Boston Blades Home Opener: From Yankees to Red Sox

A Calgary Inferno player races Blades #16 Sarah Duncan toward #33 Genevieve Lacasse in the Blades Goal.
A Calgary Inferno player races Blades #16 Sarah Duncan toward #33 Genevieve Lacasse in the Blades Goal. From the Blades home opener on October 31 at New England Sports Center in Marlborough, MA.

First, let’s be frank: Last Saturday night’s home opener against the Calgary Inferno was a difficult game to watch if you were rooting for the home team. The Inferno scored seven goals, a boggling six of those during the second period, while the Blades remained scoreless throughout. The audience, crammed onto a narrow balcony high over the rink, seemed distant from the players, and the paltry media presence was a stark contrast to the NWHL’s media day in September. In the space of a few months, the Boston Blades have gone from the CWHL’s champions to the underdogs. They’re still hoisting the Clarkson Cup–the team posed for photos with the Cup before and after the game–but most of the players who won it this March are gone.

The NWHL went unmentioned in my conversations with general manager Krista Patronick and coach Brian McCloskey, as did the NWHL’s role in shakeup in the Blades’ formerly star-filled roster. The Blades have retained only five members of last year’s Clarkson Cup winning team: defense Tara Watchorn (this year’s captain) and Dru Burns, forwards Ashley Cottrell and Megan Myers, and goalie Genevieve Lacasse. The new league isn’t the only source of changes–Monique Lamoreaux has joined her sister Joceyln on the Minnesota Whitecaps, while Jenny Potter has transitioned to coaching–but it has claimed over half of last season’s roster, including all of Team USA’s active players. Both coach Digit Murphy and general manager Aronda Kirby have departed for the green fields of lacrosse after a less-than-amicable break with the Blades. As they enter a comprehensive and unanticipated rebuild, the Blades’ newest iteration has inherited both impossibly high expectations and a complicated relationship with the CWHL as its only US franchise.

The Boston Blades opened the 2015-2016 season at home on fresh ice at the New England Sports Center (NESC) in Marlborough, MA, which will be their home rink this season. GM Patronick said that the free parking, dedicated locker room, and improved connectivity offered by NESC were major incentives. There are, indeed, a lot of things to like about NESC–it’s a big facility with six indoor rinks, concessions, and an elevator-accessible upper floor which allows viewing from warmer/heated hallways. That said, Saturday’s game was displaced by the Beantown Fall Classic to Rink 6, which has no bleacher seating, only a long balcony that stretches the length of the rink. There were a few benches for seating, but the majority of people attending the game had to stand. From ice level, where I was filming throughout the game, it was hard to hear the fans or see them. The rink felt surreally empty.

Still, this doesn’t tell you much about the team’s play against Calgary. Calgary’s roster hasn’t experienced as much turnover, and they’ve been joined by the legendary Hayley Wickenheiser in her first year of CWHL play. The Inferno kept most of the play in the Blades’ zone for the duration of the game and they spent a lot of time scrapping around the crease. Despite their aggressive play, Calgary only racked up 2:00 PIM to Boston’s 8:00 by the end of the game. Lacasse’s net was unmoored twice during gameplay, once on either end of the rink; the Blades rarely got close enough to Delayne Brian to test the purchase of the net behind the Inferno’s crease. The Blades got 18 shots on goal, less than a third of the Inferno’s 60.

If they weren’t successful, the Blades were at least determined. Alternate captain Kristina Brown fistbumped each player as they stepped back onto the ice for the third period, exhorting her teammates to “Get some fire out there, get hungry.” Indeed, they finished out the final period without allowing another goal. Goaltender Lacasse deflected 53 of the 60 shots leveled on goal on Saturday. The Blades played a second game against Calgary at Tsongas Arena in Lowell at 10:30 on Sunday, during which Lacasse allowed only 4 of 50 shots. That’s a .900 SVP on 110 SOG in less than 24 hours.

