A decade in, CWHL continuing to embrace its vision

Friday December 9th, 2016

On the road to the CWHL’s 10th season, there were at least a couple of vans.

There were the ones, packed with gear and players, shuttling their payload from city to city for weekend games in the league’s early days. Or, perhaps the one that carried the prized Clarkson Cup in the back seat, sans seatbelt.

“We didn’t have a case at that time,” Commissioner Brenda Andress says with a laugh. “It was funny, because I was thinking, ‘Who’s ever doing to believe this?’ Now you look where we are.”

The league, which started play in 2007–08 with eight teams, has come a long way in its decade of existence, with some of hockey’s biggest names having graced the CWHL’s record books. Now with five teams—Les Canadiennes de Montreal, the Toronto Furies, Boston Blades, Brampton Thunder and Calgary Inferno—the league has established partnerships with three NHL franchises, as well as having its playoffs and special events aired on Sportsnet in Canada and an annual draft since 2010. In 2016, the CWHL took part in the NHL’s Winter Classic festivities and the CWHL All-Star game was played at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, months before Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Center hosted the Clarkson Cup.

“The CWHL in the beginning, the players themselves were basically operating a league,” says Andress, who joined the league in 2007, its second season. “So 10 years ago, the players started the league for players and those players would come off the ice and collect tickets and try to get refs organized, rent facilities, so very much ... the players did everything.”

That included driving one another to games and practices, something which Marie-Philip Poulin remembers vividly from her first go-round in the league at 16 with the then-Montreal Stars.

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“I was so young, I could barely speak English, and we’d go to Toronto and just pack a full van, like, squeezed in the back,” the 25-year-old Les Canadiennes forward says. “Moments like that, it was just like, ‘Wow, is this really what the CWHL is all about?’ Coming back from a road trip and having laughs and little moments, shared stories, those are our best moment. You can tell it’s different. Having more space on a real bus to Toronto and to be able to share any stories with my teammates, those are the best for sure.”

The memories exist thanks in large part to players like Sami-Jo Small, Jennifer Botterill, Lisa-Marie Breton and others, who played major roles in in getting the league off the ground after the National Women’s Hockey League disbanded in 2007.

“At the initial stages it was exciting for us to have a league that was so competitive and that was a great development tool for us,” says Botterill, who played four seasons with the Mississauga Chiefs franchise which became the Toronto Furies in 2010, scoring 154 points in 76 career games. “It was exciting for us to feel like we were are the start of something that would be very special for a long time.”

Longevity was a goal from the start, and much of that was due to the foresight of the league’s founders.

“When I came into the league, we held a player summit and we said, ‘Where do we want to see ourselves in 10 years?,’” Andress says. “We sat around the table and we did some strategic planning and from that session, we formulated a business plan, formulated a vision and so we’re dead on, on exactly what we saw. The whole point of that summit was to create a foundation, to create a strong, sustainable league, and here we are, 10 years later.”

Partnerships with the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens have leant to the CWHL establishing its identity.

“We targeted those teams and affiliated ourselves with those logos,” Andress says. “Our Montreal Stars, way back then, are called Les Canadiennes de Montreal, with the actual ‘C’ in it, Toronto Furies the same way, you’ll see a maple leaf behind their name, and Calgary the same way.”

The league’s existence drew some of North America’s top women’s hockey players, and in doing so, helped to advance the women’s game.

“It allowed a lot of the postgraduates to have a league and a place to play that was high-level and competitive,” says Julie Chu, a blue line fixture on the U.S. National Team since 2001 and a member of the Montreal franchise since 2010. “I think that, if anything, fosters the Canada-U.S. rivalry to some extent because they’re just making a providing training grounds for better hockey players.”

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The CWHL has not been without its struggles, however. The Blades went on a two-game work stoppage in 2014 due to contract disputes, and in early 2015, some high-profile incidents brought the league’s issues to the forefront. Several of its biggest stars, including U.S.-born Boston forward Hilary Knight, went public with their gripes regarding the league having players be responsible their team’s membership fees. There was also the time when Blades rookie Janine Weber had to turn down the Hockey Hall of Fame’s request for her stick, because it was her last one.

These issues led to one of the biggest changes in the women’s hockey landscape, the creation of the U.S.-based NWHL in 2015, a four-team league that paid its players a salary—a longtime knock on the CWHL, which only rewarded its players monetarily for certain accomplishments, like winning the Clarkson Cup.

Salaries, however, have always been a part of the league’s plan, with a target of the 2017–18 season, though it remains to be seen just how much the players will make.

“I think time sorts that out,” Andress says. “One of the things we currently say, we’re going to start to pay our women, well, what’s the number that makes it right? Our women are given money in different ways: in prize money for winning the Clarkson Cup and different things. Aren’t we already paying the women, yes in some aspect we already are starting to do that, but what’s the magic number? Somebody says, ‘OK, it’s legit now, they’re paying someone this much.’ Well, I don’t know that number and neither does anyone out there. What’s the number that says, ‘I no longer need a job, I’m going to play hockey?’ It’s part of the process”

That process also includes creating more career opportunities for women in any number of roles, finding ways for the young, hockey-obsessed girls in the stands to find a space for them in the sport. Much of that has stemmed from the CWHL’s original vision.

“There are girls that are watching those girls, whether it’s being broadcast or whether it’s watching those games in person, and they go back and they say, ‘Oh, I want to try that move that I saw Natalie Spooner do,’ or ‘I want to try that move that I saw Hilary Knight do,’” Botterill says. “That creates a pretty special foundation at that age.”

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Courting that next-next generation is an important part of what comes next for the CWHL, and salaries are a big part of that, as are things like visibility, corporate sponsors and continually increasing the level of play. While it’s tempting to get caught up in a decade of growth and success, don’t think for the a second the league is resting on its laurels.

“In 10 years, we’ve seen a lot of growth to where we are now, and we're only going to continue to grow to where we want to get to,” Chu says.

Much of that growth hinges on the league’s homegrown stars, such as Montreal’s Caroline Ouellette, who aims to become the CWHL’s first 300-point scorer this weekend, despite having played just 164 games in her career. It’s a milestone in a milestone season, another piece of history checked off, with plenty more to come.

Getting there won’t take vans. As for the Clarkson Cup, well, it finally got its case.

“[A] favorite memory if mine is when I was at the Hockey Hall of Fame and saw the Cup inside the glass,” Andress says, “and Madame Clarkson was there, and Sami-Jo Small was there, one of the original individuals, and Samantha Holmes and Cassie Campbell, really that was the core back then of players and myself, and we’re sitting there, and we’re looking inside the glass. It was much like the movie, ‘A League of Their Own’ where I turned and said, ‘One day, your kids’ kids are going to come here and see their grandmother’s name on the Cup,’ and it’s much like the movie, where we’ve now created history with your names on it.”

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