An already eventful year for women’s ice hockey has taken on an intriguing new dimension. As the game continues to evolve on a professional level, its current, and future status has augmented conversation, stimulating the concept of a new development.
Taking a more robust involvement, Cassie Campbell, one of the game’s luminaries, has shared her thoughts with numerous media outlets about the need for a merger between the two existing professional leagues in North America. During the 2016-17 CWHL season, Campbell had casually mentioned the need for a potential merger during a broadcast of the league’s All-Star Game on Sportsnet.
This is a stance that Campbell has emphasized in the aftermath of the 2018 Winter Games. Certainly, the presence of a legendary figure such as Campbell, one who helped establish a foundation for the game today, is most refreshing. Emphasizing the need to address the future with unprecedented importance, she is working towards positively shaping the game’s destiny, a most admirable role. With due deference, it needs to be acknowledged that as important as a merger might be, it cannot take place overnight.
During the 1960s and 1970s, professional sport was filled with numbers of rival leagues. While leagues such as the American Football League, American Basketball Association and World Hockey Association were born out of frustration, as hopeful owners were denied expansion by established leagues, eventual mergers only took place at least five years after each of the aforementioned leagues were first founded.
Such mergers were motivated out of sheer economic necessity. Not only did rival leagues drive up the cost of salaries, but the intense battle over talent resulted in extremely intense bidding wars. Especially during the era of the AFL and NFL, it was not uncommon for both leagues to draft star players, each willing to take a risky gamble. The most notable example was Joe Namath, who was drafted by the AFL’s New York Jets and NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals, opting to sign with the less established AFL due to a more lucrative contract offered by owner Sonny Werblin.
While such lavish and excessive amounts of money are not part of the current state of professional women’s ice hockey, players drafted by both the CWHL and the NWHL has proven to be a reality since the existence of two different leagues. Emerance Maschmeyer made history as the first Canadian-born player to be claimed in NWHL Draft history, selected by the Boston Pride. Having spent the 2017-18 season with Les Canadiennes, she was originally selected by the CWHL’s Calgary Inferno.
A highly talented blueliner, Erin Ambrose, like Maschmeyer, has played on all three levels of Canada’s national women’s team. Having captured an NCAA Frozen Four title with the Clarkson Golden Knights, she was quickly scooped up by the New York Riveters in the NWHL Draft. Coincidentally, Ambrose called Maschmeyer a teammate on Les Canadiennes this season, although the CWHL club that originally drafted her was the Toronto Furies.
Harrison (née Hailey Browne) was actually the first player to have his rights owned by the two different leagues. Having played alongside Ambrose and Laura Stacey as members of Team Ontario at the 2011 Canada Winter Games, he was selected by the Brampton Thunder in the CWHL Draft. Instead, the alum of the University of Maine opted to sign with the Buffalo Beauts, contributing to a growing legacy of Canadian-born players that have suited up for the NWHL club.
Other players to have been drafted by both leagues include Sarah Lefort (Buffalo and Montreal), Cassandra Poudirer (Connecticut and Montreal), Jenna Dingeldein (Buffalo and Toronto), Ann-Renee Desbines (Boston and Montreal) and Cayley Mercer (Buffalo and Vanke Rays).
In theory, the concept of one “super” league in women’s ice hockey would certainly amalgamate resources, consolidate an increasingly more impressive pool of player talent, along with the possibility of better opportunities in terms of marketing and media exposure. Yet, the key issue is that a merger needs to be one built on sincerity and a need to improve the game. History shows that the merger between the AFL and the NFL was the most successful of 20th Century sports because of the strong leadership which emerged, built on the foundation of a strong collective focus.
Lamar Hunt, one of the AFL’s co-founders, plus Al Davis, the last commissioner of the AFL, remained part of the new-look NFL, retaining their ownership roles with the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders. Although Davis was the occasional foil at times, AFL and NFL individuals were focused on working together to maximize revenues, realizing innovation with revenue sharing through broadcast deals, along with a newly minted “Super Bowl” championship game, the crown jewel of this merged league.
The catalyst in making Campbell’s views much more passionate emanates from a rather surprising comment. On a recent stop in Calgary, the Commissioner of the NHL had mentioned that if the two professional women’s leagues had not already existed, they would have formed their own women’s league.
Undoubtedly, this revelation has definitely piqued the interest of many in the women’s hockey community. Should such a sentiment be sincere, on the surface, it would appear practical for the NHL to buy both existing leagues, and rebrand it as a “WNHL” with management of their choosing.