What does this mean for the players who posed around the Clarkson Cup on Saturday night? These Blades are playing against the odds, that’s for sure–against four Canadian teams whose rosters haven’t received a massive shakeup, under the shadow of a hotshot new league with a franchise in the same city, and without most of the players who lifted the Cup in March. Replicating that success will be an uphill success, and it won’t happen overnight. That said, some of those expectations rest on an underlying assumption that Blades’ past success was solely on the merits of their players. When the Blades became the pinnacle of elite women’s hockey talent in the United States as the Western Women’s Hockey League dissolved, there were no alternative professional teams for US-based players who had outlasted their time as NCAA to play and continue to develop. Only the best and brightest stars of women’s hockey–and those with the financial resources and spare time to devote to the sport without pay–could land a place on the Blades’ roster. While it’s tempting to frame the relationship between the NWHL and the CWHL as a rivalry (and, indeed, the one between the Pride and the Blades), the reality is more complex. Going from one professional women’s hockey team in the US to six will only grow (eventually) both the sport and the field of players from which both leagues can pick for their rosters. I’m excited to see how this season’s players develop on the ice. That doesn’t mean that the Blades are poised to capture the Clarkson cup this year, or even the next.

Fortunately for the Blades, Boston loves underdogs.

CWHL Weekend Preview: Season openers, and streaming!

CWHL Season Opener Preview

The Brampton Thunder will face down Les Canadiennes on Saturday, October 17th at 4:30 PM CT / 5:30 PM ET in Desmarteau Arena, and again on Sunday, October 18th, at 12:30 PM CT / 1:30 PM ET.

Last year, the Brampton Thunder finished out the season at the bottom of the league with 14 points in 24 games, while the former Montreal Stars finished third, with 29 points in 24 games. Brampton’s made some changes, including a new head coach and the first overall draft pick, Sarah Edney. New head coach Tyler Fines is replacing former interim head coach Kristi Alcorn. Alcorn took over mid-last season to replace Pat Cocklin. While they had some heartening pre-season success, with a successful training camp and a 8-0 win in a pre-season matchup against the University of Toronto Varsity Blues, we’ll see how this new Brampton Thunder looks against a star-studded Les Canadiennes. Aside from Caroline Ouellette, last season’s third top scorer in the league, and former Rookie of the Year Ann-Sophie Bettez, Les Canadiennes added the much heralded Marie-Philip Poulin, Scourge of the US Olympic Gold Dreams, among others. If you need to brush up on the new Les Habs roster, check out Habs Eyes On the Prize’s coverage.

The Boston Blades will take on the Toronto Furies on Saturday, October 17th at 6:30 PM CT / 7:30 PM ET in the Mastercard Center, and again on Sunday, October 18th at 12:30 PM CT / 1:30 PM ET.

There’s been a lot of talk about what players the Blades have lost to the NWHL, but the team Krista Patronick has assembled is still going to be an interesting one to watch. The roster has a lot of forwards, with 18 of 25 players being natural forwards. The thin blue line is going to be bolstered by the returning presence of Dru Burns and Tara Watchorn, but Patronick expects that some of those forwards will end up helping out as defenders as well. The Furies, who finished out last season fourth in the league, has also lost some key players, especially on defense. Toronto struggled last year offensively, especially on special teams, where they finished out league last on both the PK and the PP. Things at the start of the season might be even rougher– top forwards Jenelle Kohanchuk and Julie Allen are out with injury right now. While the Furies picked up several new forwards in the draft, the stand out is probably Emily Fulton, formerly of Cornell, where she put up 48 points in 32 games last season.

The Calgary Inferno will play their season opener October 24th, at home.

Streaming

The CWHL will have a record high 32 games streamed this season, and all games will be filmed in HD. A regular season pass is $19.95 CAD, and can be purchased on the CWHL’s streaming site.

As in the past, all previously aired games will be available in the archive to watch for free. Additionally, all Calgary home games that are not streamed will have an audio-only stream available on the streaming site as well.

This weekend’s streaming games are:

  • Boston Blades @ Toronto Furies, Saturday, October 17th at 4:30 PM CT / 5:30 PM ET
  • Brampton Thunder @ Les Canadiennes, Sunday, October 18th, at 12:30 PM CT / 1:30 PM ET

Weekend Preview: NWHL Openers! Pride @ Beauts, Riveters @ Whale

NWHL Opener This Weekend:

The NWHL opens their season this weekend with two games on Sunday, October 11th, 2015.

