“Minor hockey featuring the world’s best female players” – The Dilemma that is the CWHL

Brampton Thunder of the CWHL

Cross-posted on The Rabbit Hole.

This is less a commentary and more a show of support for an intriguing article that I found in this month’s edition of Sportsnet magazine titled “World-Class rec league: Because the NHL’s support never materialized, the world’s best female players are professional in name only”.  For those of you who do not have access to the print article I include some intruiging excerpts below, as well as my two cents where I have them to contribute.  I think this is a good follow up to Mark Norman’s previous post The Sad State of Women’s Hockey Coverage to help add context to the situation.

Last year, 10.3 million people tuned into watch these women [Lori Dupuis, Jayna Hefford, Cherie Piper] play for Olympic glory.  The 16,805 fans who packed Canada Hockey Place paid upwards of $325 per ticket. Scalpers charged double.  Meaghan Mikkelson, Gillian Apps, [Cherie] Piper and [Jayna] Hefford won gold for Canada.  But tonight at Brampton’s Cassie Campbell Community Centre, only a smattering of fans are here to see some of the best female hockey players on the planet.  Tonight, tickets cost $8, and not even four rows of seats are full.  “In Vancouver, you couldn’t get a ticket,” says Hefford after the game.  “Then we come home,” she says, “and we’re playing in front of barely more than friends and family.”

The future of elite women’s hockey once looked so promising. The summer before the 2010-11 campaign, CWHL players were told a deal with the NHL was in the works, a massive game-changer that would see players paid $500 per game and each women’s team paired with an NHL franchise: Boston with the Bruins, Toronto with the Maple Leafs, Brampton with the Senators, Burlington with the Sabres and Montreal with the Canadiens.  … The NHL could rescue its female equivalent from obscurity with little more than the salary of one fourth-line grinder.  The cash the Montreal Canadiens spend on stick tape alone would go a long way to raising the CWHL’s profile, and so could some some help from the NHL’s marketing division.  A single promotional rink board at the Air Canada Centre would be a start.  But despite the CWHL’s efforts to forge a partnership, it hasn’t happened…The 2010-11 season started and the NHL wasn’t in the picture.

The good news would be that the CWHL has made some progress:

The women no longer pay to play, they wear helmets, gloves and pants provided by Bauer, they’re put up in hotels on the road, their meals are paid for and they’re bused to games…This year, coaches who once volunteered are paid up to $15,000 a season, the kind of cash elite minor hockey coaches make to cover expenses, but a step in the right direction.

Explains Sami Jo Small, CWHL co-founder and former Team Canada goalie, “We want to create a professionally run league and make the NHL not even be able to question that partnering with us is the right move, so that’s what we’re working towards.”

For all the professional changes that have been made, the CWHL still pales in comparison to college programs and national teams that give their players top-drawer treatment.  The girls still pay for sticks and skates.  They still pay for their own gas to drive to practice.

What I find interesting in this whole scenario is not that women’s professional hockey doesn’t really exist or that the NHL is dragging its feet with lending a hand.  Rather, it’s how quickly we (as a Canadian society) transport our elite female players between hero and nobody.  How many male athletes are asked to straddle the fences between national hero and small-town celebrity?  Sure, many Olympic athletes have a slow slide backwards from their heroic feat(s) but women like Piper, Apps and Hefford have been the heroes of multiple Olympic games.  They are almost household names for true hockey fans and yet, as the article explains:

These same women who play for their countries and enjoyed full rides to American colleges were back to minor hockey in the worst way.  It was minor hockey, featuring the world’s best female players.

It would be like Roger Federer getting to stay in the bigs between Grand Slam tournaments and making Martina Hingis play with the juniors after every Slam, pick up her own balls at tournaments and call her own lines.  Make sense? Not even close, so how can we ask these women to leave their hearts on the ice for their country when their country and sport have so little to offer them in return?  Find me one NHL player who has to work three part-time jobs in order to support his hockey career the way Jayna Hefford does.  Perhaps, comparing the CWHL to the NHL is a bad comparison but I do not think it’s too much to ask that a “professional” female hockey player be able to support herself from her sport.  I’m not saying that they should make even six figures a year at this point but is asking for a salary comparable to that of a mediocre CFL player asking too much?  Currently, the CWHL players aren’t paid anything, which puts them on par with the women of the Lingerie Football League! Or on par with me! I work full time in order to support my hockey habit. I pay for my own sticks and skates and have to rush from the office to the rink.  The tag line of the CWHL is “where the elite compete”, which I suppose is true but it’s definitely not where the elite make a living.  I for one am amazed at how anyone could work three part-time jobs and still train at an elite level. It also makes me wonder if these women are playing below their potential because their focus is split between paying the rent and meeting the expectations of a nation.