The Canadian Women’s Hockey League celebrates its 10th season in 2016-17, highlighted by the December 10th game where nearly 6000 people watched the Calgary Inferno take on Les Canadiennes de Montreal at the Bell Centre. The league has stabilized with the same five teams over the past five seasons, though names have changed to reflect marketing and branding partnerships between the NHL and CWHL teams (Les Canadiennes/Canadiens, Toronto Fury/Maple Leafs, Calgary Inferno/Flames). They are also in their 3rd year of a four year broadcast agreement with Sportsnet.
While the success of the Bell Centre game is hopeful, promoting the marquee events of women’s hockey has not been as challenging as support for regular season games. So what is a CWHL regular season game like? I went to two games to find out (only planned to go to one, but had to go again it was so enjoyable). Les Canadiennes spread their home games around, playing at Montreal’s Centre Étienne Desmarteau (on the rink named after franchise leading scorer Caroline Ouellette) as well as the suburbs of Dollard-des-Ormeaux and Brossard. They also played a set of games in captain Marie-Philip Poulin’s hometown of Saint-Georges, about 300 km away from Montreal.
Both games I saw were at Brossard’s Complexe Sportif Bell, the Montreal Canadiens practice facility (so I’m not sure how the experience compares between arenas). While a state of the art facility with presumably excellent ice, the rink has some limitations for hosting games such as a rudimentary scoreboard, lack of sound system (two portable tower speakers provide the music and announcements), and benches unconnected to the dressing rooms. Unfortunately for the televised game, the cameras overlooked the seating, making the rink look emptier than it really was. On the positive, the complex has something missing from NHL arenas in my experience, a coffee shop with good bakery items
It’s bench seating officially holds 800, but both games I went to were overflowing, with people packing the concourse above the rink to watch. While still relatively small, this is far from the stories of the league’s early days when crowds were counted by the dozens rather than hundreds (and tickets have increased since then from $10 to $15). It’s an upbeat crowd who focus more on cheering than trying to coach the game. The fans breaks the stereotype that women’s sports is for girls/ women and men’s sport is for everyone, with a relatively even gender mix where it’s as common to see boys enthusiastically cheering the team as girls. Some fans have their Canadiennes jerseys (Poulin is a popular choice), but for those that don’t, Montreal Canadiens gears is common.
The game presentation is a mix of professional presentation and the fantasy local rink community of television commercials (but without intense hockey parents and with high skill on the ice). The CWHL’s partnership with NHL teams have led to shared traditions between the teams. Not only do the Canadiennes wear the jersey piping of the Canadiens, they also take to the ice to the unexpectedly effective Coldplay’s “Fix You” with kids skating the team’s logo flag, and celebrate goals to the Canadiens’ goal song “Le But (Allez Montreal)”. On the concourse there’s a station with poster paper, markers, and glitter to make signs. The 50/50 winner walks by to collect their prize to the cheers of the crowd.
The lack of a jumbotron completely alters the experience of viewing hockey as there are no paratexts to instruct you how to interpret the game beyond the music and occasional call to “make some noise”. It’s free from the both the “entertainment” that can make games uncomfortable and the coach/player interviews that riddle the game with hard work clichés. It may not be directly pushing back against the conservatism of hockey culture, but it is refreshing to not be constantly reminded of it. The team, like many, held a “pink in the rink” Breast Cancer charity night – wearing pink jerseys for the first period, holding a silent auction (60% of proceeds to charity), and a pre-game ceremonial puck drop. While this continues the insufficient lens of consumption as curative, it avoided the too common sport embrace of what Samantha King, in the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc, calls the “tyranny of cheerfulness”, that emphasizes “survivors” as those who had the attitude to “beat” the disease.
But while the league has made improvements in drawing fans, the “dilemma that is the CWHL” continues, as the best women hockey players, including Canadian Olympic legends like Poulin, have to balance hockey while financially supporting themselves. Player’s commitments have significant effects on the lineups, particularly who travels with the road team, occasionally leaving teams short a few skaters. For example, Julie Chu plays for the Canadiennes and is the head coach of Concordia University’s women’s hockey team. Because of these dual roles, she plays primarily only home games (and in one, only arrived for the 3rd period, to great excitement from the crowd as they realized she was on the ice). However, many players end up having to choose between their career aspirations and hockey, meaning many retire relatively young such as national team mainstay and two time CWHL leading scorer Megan Agosta leaving Montreal at 27 to join the police force.
When the partnership between the Les Canadiennes and Canadiens was announced, Canadiens’ CEO Kevin Gilmore declared the NHL team would work with the league to implement salaries for players. The CWHL aims to pay players by 2017-18, though the experience of the professional National Women’s Hockey League having to halve salaries and shorten their season indicates the difficulty of implementing this. The league has taken major steps over the past five seasons to reach the level where this is a viable conversation. Based on my experience in Montreal,it feels like the league is finally on the rise.