First we have the sold-out New York Riveters at the Connecticut Whale. The game starts at 1:30 PM ET / 12:30 PM CT, and will be played at Chelsea Piers. The Whale won both of their pre-season games, against the Minnesota Whitecaps and the CT Junior Rangers U18 Boys, while the New York Riveters lost both of theirs against the FDNY men’s hockey team, and the Whitecaps. You can check out Annalise’s recap of the Riveter’s pre-season games or her season preview of the Riveters. If you want to know a little more about the Whale, Jay Fairburn has been following the evolution of their roster. Personally, my non-existent money is on the Whale, but perhaps we’ll see a steadier defensive team from the Riveters this weekend.

Right after the first game, we have the Boston Pride taking on the Buffalo Beauts at the HarborCenter. Manon Rheaume will drop the puck at 3:30 PM ET / 2:30 PM CT. The Beauts will face Mercyhurst twice in the pre-season– they beat the Mercyhurst women once already, and will face them again this afternoon. (10/9, 7 pm ET) The Pride played the East Coast Wizards U16 Boys and the East Coast Wizards U18 Boys, and lost both. Angelica previewed the Beauts season for us, and she also wrote up the team’s first practice if you’d like to learn a little more about the team while you wait for their first game. Erin covered the Pride’s first practice, if you’d like to catch up on this Olympian-studded roster. Looking at the roster, the Pride have a terrifying amount of talent– but I suspect the Beauts have had more practice time together, and it will be interesting to see how that will balance out.

How to Watch

If you’re looking for NWHL opener tickets, there are still tickets for the Pride @ Beauts game, $15 for a ticket.

If you’re not in the area or didn’t get a ticket in time for the Riveters @ Whale, the NWHL has sworn up down and sideways that there will be streaming available in time for the opener games. We don’t know how much it will cost, or what platform it will be on, or anything else. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

UPDATE: According to Phil Giubileo, who will be one of the announcers for the Riveters/Whale game, the game will be streamed for free on YouTube. We don’t know about the Pride/Beauts game yet, nor if this will be the norm for the rest of the season games.

 

Mid-Week Roundup: CWHL Rosters, Manon Rheaume, & more

Still waiting on Brampton Thunder, and Les Canadiennes, but it’s nice to see some of the player churn on paper! Boston obviously has the most roster change, but Toronto and Calgary have both picked up and lost some interesting pieces.

  • Want to add the NWHL and CWHL games to your Google calendar or put it on your wall? Ash and Masha have assembled calendar feeds for each team in the NWHL and the CWHL, and made calendar pages in PDF format with all games.
  • In the NWHL, the Buffalo Beauts/Boston Pride opener just got an added dose of star power! Manon Rhéaume, two-time Olympic gold medalist goaltender with Team Canada, and the first (and so far only) woman to play in an exhibition game for the NHL, will be dropping the puck at the game. First 500 to the game get Manon Rheaume trading cards!
  • Located in Buffalo, and got some pipes? The Beauts are looking for an anthem singer.

CWHL leading talks about the future of women’s hockey with NWHL, NHL

Rumor earlier this week on Twitter was that the NWHL and the CWHL would be meeting in New York City to talk with the NHL. On Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015, a press release was sent out from the CWHL that indeed, the CWHL would be “leading a discussion this week with key stakeholders in the women’s game including the NHL and NWHL”.

This was, rumor aside, pretty out of the blue. The CWHL responded initially to the establishment of the NWHL with a somewhat icy announcement that they would be “taking all necessary steps and measures to protect its interests”. According to an August 16th, 2015 Periscope Q&A from the Boston Blades GM, Krista Patronick, neither the Blades or the NWHL’s Boston Pride had approached each other about steps towards partnership or cross-promotion. So, these talks were a bit of a different tune. Our first question was, what are these talks about? Partnering, merging, what?

According to a CWHL league representative who responded to our email, “The CWHL has instigated this meeting to talk about the future of our leagues and to ensure that what happens going forward is best for women’s hockey continued growth and success.”
While we reached out to the NWHL as well, they weren’t able to provide a comment on what the talks were about.

