The CWHL’s American Problem

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This picture is a joke. I don’t think the CWHL is magicJack levels of being close to collapse – though, honestly, we probably wouldn’t know if they were, and they’re not really significant enough for it to be a legitimate comparison. Still: jokes!]

So, this weekend, am I right?

I heard rumblings that something was going on with the Blades’ contracts – and American players in general – a little before the cancellations became public. My first reaction was worry, but it was followed very closely by irritation. We here at Watch This Hockey know a few things about the contract disputes:

  • American players are unsatisfied with the way labor and contracts are managed
  • American players may or may not play in the All Star Game
  • We had reached out to players for interviews, but they backed out, worried that speaking with bloggers would result in them being blackballed from the league
  • We contacted the CWHL for a statement regarding the rumors (and fact of game cancellations). We have not heard back.

Any statement I could make would be based on speculation. The safest speculation I can make is that American players in the CWHL are not satisfied with how the CWHL is treating their American contingent, so let’s go with that.

Obviously, most of the cities that were talked about as candidates for expansion are American. I think anyone with half a brain can see that the CWHL is very oriented towards Canada – and, you might say, why shouldn’t they be? They’re the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, after all. I’m an American and from North Carolina besides, which means I’ve done my fair share of mocking the “hockey is Canada’s game” stuff, but on some levels it’s true. Canada produces tons of hockey players, they fund their hockey programs extremely well, they have more rinks, they have a longer history with the game. So – why not? Why not focus on Canada?

A few reasons, actually. Minor things, such as: marketing, sustainability, visibility, sponsorships. Long-term success of the league. Long-term success of women’s hockey in general.

The United States is, as much as any country can make such a claim, a hotbed of activity for women’s sports. We have a functioning women’s basketball league, the WNBA, that is only partially owned by the NBA. We have a fledgling soccer league, the NWSL, that is largely the result of cooperation between Mexico, USA, and Canada’s soccer leagues. We have collegiate basketball, soccer, hockey, and other sports. The US Women’s National Team in soccer regularly sells out arenas on tours before or after international competition. Our bona fides are, well, bona fide. And that matters, because the CWHL is in the business of convincing a saturated sports market that women’s hockey is worth paying to see.

Hockey is undeniably more popular in Canada, but Canada still has only slightly more people than the state of Texas. The United States is home to both huge media markets and huge – comparatively speaking – women’s sports markets. And, perhaps most importantly, some of the biggest names in women’s hockey aren’t Canadian. Jincy Dunne will be playing for Team USA in a few years, Lord willing and the river don’t rise. Meghan Duggan is a huge name; the Lamoureux twins are well-known; Hilary Knight and Anne Schleper both suited up for NHL practices; Julie Chu’s narrative at the 2014 Olympics was both high-profile and landed her a Bounty endorsement. For sure, Shannon Szabados, Marie-Philip Poulin, Caroline Ouellette, Hayley Wickenheiser, and others are big names, and rightly so. They’re hugely talented. But the other major powerhouse in women’s hockey is the United States. And that’s leaving aside the fact that Noora Räty and Florence Schelling both were hugely visible in the Olympics, are both very talented – and are both not playing in the CWHL.

One of the best known facts about women’s sports at a high level is that the peak of competition is international; the Olympics is the biggest competition these women are likely to ever see. It’s not in the CWHL’s interest to embrace nationalism to the point of discouraging competition. The competitiveness of women’s hockey is regularly called into question; the way to fix that is not to deny regular practice and competition to everyone but Canadian players. Women’s hockey ebbs in visibility during Olympic years; the way to fix that is not to refuse to put teams in American markets. I’ve complained repeatedly about the CWHL’s lack of marketing smarts, Internet fluency, and so on, but I assumed that was them cleaving too closely to an outdated marketing model. This weekend’s events have made me wonder if the league is even being led by adults, much less business-savvy ones.

