CWHL: 2013 – 2014 Summer Review
So, it’s finally summer, and the sun is high, and I’ve spent more time out on the soccer pitch and on the river than at a hockey arena or watching a hockey stream, and lemme tell you, it’s glorious. As the Stanley Cup playoffs draw to a close, and as I have minimal interest in men’s Worlds (except for Malkin breaking Haula’s jaw, THANKS FOR NOTHING, MALKIN), I’ve been starting to miss the breakneck pace of the women’s hockey season (CWHL! The Olympics! World Juniors! Worlds! The CLARKSON CUP!), and have had some time to digest the 2013-2013 CWHL season more thoroughly. (I’ve also started to yearn for women’s sports to watch again; thank goodness for the NWSL’s recent television deal, how else would I justify my ridiculous cable package without women’s sports to watch?) So, here’s what I’ve come away with — the things I loved, and the things I thought could be improved.
Things I Loved
1. I loved seeing the Toronto Furies win the Clarkson Cup.
With the Olympics this year, especially after Noora Räty’s controversial retirement from the Finnish women’s team, there’s been a lot of discussion of the achievement gap in women’s hockey. The CWHL is primarily a North American league, with only one American team, and the vast majority of players are from the US or Canada, but team parity has been a concern since the start of the league, especially after lack of parity hamstrung previous women’s leagues, such as the NWHL.
Seeing a team like the Toronto Furies scrape into the Clarkson Cup as the fourth seed and upset the heavily favored Boston Blades in an exciting, edge-of-my-seat 1-0 overtime victory is the kind of story I love to see in sports, and the hockey was proof that sometimes, a low-scoring game is the most entertaining kind of hockey. It also gives credence to the theory that revenue sharing and careful league management can create parity and a more equal distribution of high-quality talent across a small league with vast challenges to attracting talent. (When players are unpaid, finding players who can hold down a day job where your team is and maintain the schedule required of an elite athlete is very difficult.)
2. I loved the game streaming.
Having one game a week streamed online, for free, and with high-definition available, was great. Even better was that old games were archived, available to be re-watched at your leisure if your schedule or your time zone didn’t allow for easy live viewing.
The commentary was also great — Nicco Cardarelli as the primary play-by-play announcer for the season was not only a pretty decent announcer, he was able to provide continuity and context for the teams and players. He, and all the commentators I heard doing CWHL games, really seemed to love the women’s game and the CWHL particularly. Asher Roth and Anthony Regan joined Cardarelli to provide commentary on the Clarkson Cup games, and it was so refreshing to hear their shared enthusiasm after Olympic commentary that seemed to always focus on whose brother/cousin/father was in the NHL. (I was watching the NBC stream, but from what I heard, the CBC and other streams weren’t much better.)
I also loved the interviews with the players and weekly highlight reels! The intermission interviews were, in general, much more candid than I’m used to getting as an NHL fan, and provided fascinating insight into players and games that we as fans do not otherwise get. The highlight reels were fun to spam my friends with, as is pretty much universal for highlight reels. 🙂
3. I loved the engagement the league has with its fans.
Women’s hockey and the CWHL in particular is known, like many smaller leagues, for how much more accessible their players are. Rarely can you tweet at an NHL star and expect a response, with perhaps Erik Karlson’s tumblr being the exception that proves the rule, but many CWHL players are very active on Twitter, Instagram, and other social media. The players are also very involved in their communities, doing scads and scads of charity work and fundraising. (As First Line Hockey points out, this is particularly remarkable considering how they have significantly fewer resources than their male counterparts.)
The league itself is also very present on social media, with each team maintaining an active Twitter account, and both the league (@cwhl_insider) and the Clarkson Cup (@ClarksonCup), among others, maintaining active and informative accounts. Team websites are informative and occasionally very entertaining, with efforts by individual teams to engage their fanbases, such as Toronto’s weekly “Get to Know Your Furies” interviews, and the Calgary Inferno’s audio broadcasts for all home games.
The CWHL was also the first league to partner with You Can Play in an effort “to [ensure] equality for all of the CWHL’s athletes, coaches, staff, and fans, without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity” back in 2012, and this year, the Montreal Stars put out a You Can Play video talking about what they look for in a teammate.
(As a queer woman, it infuriates me that the CWHL is constantly forgotten as the first league to partner with You Can Play. I can draw issue with You Can Play’s scope and methods, but it still means a lot to me that the CWHL has partnered with them and that the Stars did a video.)
Things That Could Be Improved
1. Getting more adult fans in the seats.
Streaming is great, and as a fan in the Midwestern United States, too far away to visit actual games outside of carefully planned trips, I really appreciate it. But while CWHL attendance is improving rapidly, a lot of the highest attendance numbers are coming from school groups.
While getting kids invested in and seeing women’s hockey is important for the growth of the sport, kids aren’t the ones who will spend the money or drive out to an out-of-the-way arena for a game. I really want to see the CWHL continue its pattern of involvement with its fan-base, and continue to cultivate and grow adult fans. I don’t really have any good suggestions for HOW to do that, but that’s what I want to see.
2. Improved and expanded streaming
Like I said, I think this past season’s streaming has been a real success. The last-minute addition of the Clarkson Cup final to streaming and the CWHL’s reported web-traffic show that there’s a demand for it. However, the streaming was only one game a week, and while five arenas were wired up for streaming, the majority of games streamed were from only two arenas. As a result, what games were shown did favor those arena’s home teams, although with the league so small, it wasn’t by a lot.
Luckily, the CWHL has plans for expanding streaming home games for the remaining teams (Boston and Calgary) this upcoming season, and to expand the number of games streamed. This is obviously exciting for those teams and their fans, particularly as Boston is the only American team.
However, as the CWHL expands their streaming, I’m hoping they’ll also improve it. Many of the CWHL games that I’ve watched have had various technological issues — some have a clock, some have no clock, for example, and the quality of the camera work has been hugely variable. Having watched many CWHL games with a former theater tech manager, I’ve heard a lot of complaints about sound board operation in particular. Some of that is obviously dependent on the various arena set-ups and training of what I suspect is volunteer help, but even as a lay person there were a gratuitous amount of sound issues.
Aside from more technical issues, I would really like to see more women commentators, ideally former players. Some of my favorite parts of the Olympic announcers were getting the former players’ perspectives on the women’s game and the players, and it added a richness I’d really like to see in CWHL announcing.
I really enjoyed the 2013-2014 season, and I’m looking forward to the 14-15 season! I think the CWHL is, after seven years, established enough to start focusing on growing itself, and I’m really interested in seeing how it continues in the future, as it continues to consolidate and build its brand and fan-base. (Please, please make part of that branding effort better logos or at least better merchandise; everyone but Montreal and maaayyybe Calgary and Toronto have the MOST BORING player tee shirts. I would buy so many more things if the graphic design wasn’t like something a twelve-year-old slapped together with GIMP.) I can’t wait to watch the CWHL Draft in August, and I look forward to seeing what develops on that possible expansion team south of the border rumor. 🙂 Summer is the time for hockey rumor-mongering, right?