Hour Community

Women's pro league could help grow hockey: Power play

Power play

Caroline Ouellette: On the edge
Photo: Esther Bernard

Women want their turn to play pro hockey

Over 11 million people tuned in to the gold medal women’s hockey final between Team USA and Team Canada at the Vancouver Olympics. But what if a similar match-up took place in Montreal, cost less than $10 and also featured Russian superstar Ekaterina Smolentseva, top lines were rounded out by Finnish or Scandinavian standouts and the rival team featured Chinese goalie Shi Yao between the pipes?

Thanks to Jacques Rogge’s threat to pull women’s hockey from the Olympics and the recent inclusion of women’s hockey as a key topic at the recent World Hockey Summit in Toronto, the global hockey community is starting to see how a women’s pro league could actually help grow the sport globally.

Over the past few years, the non-profit, player-run Canadian Women’s Hockey League has quietly been developing a pilot pro league in obscurity, trying to form a viable alternative to big-league sport and act as an incubator for broad-based talent. As part of the process, the league has held several talks with the NHL, hoping franchises can offer resources and the financial support necessary to pay players a modest salary. The league also held the first female hockey draft for the Ontario teams (Toronto, Brampton, Burlington) at the Hockey Hall of Fame this August – meant to ensure parity in the league – announced the team tryout list for the Montreal team and introduced a brand new team in Boston.

This year, the league features five teams within driving distance (to keep costs low) and will feature some of the best elite-level club play women’s hockey has ever witnessed.

Tryouts for the local Montreal team this weekend feature a who’s who of the superstars of the game: Olympic gold medallists like Caroline Ouellette, Kim St-Pierre and Sarah Vaillancourt, decorated Team USA ambassador Julie Chu (coaching at Union University in New York state), and Olympic hopefuls like powerful defenceman Annie Guay and, a top scorer in the league last season, Sabrina Harbec. The team plays out of Châteauguay (a major hub for girls’ hockey in the province) and Concordia University this season, although some of the women still hold out hope the NHL will offer up a few double-header spots at the Bell Centre.

"In Canada, we have a responsibility to grow the game internationally. The best way to do it is to make sure all the post-college players around the world play with and against one another and we grow the opportunities for competition at all levels. We need a pro league with modest salaries that provides work visas to foreign imports and offers women a viable way to survive while they train and play," explains Caroline Ouellette, a veteran Olympian and player for Montreal, who’s on the set of Les Boys (a popular TV series about a men’s beer league) where she’s the double for the lead actress. "I’m in makeup and a wig and I have to hit home runs for her! Normally Kim [St-Pierre] does it but she’s busy."

(Apparently, even the stipends to retain National Team athletes don’t cover much more then rent, explains Ouellette, who has to hustle to find her own sponsors.)

For now, the league runs on a meagre budget of $500,000 and players pay for their own equipment and juggle full-time work and training. CWHL executives say it costs $1.7-million to run an interim pilot pro league this season, and they are far short of the mark. This is far less than the salary of one NHL player, and hundreds of millions less than the figures being bandied about by corporate boosters looking to benefit from tax breaks on a new pro team stadium in Quebec City. In this light, stakeholders argue that supporting a fledgling pro league is a drop in the bucket for government, a big financier or the NHL.

"Today men’s hockey is a business and it’s not everyone that can afford going to the games. We can target a different fan base, including entire families, boys and girls. Women athletes are often close to their communities and willing to be involved in different activities and charities, which can help make a difference in the lives of young kids," says Ouellette.

Posted in

News

Share it

  6 comments

  • by Joe Noel - September 16, 2010, 12:28 pm

    Pull Women’s Hockey from the Olympics?!? WTF! I can begin to comprehend such an outrageous proposition especially when arguably more marginal sports like handball, water polo, and shooting/markmasnship are seemingly safe. There’s nothing that says winter sports more than hockey and in terms of skill women’s hockey is all about speed and flow. If anything, this makes for an exciting fast-paced spectacle that rivals any other sport in the winter Olypiad irrespective of gender!

