With less than a minute left in the period, Tessa Bonhomme takes the puck over the blue line, weaves past two defenders and takes a shot on goaltender Molly Schauss. Bonhomme, a Canadian Women’s National Team member and Olympic gold medalist, skids to a stop near Schaus, of the USA Women’s National Team and Olympic silver medalist, who has caught the puck in her glove off the hard wrist shot. The crowd goes. . . well, there is no crowd.
The scene above, and many like them, have played out repeatedly over the past two days. More than half of the current Canadian Women’s National Team and almost half of the USA Women’s National Team tore up the ice in some of the fastest, most physical, and emotionally intense hockey I’ve ever been fortunate enough to witness. Unfortunately, I was one of only a few people witnessing this fantastic hockey spectacle—it’s not the Olympics or World Championships. The games are part of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League championship tournament, The Clarkson Cup.
I’m continued to be amazed by how Canadian and US hockey fans will learn the names and life stories of the women’s team players, spend hundreds of dollars buying tickets to games, and schedule their days around the schedule of live televised matchups—during the Olympics. Yet, the CWHL championship tournament, The Clarkson Cup, is being played in Markham, Ontario as I write this, and other than games where busloads of elementary school kids are brought in for the weekday morning games, the attendance is. . . .embarrassing—embarrassing as it is being played in a country whose citizens claim to love hockey, claim that hockey is an inseparable part of the national fabric. A Wednesday night game featuring the CWHL teams from Montreal (including Caroline Ouellette, Julie Chu, Charline LaBonte, Megan Agosta) and Brampton (including Cherie Piper, Lori Dupuis, Jayna Hefford, Gillian Apps) drew about a hundred fans. The tickets were $10.
At the 2013 CWHL Awards Gala earlier this week, former Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke was the keynote speaker. He emphasized two primary points. First, if you want to get into hockey, you have to love it. You can’t just like hockey. If you only like it, you will never be successful. You have to LOVE hockey. Second, he explained that the level of hockey in the CWHL is well within the ranks of the highest-levels of hockey in the world.
As anyone who knows anything about the CWHL is well aware, the players do not get paid. The league just doesn’t have the budget for player salaries. In fact, if a team is operating in a deficit, the players on that team have to contribute to make up the difference—contribute money from their personal funds. The ladies who play in the league have full-time jobs as lawyers, physical therapists, engineers, public speakers, recreation managers, teachers. They often need to ask for time off work to attend team practices, games, and weekend-consuming bus trips to distant cities for away games.
What continues to baffle me, year after year, is the lack of turnout at the CWHL games, and in particular, The Clarkson Cup tournament. What Brian Burke said has stuck with me—a person can’t just “like” hockey; he or she either loves the sport or shouldn’t bother with it at all. I have friends who claim to love hockey, yet I ask them to go with me to a CWHL game and they shift their eyes, make excuses, and shrug me off when I tell them they won’t see higher quality hockey anywhere. Going forward, when I get these kinds of responses, I’m going to say to them, “Ok, so you don’t really love hockey. Be honest. You love the NHL/the OHL/the AHL/the (specific team).”
I love hockey. I love it on all levels. I LOVE my women’s rec hockey league. I love to watch Timbits look like bugs following the puck around the ice. I love to watch the NHL, especially the Detroit Red Wings. And I love the CWHL. What I love most, however, are others who also love hockey, including players.
In 2009, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final between my Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins. I thought it was going to be one of the best days of my life, but the Wings lost. For two days, I was in a really bad mood. I was cranky, didn’t want to talk about hockey, and was short and snippy with everyone. Then suddenly I realized what I was doing and I stopped and thought to myself, “Why am I so upset about a bunch of multi-millionaires losing a hockey game?” Yes, the NHL players put everything they have into their careers, but do they LOVE hockey? How many of them would still play if it wasn’t their job, if they weren’t getting paid? If they had to take time off work and time from family obligations to go to practices and games? If they had to buy their own equipment? If they had to carry and maintain their own equipment, even? If they had to play in small arenas where the locker rooms are slightly bigger than a bathroom on a 747?
Last night I watched as one of the CWHL teams who had just lost a hard-fought close game, and were eliminated from the tournament. As they left the ice and walked past me to the locker room, more than one had tears in her eyes. I drove home from the arena in a foul mood, fighting back my own tears the whole way. Unlike watching the Red Wings lose the Stanley Cup, I knew I had a legitimate reason to be upset. I felt those CWHL players’ pain because I have seen first-hand how much they sacrifice for the game. How much they give to the game. How hard they try in every second of every period. How they give everything in the name of their teammates, their league, and their game. How much they LOVE hockey. And in this case, I didn’t chastise myself for being upset for them.
But I can chastise the supposed hockey fans I know who snub this beautiful form of the game.
The Clarkson Cup final, which will feature the Boston Blades and the Montreal Stars will be played at 2 pm Saturday, March 23. Tickets are $15 (http://www.cwhl.ca/view/cwhl/clarkson-cup). Even if you live four-hours’ drive away, it would be worth the trip. If you would drive that far to go to an NHL game but not for this, then you have to ask yourself if you really truly love hockey.