Since 2011, there have been different pages created on social media, building up a fictional WNHL. Icethetics, a website celebrated for its superlative jersey concepts, even posted some unique jersey creations, adding a real major league feeling to the concept of a true professional league. With Nick Burton designing a half-dozen concept jerseys, it certainly amplified the interest towards the next step in the women’s game.
Currently, there is a very strong NHL influence in professional women’s ice hockey. Since the 2012-13 campaign, the Calgary Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs have engaged in sponsorship arrangements, adopting the Inferno and Furies as “sister” franchises. Prior to the start of last season, the Montreal Canadiens engaged in a similar arrangement with the Stars, resulting a rebranding as Les Canadiennes.
Montreal’s franchise also experienced another brush with history, participating in the first women’s hockey match contested outdoors. Taking to the ice at Gillette Stadium against the NWHL’s Boston Pride, who would finish the season as Isobel Cup champions, it was a watershed moment in the game’s importance.
Winter Games competitors such as Hilary Knight, who holds the rare distinction of an Isobel Cup and Clarkson Cup championship, Anne Schleper, formerly of the Minnesota Whitecaps, and All-World goaltender Shannon Szabados even had the chance to share the ice with their NHL counterparts. Serving as an excellent example of sporting equality, it builds on the presence of the heroes of women’s hockey that have appeared at recent NHL All-Star fan events. It is also akin to stars from the WNBA participating in the NBA’s All-Star Skills Competition and women such as Dr. Jen Welter and Phoebe Schecter enjoying coaching internships in the NFL.
All three were invited to participate in practices with NHL teams, garnering well-deserved media attention. Knight skated with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, even participating in a ceremonial faceoff later that week. Part of a weekend that involved a girls hockey clinic, Schleper (also an instructor at said clinic) donned the Tampa Bay Lightning jersey, while Szabados enjoyed the opportunity to be a practice goalie with the Edmonton Oilers. In that same season, their Alberta rivals, the Calgary Flames invited Lesley Reddon to occupy the same role.
In addition, the first three CWHL All-Star Games were hosted at the Air Canada Centre, home of the Maple Leafs. Worth noting, both the 2016 and 2017 editions of the Clarkson Cup were the first to be contested in an NHL arena, as Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre served as the backdrop.
Such support has been emulated south of the border as well. The Minnesota Wild have shown tremendous encouragement for the Whitecaps, the longest existing female club team in the United States, with the use of their home rink for a hockey clinic, along with their practice facility as the site of the 2017 NWHL All-Star Game.
In addition, the opening game for the 2017-18 NWHL season took place at Prudential Center, home of the three-time Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils. Just as important was the unprecedented impact of ownership. Kim and Terry Pegula, whose sporting assets include the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, along with the NHL’s Sabres, acquired the NWHL’s franchise in Buffalo. Such an acquisition would certainly indicate a strong stability for league and franchise alike.
Even if a WNHL became reality within a few years, there is no guarantee that it would be an immediate success. While it would certainly provide an element of stability, many regions in the United States are still at the grass roots level for women’s ice hockey. When the WNBA was first conceived, following the success of the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games, speculation was that eventually every NBA market would have its own “sister” team in this new league for women. Unfortunately, this never materialized.
Technically, the WNBA can be considered a “rival” league. From the outset, it was the American Basketball League (ABL) that paved the way for professional women’s basketball in the United States, sprouting in 1996. Not only did the ABL feature track and field superstar (and Summer Games gold medalist) Jackie Joyner-Kersee among its group of competitors, it also involved basketball superstars such as Jennifer Azzi, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Dawn Staley and Katie Smith. Any rivalry between the two was short lived, as the sporting market was simply not in a position to support two women’s leagues.
Even after the WNBA absorbed many of the ABL’s top stars, which was made possible with expansion in subsequent seasons, reaching 16 teams by 2000, the league found itself contracting following the 2002 campaign. Franchises in Cleveland, Miami, Orlando and Portland, among others, had fizzled. Even the Detroit Shock, one of the league’s dynasty franchises, found itself relocating to Tulsa, Oklahoma, less than three years after winning a championship.
Today, only four WNBA franchises still have linkages to their NBA brothers, while the remaining franchises are actually independently owned and operated, possessing no affiliation whatsoever to an existing NBA club. Although NBATV does broadcast WNBA games, maintaining awareness of the league and its stars, the reality is that all its players compete overseas during the offseason to supplement their income.
