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 Ch√Ęteauguay (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.

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