The CWHL resumed regular play last weekend after spending the first half of November on hiatus, as 22 of its best players travelled to Kamloops, B.C. for the 4 Nations Cup — but don’t be fooled. The league was far from idle as it spent the tournament spreading the word about professional women’s hockey, both to its existing fans state-side and potential fans worldwide.
“It’s a great opportunity to showcase our players,” said CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress of the tournament. “Any player [in the 4 Nations Cup] who isn’t playing in the CIS or NCAA is in our league. It’s a phenomenal opportunity to expose the game across the world.”
Some of the names on the rosters and scoresheets, like Boston’s Hilary Knight (USA; three goals in the tournament) and Calgary’s Rebecca Johnston (Canada; four points), were familiar from February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi. Others, like Brampton rookie Jamie Lee Rattray (Canada; three points), might be more familiar to those who watched her play in college. Regardless, the presence of these players help build a brand and strengthen what Andress refers to as a “grassroots” movement to make pro women’s hockey a successful venture for young girls growing up with the game.
Part of that effort includes working with hockey’s national bodies in North America — USA Hockey and Hockey Canada — to find out when camps and events are being held, in order to ensure the league’s players can participate. Another part of it is using the powers of social media, posting news and information about the tournament on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to reach the broadest audience possible. Lastly, the games were broadcast on TSN in Canada, giving the tournament and its players nationwide exposure and perhaps spurring new viewers to research the CWHL.
The combined approach has worked; through the first two weeks of November, the @cwhl_insider account saw a 5 percent growth in followers, and marketing and communications specialist Jennifer Smith said via email that the league expects that growth to eclipse 10 percent by the end of the month. That’s partly thanks to the announcement just after the 4 Nations Cup of the CWHL All-Star Game, to be held in Toronto on Dec. 13. Boston Blades GM Aronda Kirby also said she noticed the @BostonCWHL handle gain a couple of hundred followers during the tournament.
“The media is covering it more, there’s more attention being paid to women’s hockey,” she said. “They write more articles about it, and we post them to our websites. It feeds the marketing machine.”
All of this contributes to turning the CWHL into a viable league for young women and girls to aspire to play in, and eventually work (much like in the NHL) toward international tournaments, something Andress is excited about.
“We want our players to grow up through this grassroots movement,” she said. “We want them to say, ‘Hey, I want to become a professional women’s hockey player, and in doing so I will get the chance to represent my country.’”
Of course, with the positive exposure comes a set of challenges. These tournaments feature compressed schedules — the 4 Nations Cup in particular has teams playing four games in four days — and with that comes a risk of injury and fatigue. There is also the prospect of taking time away from work — it’s a known fact that CWHL players aren’t paid for their play, and thus have full-time jobs in order to eat and pay the bills. The fact that they sacrifice some things to participate, Andress said, is a testament to how much they are willing to do just to play the game.
On a team level, Kirby mentioned the timing of the tournament, just a couple of weeks after the start of the season, which doesn’t allow for a lot of time to build up steam. It hasn’t seemed to slow down the Blades much — they are currently in the midst of six straight weekends playing without a break, and started off with a convincing sweep of Toronto. However, the constant play could contribute to some fatigue later on.
Another disadvantage that comes with being in the States and trying to follow your players from Boston? Limited access to broadcasts. While FASTHockey provided free live streams of some of the games on Hockey Canada’s 4 Nations Cup page, others (mainly the games Canada was playing in) were unavailable for viewing in the U.S. without resorting to illegal streaming or a paid website — and not everyone has the money for those.
“The only option seemed to be to buy a live stream of the game,” Kirby said. “We were texting everyone, asking, ‘Where’d you get the game?’ It was a little inconvenient.”
With that said, the tournament did generate some good conversation about women’s hockey. So does that mean more of them could be a boost for the female game?
Yes and no. Andress mentioned that there are two different goals inherent in tournaments versus leagues like the CWHL or NHL. While a broader fanbase is created in international tournaments, which pit country against country, the fact that these leagues feature players from all over the world creates more of an individual following.
“If you’re watching a Team USA game, you’re more likely to root for a player from your favorite team,” she said. “If you’re, say, a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, you’re going to be a Maple Leafs fan regardless of what player is wearing that jersey — Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, whoever.”
There’s also the idea of parity, something the CWHL can boast for the most part. There are plenty of talented players in the league who didn’t make the 4 Nations rosters, but could at any given time.
From a revenue standpoint, Kirby thinks tournaments featuring CWHL players stateside could have benefits, with some conditions.
“If the revenue could go somehow to the players or the clubs, that would be beneficial,” she said.
Overall, events like the 4 Nations Cup do their part to increase exposure of women’s hockey and the seven-year-old league that aims to become the premier place for female players to take their talents. Andress stressed the idea of retaining the fans that come to see these tournaments.
“It’s like, ‘Hey, you don’t have to wait once a year, or once every four years, for these games,’” she said. “They happen in your backyard every weekend.”