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Attending the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) Clarkson Cup final between the Calgary Inferno and Les Canadiennes de Montreal was an enjoyable, entertaining experience for my brother and I last March. There was lots of excitement in Coca-Cola Coliseum in Toronto as the seats were filled with many young fans relishing the opportunity to see their heroes play up close on a big stage.  So we were sad to hear the news just a couple weeks later that the CWHL had made the decision to fold.

As you know if you’ve been following women’s hockey, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) is a US-based league that was controversially founded as an alternative professional league on the basis that it would pay its players, which the CWHL was not able to do at the time. The NWHL is still in operation this year with five teams: the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale (Danbury, Connecticut), Metropolitan Riveters (Monmouth Junction, New Jersey) and Minnesota Whitecaps (Saint Paul, Minnesota). 

Although there were talks of the CWHL Toronto Furies and Les Canadiennes de Montreal moving to the NWHL for the 2019-20 season, sadly those talks fell through, so Canada, a four-time Olympic-gold-medal-winning country, is currently without a pro team. One hundred and seventy-five of the top women players in the world have also boycotted the NWHL following the collapse of the CWHL and have banded together as the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA), which, although is putting on a number of exhibition showcase games in various locations, is not actually a league.

There has been a lot of discussion and speculation by the media, by hockey executives, and by the players themselves about what should happen and what will happen in the future to professional women’s hockey. Even before the CWHL folded, there was advocacy for there to be just one professional league and for the (men’s) National Hockey League (NHL) to own and operate this league. The situation is complicated though, because NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan, and the players haven’t quite been on the same page about things. 

Some of this will be echoing what the players have been saying already, but here are three suggestions I would make to those making decisions about the future of professional women’s hockey going forward, which I see as being in the best interest of the players, the game, and society as a whole:

PARTNERS NOT PATRIARCHAL PAWNS

Haley Wickenheiser has made the claim: “If women’s pro hockey is going to happen, it’s going to have to be with NHL involvement.” Kendall Coyne Schofield says: “We need one league, and we need it under the NHL shield.” Cassie Campbell-Pascall resigned as CWHL governor in 2018 partly because she wanted one league run by the NHL: “the WNHL.”

As a Sportsnet story from early 2019 reported, Gary Bettman has said that the NHL doesn’t want to “look like a bully” by creating its own women’s league and putting other leagues out of business. About these other leagues he’s also been quoted as saying, “We don’t believe in their models,” and that he’d like to “start out on a clean slate.” 

That sounds like a bully to me. It’s not give-me-your-lunch-bag kind of bullying, but it’s a more implicit, more elaborate kind of bullying. It’s trying to seem polite but using the leverage they have to make it seem like they’re all just friendly guys waiting for an opportunity to help out, when really they’re shrewd New York businessmen waiting for an opportunity to pounce and make a profit off the female players and give their desired public image of being “inclusive” a boost.

Wickenheiser, Coyne Schofield, and Campbell-Pascall obviously have a much better sense of what’s best for them and the good of their game, and maybe they know Bettman better than I do or are just less cynical about things in general than I am, but with the way I see things I don’t think it would be best for the players, and for the gender-equality movement in general, if Gary Bettman and the NHL took the reigns completely on women’s pro hockey. Just think of the NHL’s fights against the NHL Players’ Association resulting in lockouts in 1994, 2005, and 2012 – do you think the league would treat the women’s players’ association any better?

I’m all for partnering with the NHL, for making use of its resources, experience, insights, and networks and it may be the smartest move financially to let the NHL take over but I’d be very cautious about doing so. It may be hard to strike a mutually-beneficial partnership that takes advantage of their resources and branding without giving them most of the control but I think what has to be taken into consideration is once the NHL takes over, it’s likely there’s no going back. 

Dani Rylan also sees through Bettman’s seemingly good-natured comments. In an interview, also with Sportsnet, she pointed to the fact that these conversations about the NHL taking over only started happening when the NWHL became strong and proved that a pro women’s league is economically viable. She then gave the following quote challenging the injustice she perceives: 

“It’s been just four years for us, and now a pair of existing organizations built by women to empower and spotlight women need to get out of the way? To be blunt, it feels absolutely terrible to hear that in 2019. We can make huge strides together without suggestions being made about dissolving our businesses. It’s time we worked together, and I’m available at all times for constructive conversations that lead to building a league across North America that the players and fans deserve.”

Although she needs to be cautious to make sure her and her league are not manipulated or bullied into a deal, I think the best next step for professional women’s hockey is for Dani Rylan to continue conversation with Gary Bettman and others within the NHL and hope that they can work together towards an agreement that is in everyone’s best interest.

COMMUNITY SPIRIT MATTERS MORE THAN SIZE

The strongest support for sports teams comes when the teams are part of the local identity of a community; when they represent the community and its culture on the national or global stage. Sometimes it’s not just about cheering for the sake of how the team performs in the game but about rallying together and cheering for the sake of building community. For some people it’s not even about watching the game itself but it’s the emotional and physical experience as a whole: it’s about being part of the crowd, the environment.

