CWHL Board Approves League Expansion
The CWHL sent out a press release today, announcing that their Board has approved the recommendations of their expansion task force, and they will be looking to add a team or possibly teams in new markets. Their expansion taskforce, led by Caitlin Cahow, a CWHL alumna, has identified new markets for the CWHL where there is a critical mass of elite level women hockey players who are not presently playing at the professional level. Top of their list was the US Midwest.
“Our strategic plan has always envisioned further expansion in to the US market, and we are pleased that the board has shown its support to move forward at this time,” said CWHL commissioner, Brenda Andress. “We will build from our success in the Boston area and enter in to talks with parties in Chicago and Minneapolis/St.Paul, as well as select Canadian markets. Until the CWHL, or any league, can pay players a living wage, it is incumbent on us to provide players with the opportunity to play in markets where they live, work and study.”
We’ve seen some buzz in the past about CWHL expansion, and specifically CWHL expansion to the Midwest. The Hockey Writers had a piece on the potential Minnesota bid last summer, and espnW had a piece on why expansion was eventually nixed. Other bids we’ve heard about in the past have been for Detroit, Chicago, and New York. Dani Rylan, now commissioner of the NWHL, was deeply involved with the New York bid.
While I’m SUPER EXCITED about the idea of the CWHL putting a team local to me in the Twin Cities, and I definitely know there’s plenty of elite players here, I’ve got some concerns. First, and most importantly is, why is the league pursuing expansion before they can pay players? While placing teams where players can live and work is important, it’s only of top priority if you can’t pay players. The CWHL seems to be putting their bet on only paying players if they can pay a “living wage”, presumably at least a minimum full-time wage, but they’ve been increasingly vague over the past few years about what their timeline is for paying players. While there is definitely an argument for establishing a flourishing league with a solid fanbase before adding full salaries, it’s not a line I like seeing pursued without a more solid commitment on the table to paying players. While we have no clue yet about how the NWHL will do as a league, I admit I’m very partial to their strategy of paying players a smaller, part-time wage at first, and increasing the wage as the league becomes established. (The NWHL’s time commitment they require of players, in practices and games played, is also commensurately smaller.)
Another concern of mine is with the two Midwest markets Andress mentioned, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago. The Twin Cities and greater Minnesota are definitely loaded with really solid women hockey players, with great college programs like the University of Minnesota Gophers, the University of Minnesota-Duluth, even right over the border the University of Wisconsin, and the University of North Dakota. The Twin Cities have a solid job market, and a gajillion rinks to find home ice at. The problem is, Minnesota is inundated with hockey. SO much hockey. We have high school hockey, girls and boys. We have college hockey, men and women’s. We have NHL hockey.
Right now, if I want to see elite women players, a team full of Olympians, I can already go watch the Gophers play. The Gophers have won 5 NCAA Championships, including last year’s. They went undefeated in 2013. They have game streaming, and a dedicated rink that’s decently easy to get to. If the CWHL wants to put a team in the Twin Cities, they’re going to need to distinguish themselves from the rest of the hockey somehow, and I’ll be honest, they have not inspired me with confidence that they can do this. This isn’t as much of a slight on the CWHL as it looks like– the Minnesota Wild, with their much much larger budget for things like marketing and PR, also had trouble with this initially when they first started here, because there is just so much hockey. (Well, and also they weren’t the North Stars, but that’s another conversation.)
Chicago, much as I hate to say it, may be the better proposal, from my armchair judgement. It’s a larger metro area, and their two other major women’s teams, the WNBA’s Chicago Sky and the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars, are doing pretty well and have solid fanbases. Even the Sky’s average attendance of 6,685 last year, ranked 9th in a 12 team league, is way, way more than any CWHL team can claim. Between the interest in women’s sports, and the growing interest in hockey that the success of the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks team has engendered, there could be a really sweet spot for the CWHL to put a women’s hockey team into.
A serious problem for any Chicago team would be the lack of ice available in the city itself. Currently, only Johnny’s Ice House (two buildings, four sheets of ice) and McFetridge Sports Center (one sheet of ice) are the only arenas available to many teams in the city itself. There’s currently a proposal in the works for the Blackhawks to build a new practice center that would add two more sheets of ice, and would be available to rec teams. Getting regular home ice at the same arena, at an arena that is easy for fans to get to and park at, is a real concern for any CWHL team, but one that might be particularly hard for an expansion team in Chicago.
One thing both Chicago and the Twin Cities share as expansion destinations is that they would add another more western team, so the poor Inferno would be able to cut down some travel time! Both locations also have major airline hubs, so finding flights to and from those locations might be easier (and cheaper) than it could be.
Spitballing about locations aside, I don’t know that we’re going to see a sixth team added for the 15/16, but the CWHL did leave the door open for it. Practically, what we’ve seen in the past is that applicants for new teams were expected to raise $400,000 to $500,000 annually to cover airfares, hotel and related expenses, and that’s a hell of a lot of money to pull out of your pocket on short notice.
Prairie Toyota Clarkson Cup Tour Kicks Off Today!
We saw some mention of the Prairie Toyota Clarkson Cup Tour in the announcement that the CWHL had brought Prairie Toyota — a network of 37 Toyota dealerships in 26 cities across the Prairies– on as their official automobile sponsor. It turns out that the Tour will go to 26 cities, and feature the Toronto Furies’ Natalie Spooner, the former Calgary Inferno player, current assistant coach Meaghan Mikkelson traveling with the Clarkson Cup. They’ll also be bringing a synthetic ice surface along, allowing kids along the way to test their skills.
You can find the complete schedule and enter to win a car on the Prarie Toyota’s website.
I gotta say, I really like this as a publicity move for the CWHL. I’m a little meh on why the couldn’t get a Boston player to come along, since Boston is the current Cup champion, but my understanding is that Mikkelson at the least has strong ties to the area, and both are quite recognizable names for their time with Team Canada. Here’s hoping it drums up a bunch of new fans!