After a season that saw the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) continues to experience positive growth, plans are in place to add a second franchise south of the border. Bids have been received from groups in Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota and New York State. The volume of bids clearly indicates that interest in women’s hockey is only increasing.
In looking at the four bids, each one offers its own advantages. Chicago, Illinois, the city of the big shoulders, has experienced a renewed interest in hockey complemented by two recent Stanley Cup victories. Of note, the state of Illinois has produced several stars in the sport, such as Cammi Granato, Megan Bozek and Kendall Coyne. The growing number of girls’ hockey programs at the high school and club levels is making the state a mandatory stop for NCAA recruiting.
With a strong corporate influence, Chicago would certainly appear to be an ideal market. Unfortunately, the state of Illinois does not have an NCAA Division I women’s hockey program. Northwestern University and the University of Illinois (a pair of Big Ten schools that have rivalries with Wisconsin and Ohio State) would be ideal to launch a program. In some ways, the ability to develop a Division I program and strengthen the grass roots growth of the game would be an essential step before the arrival of professional women’s hockey.
Despite being economically depressed, the city of Detroit is one of America’s great sporting cities. A point of strong civic pride, the city has produced a pair of American League championships (baseball), the MLB All-Star Game, a Stanley Cup win, basketball titles in the NBA and WNBA and was the host city for Super Bowl XL.
Proudly declaring itself as Hockeytown USA, a CWHL franchise would only help to enhance the city’s hockey presence. It’s minor girls hockey system features nationally prominent teams such as Belle Tire (where Olympic gold medalist Genevieve Lacasse once played), Detroit Honeybaked and Little Caesar’s. Earlier this year, the winners of the women’s hockey gold medal game at the Michigan Senior Olympics were profiled on Fox 2 Detroit, one of the city’s leading television channels for premier sports coverage.
An added feature is the fact that Manon Rheaume, known affectionately as the First Lady of Hockey, is currently based in Michigan. Of note, her son Dylan St. Cyr is a goaltender for the Detroit Honeybaked boys program, having competed in the famous Quebec Peewee hockey tournament. The presence of Rheaume as a goodwill ambassador or a consultant for the expansion franchise would seem almost obligatory.
Unfortunately, the Achilles heel for Detroit has been its economic woes. Despite a strong fan base at all levels of hockey throughout the state of Michigan, there are still concerns for the long-term viability of women’s sports. Wayne State University offered the only Division I women’s hockey program in the state of Michigan and faced a sad demise due to financial issues. The program produced the likes of Alyssa Baldin (a 2014 Clarkson Cup champion) and DeLayne Brian (the 2014 CWHL Goaltender of the Year). As a side note, the WNBA’s Detroit Shock, one of the league’s longest running franchises, experienced several championship seasons, and were forced to pack up and relocate to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Another economic downturn could potentially have similar ramifications for a CWHL franchise.
Geographically, an expansion franchise in New York State would make travel much more cost-efficient for several of the CWHL’s established clubs. Theorizing that an expansion franchise could land in Buffalo, New York would provide the Brampton Thunder and Toronto Furies with a new rival.
Considering the demise of the Burlington Barracudas in 2012, Buffalo may help many players in Southern Ontario gain the chance to compete in the CWHL. Also taking into account the existing sports rivalry between Buffalo and Boston in the NHL (Sabres vs. Bruins) and the NFL (Bills vs. Patriots), it would not take long for that rivalry to intensify courtesy of the CWHL adding a new dimension to it.
Another aspect that certainly makes a New York State-based expansion franchise appealing is its NCAA presence. Despite Niagara University (which produced former Brampton GM Jody Katz and 2014 Clarkson Cup champion Shannon Moulson) shelving its Division I program, the state of New York still boasts the highest number of Division I programs, even more than Minnesota. Complemented by the presence of Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania (which is right on the state border with New York and less than 90 minutes from Buffalo) would result in an embarrassment of riches when looking to accumulate talent for an expansion franchise.
The final market looking for entry into the CWHL also has an abundance of talent. Building on the proud legacy of the Minnesota Whitecaps, the state is looking to welcome the CWHL, after the collapse of the Western Women’s Hockey League. As the league relies on sponsorships, the twin cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul would also bring a strong corporate presence.
With the immense popularity of the game at the high school and NCAA levels through Minnesota and neighboring Wisconsin, the CWHL would help extend these remarkable careers in their own back yard. The level of world class talent available would certainly help stimulate interest while providing Calgary with a sorely needed rival.
Players such as Megan Bozek, Brianna Decker, the Lamoureux Twins and Jessie Vetter were all eligible for the 2013 CWHL Draft. That was a remarkable amount of Midwest-based talent left on the table. This year, Alex Rigsby headlines another strong group of prospects that are eligible for the 2014 edition of the draft (not to forget Amanda Kessel being eligible in 2015). If all of these talents could compose part of the roster for an expansion franchise in Minnesota, there is no question that the club would become an instant Clarkson Cup contender.
Regardless of which city is selected, there is no question that all four of these markets are very deserving. Selecting just one market shall be a difficult task for the Board of Directors. If there is one factor that all Board members can agree on is that the growing level of interest in the league is exciting. Perhaps one day the C in the CWHL may need to change to Continental, but it would be a price worth paying should the league truly emerge as one where players can earn a salary throughout North America.
Photo credit: Richard Scott, Hockey Media