Cities like Toronto, Montreal, and New York have sports teams that have been around for more than a hundred years – teams with huge, iconic stadiums, millions of fans worldwide, and logos and jerseys that are instantly identifiable by the majority of people in North America. These are world-class cities whose residents are exposed to so much stimulation, advertising, and entertainment options that most of them will only do for world-class entertainment in world-class facilities. So why do they keep attempting to put teams of an under-established and underappreciated league in small, cold, unattractive arenas far away from the downtown core of big cities such as Toronto and Montreal?

In my estimation, to attract more fans and generate more revenue, the NWHL should look at putting teams in smaller markets, centres that have a strong sense of local pride already, and places where they would be the team of the community. Think about Canadian men’s junior hockey teams, or the Canadian Football League, or men’s minor league baseball teams in the US. They are not the most well-known or popular leagues but most of the teams in these leagues have thousands of fans attending every game. It’s all about bringing members of the community together and giving them a fun experience, giving them something to cheer about, having the team covered by local newspapers and radio stations so people are constantly excited and talking about the team, and having a team brand people can wear around on caps and t-shirts to show pride in where they’re from and the team they’re cheering for. 

For these reasons I see the team names being very important and I think women’s pro hockey teams need to put more thought into them. For example, although I like the name and logo of the NWHL “Riveters,” I don’t think it makes a lot of sense that they use “Metropolitan” as the geographical part of their name. It’s like calling the Toronto Raptors the “Canada Raptors”, or “National Raptors” or “North Raptors.” Some of their jerseys may say “North” but they are called “Toronto” because it allows the people who live in the city the team plays in and are the majority of the people attending the games to identify with the team and have pride in the success of the team. Having the actual city in the team name also can put that city on the map for a lot of people. I think a lot more people in the States know where Toronto is because they won the NBA championship this past year. I think the same could happen with Monmouth Junction, New Jersey if they had a pro sports team called the Monmouth Junction (“M.J.”) Riveters rather than the Metropolitan Riveters. And if this was the case I think more people in Monmouth Junction would be interested in attending games.

An example of a place that I think a pro women’s hockey franchise could be very successful (although I’m very biased because I live in this place) would be Waterloo, Ontario. The city of Waterloo itself has a population of about 115,000, but is in a metropolitan area of over 500,000. The community is known to be passionate about hockey as its twin-city of Kitchener (dividing line is simply a street) draws 7,000 fans to its men’s junior hockey games every week at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium. But Waterloo as a distinct city doesn’t have its own major sports team. The Waterloo Memorial Recreation Complex has a 4,400-seat arena and is located within walking distance of two universities, Uptown Waterloo, and light-rail transit stations. I’d say Waterloo Region has a strong sense of local identity and community in general (for example it has a local newspaper, local radio stations, local museums, and festivals such as Oktoberfest) and would likely passionately rally around a pro team if one was established in the area.

YOU DO YOU

I’ve studied gender issues in a number of courses I’ve taken during my undergrad so far and done a lot of thinking about this kind of thing on my own. The main conclusion I’ve come to is that because gender is so ambiguously defined and the concept of gender is so intertwined with the concept of personality, many aspects of life in our world have been unnecessarily gendered and many people let gender stereotypes influence their behaviour and personal identity.

So my last suggestion for players and everyone else who is involved in shaping the future of women’s hockey is to just be yourselves. Don’t try to be like men’s hockey, in the way you play, the way you act on and off the ice, and in the way you do business if this doesn’t feel right or natural for you. Don’t try to replicate everything men’s leagues/teams/players do just for the sake of following established traditions/protocols/norms/unwritten rules. 

No matter how well the NHL is doing business-wise, no matter how much men’s players are making, there’s a lot about men’s hockey that isn’t actually very good in my opinion: how the game is played, how the league and players are marketed, the lifestyle of the players, the culture and male stereotypes many players feel pressure to conform to. For example, the acceptance and praise of aggression and violence, the culture with toughness and pain-denial as ultimate virtues, the abusive coaching tactics, even the tradition of unemotional interviews with the media filled with cliches – these are all things I think would best not be replicated by other leagues.

To this some may say, who will watch women’s hockey then? Hockey fans are used to and entertained by this certain brand of hockey, how things have “always” been. I agree with this sentiment and I would say I don’t think it makes sense to target marketing of women’s hockey exclusively at the existing fanbase of the NHL because a lot of people don’t want to watch something different or make time for watching a new team. I think to attract more fans, women’s hockey has to be different in some way because people who don’t already watch hockey, may watch a different brand of hockey if it were available and it was more appealing to them.

So I would advise against simply calling a new league the “WNHL” (shouldn’t the NHL also change its name to the MNHL if this was the case?) or feminizing existing men’s teams names like “Les Canadiennes de Montréal.” I can’t say exactly in what way women’s hockey should try to be different and I don’t think it would be right for me to say so anyways, but I do believe if players and people running organizations in professional women’s hockey try to be their own unique selves and don’t conform to all the traditional norms of hockey culture, it will lead to more success for pro women’s hockey and everyone involved would be happier.

All in all, I believe that if more women, if more people are able to make a living doing what they love, being who they want to be, bringing communities together to cheer them on, this would be good for everyone.

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