  • by Mark St Pierre - September 16, 2010, 6:45 pm

    Well, I have to admit that I only found about the CWHL a bit late in the game last season and even then, only after the regular season had come to a close. But I have to admit that I was sufficiently intrigued, not to mention suitably impressed by both the players’ dedication to the sport as well as their gamesmanship and skill level. My only quibble was the abject lack of media coverage that the league has been accorded which is odd considering the presence of local Olympic heroes like Kim St Pierre, although I understand that this is more a factor of severe budgetary restraints than anything else. Hell, if teams barely have enough to cover costs let alone pay their players a very thrifty stipend, can you imagine how little they have for P.R. and promotional purposes? But this sport has tremendous niche potential – after all, the quality of the hockey is nothing short of world-class and the woman’s game is more about pure speed and skill than it’s male pugilistic/clutch and grab counterpart which should only broaden it’s family-friendly appeal and perhaps most importantly for the casual fan, there’s the cost or lack thereof – what’s not to like?

  • by marilyn more - September 21, 2010, 11:54 pm

    Thank you, Mark St. Pierre, Joe Noel and Meg Hewings! I do have a few things to add to your comments. I have supported the Montreal Stars and before that the Montreal Axion for many years. Yes, they have had to pay for their equipment, but they have had to pay to play the game they love. Not sure if this is accurate, but I think it has been $1000 – $1500 per player. They have to resort to fundraising, such as raffles! Such a shame when 1% of the average NHL player’s salary could support a CWHL player. Meg, you are right there doing all you can do to give media coverage to these talented female athletes. I enjoyed your article in the Montreal Gazette about the Clarkson Cup! The Montreal Stars need more media coverage! The 2010-2011 season will see the some of the best in women’s hockey! While 11 million people watched the women’s Gold medal game, it would be nice if we could see at least 1% come out to see the CWHL games. Check out the schedule http://www.cwhl.ca/

  • by Stephanie Nestruck - September 22, 2010, 8:32 pm

    Well, this is a tricky situation for any fledgling league to be in, let alone a women’s league. Meager revenue streams to offset robust operating costs coupled with an abject lack of media attention makes this a tough sell even in a hockey mad (make that Hab’s crazy) market like Montreal. Until recently, even junior hockey was a tough sell (‘member the ill-fated Montreal Rocket?) and while the Juniors are now a solid draw (thanks in parts to Cdn’s prospects like Louis Leblanc), I’m not sure there is really enough of a niche for the CWHL to survive, let alone thrive. Think about it, even the WNBA, THE premiere women’s sports league, with it’s numerous sponsorships and TV coverage is barely a blip in the consciousness of the American sports-viewing/basketball-loving public. Having said that, I’m not sure that our passion for hockey will extend to the women’s game any more than the WNBA did south of the border…

  • by Stephen Talko - September 27, 2010, 8:59 am

    Both my parents came from Eastern Europe where hockey traditions were non-existent where they grew up. Putting food on the table came first. Both my brother and I who live here in Quebec likewise never played hockey in any capacity . Our academic studies came first. We did not feel that we missed out on this experience.

    Most of the world’s population is to found in the tropics and semi-tropics where ice is a rare occurrence. Other sports like soccer have a more international appeal. Even sports like field hockey and lacrosse would have greater attraction for countries with balmy climates. Even in Montreal we have thaws in the dead of winter where ice turns soft.

    Anyway hockey is a violent sport with all those body checks. It is disgraceful that fights are popular with the fans. Punching skills are often better rewarded than puck-handling skills. Many players end up with concussions like those found in similar sports such as boxing and football that few women participate in. Women unlike men would have to postpone their careers each time they got pregnant. Children would miss their mothers who are constantly on the road. Figure skating is a much more graceful sport for women to highlight their talents. Speed skating would also be a exciting suspenseful sport for females just as it is for males. Women should not try to emulate the opposite sex when it is not to their benefit.

  • by Kevin Yost - September 28, 2010, 11:03 am

    Women’s ice hockey is not violent like men’s ice hockey and even has penalties for body checking.

    The WNBA has been healthy and spectatorship in the arenas has been growing. Toronto could have a WNBA team. There is also the Women’s Pro Soccer (WPS) and they could have a team there too, except that next year there will be one in Niagara Falls, NY-Rochester, NY.

    The National Pro Fastpitch women’s pro softball league, however, has been struggling, though they could also have a team in either metro Toronto or Western New York.

    The CWHL or a new pro women’s ice hockey league should take over the Western Women’s Hockey League with their four teams, the Minnesota Whitecaps, the Manitoba Maple Leafs, the Edmonton Chimos, and the Strathmore Rockies, and also have new teams in Sasketchewan, Vancouver, and Calgary and a sixth new CWHL team in the east, maybe Quebec City, with two divisions in the east and west for the Clarkson Cup. The league should later expand throughout Canada and the northern U.S.

 Add a comment

Required
Required (will not be published)
Optional