The CWHL is not a church or a non-profit. Their job is to sell a product, not adhere to a certain ideology. Obviously there are limits on this, such as “don’t kill someone”, but embracing the American side of women’s hockey is hardly tantamount to murder. I’m disappointed in the CWHL for their handling of these disputes – the lack of transparency, combined with the fact that players are hesitant to talk to us for fear of immature retaliation, is incredibly concerning. I don’t know what their roadmap is, but I can’t see a world where shutting out American players makes business sense. It’s amazing to me that the CWHL continues to insist on this ridiculous “for love of the game” narrative – with heavily implied nationalistic overtones – when the NHL, and in fact every major hockey organization, values practicality and profitability over pond hockey ethos. I don’t have a suggested solution, aside from hiring someone who knows how to update websites, put out regular press releases, and not treating American players like also-rans. But there are some very obvious holes in their business practices that need filling.

I’ve watched plenty of women’s sports leagues collapse due to shortsightedness. I’d like for the CWHL not to be the most recent in a long line of failures. I have no idea if that’s coming or not, but American players being this dissatisfied with their only current option to play even semi-professionally is really not promising.

Get it together, CWHL. Love, an American.

3 thoughts on “The CWHL’s American Problem”

  1. Apologies for my ignorance, but (completely hypothetically, not asking you to reveal anything from an off the record conversation or make wild guesses) what would be a problem with the league that would upset the American players but not the Canadians? Obviously, I’d love to see a couple more US-based teams, but it seems like there’s at least been some exploration done in that area. Until players draw a salary, that sort of limits market viability to major hockey-producing areas like Minnesota and huge employment centers on a Chicago/NYC level (it has to be a place where a number of players are willing to live, get jobs, etc.), and I’d think people have to understand that. I honestly can’t think of anything else, so insight appreciated 🙂

    1. Hi, Kyle! I’m unfortunately constrained in what I can say, and not all of it is first-hand information. But what you’d imagine is involved in contract negotiation – what money there is to divide, term, etc – is pretty consistently biased against American players. My understanding is that there are doubts about American players’ commitment to the CWHL, in the face of potential competition (ie Hilary Knight trying out with a European team, etc). The Blades have already done one weekend of striking, and players pulled back from speaking with us because they were worried about being shut out of the league/significant backlash directed towards them – specifically, Blades players. To me, that speaks to a very strong lack of professionalism on the CWHL’s part. They’re behaving like you’d expect a sports league with actual profit and pull to behave. But, unfortunately, the CWHL is not the NHL, so I don’t consider their actions particularly defensible on a practical level (meaning, they don’t have much money or visibility to offer at this point).

  2. At the start of the season, I heard someone say that they were happy with the league & how its being run, since they seemed to be more organized & professional this year. While it was good to hear, I also laughed a bit. Prior to the season started, the league did a great job of putting over Andress & her leadership, but to be honest, nobody is buying a ticket to see her be a commissioner.

    I personally found out about the All-Star game in mid-September. It was supposed to be announced in Early October (as per the original press release when the Sportsnet deal was announced), however they waited till only a month prior to the event to make it official. Now I was also told about the cost that will go into holding the game at the ACC. So when they announced what it’d cost to attend the game & the poor way of “selling tickets” (with fans voicing their confusion on social media), I myself became confused. Yes, a free game with all the stars in the league is a PR dream, but the confusion on the ticket selling, and not attempting to gain any revenue from ticket sales screams poor judgement & leadership. Make as much revenue for the league on the biggest stage!

    As for the current issue with the Blades, from what I’ve heard, it’s been a known issue for a month prior to the strike. Why they waited till their second home series to decide to make it an issue, I am unsure. With Blades player commitments to the league, I don’t see how it’s any different for them than any other players in the league. Knight certainly had the opportunity to jump to Sweden like Wakefield did, however she openly said her best opportunity for advancement in promotional opportunities was the CWHL. Koizumi & Duggan are assistants with college teams, & won’t make all the games. That shouldn’t surprise the league, and since it’s happened with other players in previous years, so why would that be an issue for the CWHL now? Bonhomme won’t play in all of the Furies games while working at TSN, so will they be the next team to get questioned on commitments?

    It is unfortunate that you & other blogs have been shut out on quotes from players & the league on this situation. While I doubt you could freeze out the top players, like Knight, Lacasse, & the National teamers if they spoke out, the rest of the players on the Blades (and the other teams) should feel free to talk on any issue. With the biggest event in league history coming up, it would be in everyone’s best interests to get this whole situation cleaned up before any more games are lost & top players choose to skip the All-Star game.

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