Coincidentally, the aforementioned Lamar Hunt and Philip Anschutz would also serve as co-founders of Major League Soccer, which started one year earlier than the WNBA. Owning multiple franchises, even if it meant operating at a loss, they were instrumental in helping to finance the construction of several soccer-style stadiums, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a venture with no guarantee of succeeding. Their presence not only supplied the reassurance that a strong future was possible for professional soccer in America, rising from the ashes of the former North American Soccer League, but it represented exactly what is sorely needed today for women’s ice hockey to find its footing in the professional game.
Certainly, a white knight willing to purchase both leagues and bring in their own management would definitely alleviate a lot of issues. Taking into account that each league has such different managerial styles, a third party would probably have to be brought in as the all-too-real possibility of potentially long and painful negotiations would not be easy to digest.
From the outset, both leagues began with much different philosophies, as the NWHL was the truly the first professional league, providing compensation from the first face-off, while the CWHL was a non-profit organization. Such approaches also resulted in different ways to market the product and establish a league-wide structure, certainly creating a conundrum as to which individual would become commissioner in a merged league. Would both be willing to acquiesce to the possibility of another authority figure with more experience?
Perhaps even more visceral would be addressing the issue of existing markets. Worth noting, the Minnesota Whitecaps have been without a league since 2012. Although the inception of the NWHL has seen exhibition games and a unique All-Star setting this year, the market possesses so much world-class talent, it must be included in a new league.
Currently, Boston is the only city that has clubs in both leagues, the CWHL’s Blades and the NWHL’s Pride. Although New England possesses enough talent to stock both rosters, markets such as Pittsburgh (site of the 2017 NWHL All-Star Game) and Winnipeg could easily be destinations for one of those franchises to relocate.
Complicating matters is the existence of two teams in China, especially from a logistical standpoint. While the financial clout of the Chinese ownership is not in dispute, would it be willing to shell out more money in terms of travel and accommodation to at least four other markets?
Such issues are just a small sample that could stretch negotiations into one that could last years, making any thoughts of a merger more romantic than realistic, mirroring the chase for the Hope Diamond. Ideally, those same number of years could be used to try and create some kind of goodwill. Whether it be preseason exhibition games, an All-Star gala featuring players from both leagues, or even a championship game pitting the Clarkson and Isobel Cup champions on the ice, these steps would possibly be the catalyst towards a more peaceful merger.
Just as important is the possibility of other NHL teams providing sponsorship agreements. Currently, the Boston Blades, Boston Pride, Connecticut Whale and Markham Thunder do not benefit from any arrangements. Should such agreements take shape in the near future, that could also be a key step in helping stimulate a merger, as the NHL presence could help facilitate this direction.
Although neither league is obligated to merge with each other, there is the unfortunate undercurrent of dysfunction. Through no fault of either league’s leadership, the presence of players flip-flopping from one league to another is definitely grist for the rumor mill.
Those initiating rumors certainly need to martial their facts. Although several American-born players have competed in the CWHL this season, after spending the previous season with the NWHL, the bigger picture would show that circumstance served as motivation, rather than any presupposed preference over any one league.
Undoubtedly, the chance for world-class players such as Alex Carpenter, Noora Raty and Kelli Stack to compete for the Kunlun Red Star represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help build the game in China. Megan Bozek opted for the Markham Thunder because she has a boyfriend in the Greater Toronto Area. Meanwhile, Hilary Knight opted for Les Canadiennes de Montreal because the NWHL had already begun its postseason.
In addition, it was not uncommon in basketball, football and men’s ice hockey for players to jump from one league to another. Whether it was for financial benefit or the opportunity to play closer to home, this was not an uncommon practice as million dollar contracts were not the standard, like today. As long as two leagues exist in professional women’s ice hockey, this practice shall occur. Such activity is certainly not an indictment of either league, just a natural occurrence.
Regardless of the eventual outcome, the current priority must remain ensuring a positive fan experience, while keeping the players, the true backbone of any league, happy. As long as the game continues to make significant steps, with all signs pointing towards a viable future, rushing a merger would simply disrupt any natural evolution that would develop. Time will provide the necessary solution to deliver the perfect equation.
All jersey concepts by Nick Burton: http://icethetics.squarespace.com/concepts/category/nick-burton
Photo credits: Jason Franson, The Canadian Press,
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