time has come. The athletes deserve it, and so do the fans.