Amanda Kessel’s College Career is Over

Per the Grand Forks Herald, Amanda Kessel’s college career is over. She has been sidelined since the Olympics with concussion issues. We here at Watch This are, of course, saddened to hear she won’t be playing, but glad she’s taking care of herself.

Kessel’s health is the most important thing and I don’t want to detract from that, but I’d feel like a bit of a liar if I didn’t admit this news makes me angry. She is a phenomenal player who will never get the chance to show the world what she can do her senior NCAA season. Female athletes are too often sidelined by the combination of a drastically shortened career – which makes playing in the Olympics, even while unhealthy, all the more important – and a lack of funding/support. They have to train virtually constantly without a hope of the eight-figure payoff the best men in the world get regularly. Pardon my French, but it’s bullshit.

Anyway, screw this, let’s all watch Amanda Kessel highlights:

The Boston Blades & the Future of US Women’s Hockey

From their inception in 2010 until this spring, the Boston Blades were the only American team in the CWHL. Since the collapse of the Western Women’s Hockey League (WWHL) in 2013, they’ve been the only opportunity for most women who are US citizens to play at the highest level, aside from Team USA. The CWHL does not offer visa sponsorship to players, but because players need to be able to live (and work to support themselves) near their teams, with few exceptions, players for the teams north of the border are Canadian. Exceptions are generally either in school or working for an employer who could sponsor them for a visa. In 2014, a full third of the 21 players Team USA sent to Sochi were from the Boston Blades; this year at Worlds, 5 of 22 players on Team USA were from the Blades. Even with the relationship between the CWHL and the Blades obviously strained, there was no competition for star players like Hilary Knight. Until this spring.

With the advent of the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), there will be five professional women’s hockey teams in the United States. This includes the Boston Pride (NWHL) and the Boston Blades (CWHL), making Boston indisputably women’s hockey’s current hometown. While the NWHL and CWHL won’t be in direct battle on the ice, there’s going to be fierce competition for roster spots, and not just from US players. The NWHL has announced their intent to sponsor players for visas, which would allow them to bring in international players and pay them. Sponsoring players for P-1 (Internationally Recognized Athlete) or O-1 (Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement) visas isn’t cheap, so we may not see a bunch of them, but it’s likely that the CWHL will see some roster shakeups across the border as well.

What’s certain is that change is going to happen in the US, starting with the Boston Blades roster. Genevieve Lacasse has already expressed interest; Hilary Knight and Jess Koizumi were spotted at the NWHL launch party in April. The Blades are also losing both their head coach, Digit Murphy, and their general manager Aronda Kirby, who were let go by the CWHL following a legal dispute over the Blades’ logo trademark. While that’s going to make for an interesting 2015-2016 CWHL season, given that the Boston Blades are the 2015 Clarkson Cup champions, that doesn’t spell doom for the Blades by any means. They’re established in the CWHL, they have a short but strong history of competitive success, and women’s hockey is teeming with incredible players at the collegiate level. The Blades may be the main professional team represented on Team USA, the majority of players are actually from NCAA teams: 11 of 21 at the 2014 Olympics and 12 of 22 at 2015 Worlds.

There are so many incredibly talented women in the US right now who use up their NCAA eligibility and have nowhere to play afterward. Even for those who can get a roster spot on a CWHL team, the financial burden is huge. The advent of the NWHL is not only going to provide more women an opportunity to play at the professional level, but the ability to do so sustainably. While we’re definitely going to see an influx of younger players at first, in the long term, if the NWHL is successful, I hope it will also allow women in the US and abroad to have longer playing careers in hockey. Right now, most of the older women who headline the CWHL have spent their careers juggling undergraduate and graduate education as well as coaching and other employment on top of training, play, and family life. My hope for the NWHL is that it will allow players to be super athletes without having to be superwomen as well…

…and also that more support for women’s hockey at the professional level will net Team USA some gold at the Olympics.

Growth of Women’s Hockey in the US

Recently, USA Hockey released their enrollment numbers for 2013. There was significant growth of women’s hockey, with registrations by female players up 2.33% from last year. (Overall growth fell in some states, such as the economically troubled Michigan.)

Increase from 2012-2013 to 2013-2014
Increase by gender from 2012-2013 to 2013-2014

Enrollment numbers are always interesting to look at, because they often reflect a growing interest in the sport, usually because of increased international visibility or because of increased team-specific visibility. For women’s hockey, the increase in visibility usually happens the year leading up to the Olympics, and the year after. As Chris Peters says, it’s not unreasonable to expect to see another bump in girls’ and women’s hockey enrollment next year, as people inspired by the Olympics join up. On the flip side, it’s unlikely that the CWHL’s slowly increasing visibility will have much of an effect on US Hockey enrollment, except possibly in the Boston area. A major stumbling block for US Hockey as it relates to the CWHL is simply limited exposure: there’s only the one American team right now.

Women’s hockey enrollment is only once piece of the women’s sports puzzle, but for the purpose of the CWHL growing as a league, it’s a pretty big one. A deepening talent pool for USA Hockey’s women’s program means that the national teams will become more competitive. There will be more competition at the collegiate level. And of course, enrollment (apart from economic problems, etc) often builds on itself. More girls playing means more awareness of the fact that girls can play hockey, and – hopefully – more butts in CWHL seats.

This also could potentially mean more CWHL attendance. I’ve said before that the CWHL’s target market probably isn’t the NHL’s, and I haven’t really changed my stance on that. But I think what a lot of people miss is that the market in question isn’t remotely a small one. Young and middle-aged men are a very large market, but so are young women and girls. I assume the CWHL will be looking at these numbers when deciding where, if anywhere, to put another American team. They might also be bringing these numbers to potential US sponsors. Hockey enrollment is a pretty good barometer for general awareness of hockey in the area; just look at the recent enrollment in Illinois, a state that’s seen virtually unprecedented success in NHL hockey recently. If you’re looking for a place where women’s hockey will have an audience, looking at places where women and girls are enrolling in hockey is definitely a good starting point.

USA Hockey 2013-2014 Total Female Players by State

 

Of course, there’s no guarantee these numbers will hold steady. I mentioned economic problems, and the rapidly declining participation in Michigan is a good example of that. There are a lot of factors that influence whether or not people, especially children, continue to play a team sport: equipment cost, time, potential injuries, and so on. It will be interesting to see if these numbers do indeed increase again next year, and if they hold steady after that.

Additionally, the lack of opportunities for hockey as a career almost certainly affect enrollment negatively. 17-18 participation in women’s hockey dropped 3.83% compared to the men’s 18-18 age group which dropped 1.77%.