By Alvin Ma
“Players from the Canadian Women’s Hockey League are in town!” reads the poster at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau. It was CWHL Community Day, and numerous events were held around the National Capital Region the day before the championship game: a ball hockey clinic in front of the Canadian Tire Centre, a meet-and-greet and Q&A session in a Kanata hotel, on-ice events and later an open practice at the Richcraft Sensplex in Gloucester. As a high-density city type of person who had only visited Ottawa once before for a total of eight hours – mostly walking in the area around Parliament – I obviously found that many of these suburban locations were not easily accessible to a non-car owner (similar to my trip to the Nassau Coliseum last year).
This time around, I found myself aimlessly walking around town in the -3 degree Ottawa morning after my Greyhound bus arrived at the terminal at 6 am (the coveted option of the Rideau Canal was not possible because skating season had already ended despite frozen waters and piles of snow taller than anything I’ve seen this year in Toronto). I decided to wander across the Ottawa River to Île de Hull and discovered that the Canadian Museum of History, with its relatively early opening, would be the best way to spend my morning before checking out the afternoon CWHL events. Surprisingly, I only found out upon entry to the museum that CWHL players would be there signing autographs too. Although I later found the full list of Community Day events, they were rather hidden on the CWHL website. It was up to other organizations to promote these events with CWHL players, with the CWHL merely retweeting them at late notice. They may have been excellent events for the broad public to experience, as seen in some of the interactions at the Canadian Museum of History, but many of these events flew under the radar in promotion.
In contrast (though a much higher operating budget makes event-planning more stable), the museum is already promoting the exhibition “Hockey in Canada – More Than Just a Game” a full year before it’s scheduled to be released. Although the CWHL only publicly announced that the Clarkson Cup would be contested in Ottawa in late-January, the game itself was a relative success despite the lopsided 8-3 score. While I’ve written before about how defence makes a game meaningful, hearing the “Girl on Fire” and “Allez Montréal” goal songs from potent offensive teams can also be entertaining. Montréal goalie Charline Labonte, who told me and eight other journalists in the post-practice media scrum Saturday that it would be a “goalie’s showcase” rather than a “goalie’s nightmare,” was correct. Les Canadiennes actually outshot the Calgary Inferno 41 to 26, but Calgary goaltender Delayne Brian made 38 saves – several of the incredible variety – to win the Playoff Most Valuable Player award. With this award also came a $1000 cheque, which led to jokes in the post-game media scrum about buying team dinner.
Although it was a time of celebration (and the Inferno did pop champagne bottles in their locker room) and the CWHL might now be able to pay for certain expenses such as food on game days, $1000 goes a long way in a league that does not provide proper salaries for its players. The rival NWHL, which pays its players, also had its championship game this weekend and it shadowed Sunday’s game by hinting at expansion into Toronto and Montréal. Interpreted as a villainous tactic by some CWHL proponents, the media were quick to ask CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress before the final game about the NWHL plans, though Andress strategically deflected these questions by requesting to focus on the Clarkson Cup and thanking the media (attended by several dozen journalists and filmed by TSN / RDS, Sportsnet, and CBC / Radio-Canada with large professional cameras) for coming. I happened to share the same elevator as the Commissioner going up to (and circling around the Canadian Tire Centre trying to find) the media press box and she exudes a diplomatic personality, which is necessary for creating partnerships with NHL teams.
Andress was actually cheered by fans, which is an uncommon sight for professional sport executives. Altogether, the announced attendance was 4082 people, though from my estimate sitting high in the press box, seemingly more fans (perhaps unpaid guests) filled the lower bowl. Although I had to pay more on a bus trip to Ottawa than my last bus trip to New York City and needed to walk on the icy roads of Gloucester and 3 km (partially through farmland) in Kanata to catch a bus that comes once an hour, I feel honoured to be invited by the CWHL as an accredited member of the media. Putting it into perspective, the amount of money I spent covering the Clarkson Cup championship weekend in Ottawa is equivalent to a nosebleed ticket alone to a Toronto Maple Leafs playoff game (a rarity, I know) without personal access to the press box or post-game media scrums.
During my aforementioned aimless walking around Ottawa, I visited the grounds of Rideau Hall. Looking back at history (beyond the Canadian Museum of History), I think back to then-Governor General Adrienne Clarkson’s proposal during the 2004-05 NHL lockout that the Stanley Cup should be awarded to the best women’s hockey team. In a pre-social media era dominated by chat rooms and discussion boards, I recall many (anonymous male) users ridiculing this suggestion. Although Offside Plays continues to document many instances of sexism (among other issues) in sport, women’s sport continues to grow (though whether or not it’s beneficial, as with NWHL competition, is another matter). Andress proudly claims that CWHL games have an average viewership of 100,000 people. In my last article, I questioned if the Toronto Furies merchandise would still be available at Real Sports long after the all-star game is over. The answer is yes.
As Courtney Szto mentioned in her recent article on the Indian women’s national team, it is not our role as Hockey in Society writers to solicit donations and sales. We are certainly not paid by organizations that already do not generate much money to promote their brands. I do acknowledge, however, that one goal of my own writing is to foster equitable practices in sport. It might be redundant to say on this site, but hockey is far more than just a game; it is a cultural activity that brings different meanings to different people. For some younger females (and even current players as stated in the post-practice / post-game interviews), they aspire to become the next Hayley Wickenheiser and Julie Chu. Women’s hockey has come a long way, and it is encouraging to see younger generations as the focus of the CWHL. However, it needs financial support to grow the game. One new revenue source for the CWHL is the Pave the Way initiative (which, fortunately, is not hidden on the website or social media platforms). I’ll be on the lookout for more “Players from the Canadian Women’s Hockey League are in town!” announcements as the ball hockey tournament draws nearer.