Neither league provided a comment on what the NHL’s role would be in these talks. It’s important to note that, while several individual CWHL teams (but not all) have partnerships with individual NHL teams, it is our understanding that there is not a partnership between the leagues. Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the NHL, went on the record last year to say that, although the NHL has looked into women’s hockey, they thought “the overall development at women’s hockey at the grassroots level through the college level isn’t at the point where a pro league is viable.” With that in mind, what is the role of the NHL in these talks? The CWHL referenced “key stakeholders in women’s hockey”, but while the NHL may have a stake in the growth of hockey in general, they are not formally committed to women’s hockey, or either professional women’s hockey league. Perhaps they are present as a mediator, or an advisor to the leagues?

The timing of these talks surprises me, so close to the beginning of the season for both the CWHL and the NWHL. As of now, hopeful as I am for them, the NWHL is an unproven league. While talks between the two leagues could be useful, to be honest, I’d prefer to see the CWHL focus on improving its own product– improving their branding, game information, streaming, paying their players, etc. We’ve already seen their steps in that direction with the Montreal Stars re-brand, and their change in social media and marketing director.

Weekly News: NWHL Tickets, Kacey Bellamy, and NCAA Games

  • Tickets for the NWHL’s pre-season games are on sale! Unlike my prediction of free, the tickets cost $5 USD, except for the Mercyhurst games, which are free. Additionally, it turns out that the final East Coast Wizards teams that the Pride will play are both boys teams– the U16, and the U18 teams.
  • Keep on scrolling past the pre-season games, and you’ll see that single game tickets for the NWHL go on sale September 24th, 12:01 AM Eastern! That’s tomorrow.
  • Brampton Thunder’s new head coach, Tyler Fines, starts practices.
  • Lexie Hoffmeyer is not playing this year! The CWHL’s twitter presence will be the worse for it. She will be coaching, not sure where yet, and will also still be involved with the Furies in some capacity.

THERE CAN BE MORE THAN ONE: or, why women’s hockey isn’t the Highlander

Ever since the NWHL was just a rumor on Twitter, people have been predicting a merger with the CWHL. It seems natural– two leagues, based on the two different sides of the US-Canada border, drawing from the same talent pool of players. Why not have a combined league, they said, and have all these players play each other? Cross-border promotion, the highest-quality talent playing each other, great hockey, and Bob’s your uncle!

Here’s the problem with this idea: it’s framed in a deeply sexist way, and often ignores the very real differences between the NWHL and the CWHL.

First, the idea of the two leagues merging is frequently couched in terms of “women working together.” Much of the argument is framed through the idea that if these women really wanted to make an impact, they would work together and not against each other, that this kind of divide needlessly splinters the talent pool.

This assumes that in order to make the most impact, women have to play nice and work together.

When is the last time independent businesses were told by the public that a merger was the only way forward?

Apple and Microsoft were never told to bury their philosophical differences and become one company so they could be more successful. In fact, their competition ended in the creation of products that many of us use on an hourly basis to organize our lives, do our work, and connect with family. The personal computer market is richer and more varied for their competition.

However, the CWHL and the NWHL aren’t just being told they need to do that to become more successful, but are in fact being told that the only way to become successful at all is to smile, bury the hatchet, and become one league. With most businesses, including men’s professional sports leagues, we assume that they can differentiate their product and succeed–– or they will fail. With women’s hockey, and women’s sport in general, the assumption is often made that they need outside help and no competition to succeed at any level. That is grossly sexist.

We live in a society where unfair and unbalanced expectations are put on women, especially women athletes. Women’s sports leagues need to navigate that as best they can, but that doesn’t mean we, as fans, need to also put that expectation on our leagues.

Women do not need to smile and play nice to be successful.

And women’s sports don’t need to be protected from competition in order to succeed.

From a pure business standpoint, the idea that only one league can succeed is also busted. How many pro, paid men’s hockey leagues does North America have? A hell of a lot more than just the NHL, buddy.

Looking outside of hockey, the CFL and the NFL come to mind. Though the two leagues sell the same sport, in the end they market different products when taking into account their set-up, their marketing approaches, and more. They’re really different in terms of the levels of their financial success– but at the end of the day, they are both successful, paid professional leagues. (The comparison stands even if I don’t want to see women’s hockey ever take a page from the NFL’s concussion management and labor practices handbooks.)

Arguing that the talent pool is too small to sustain two leagues is a smokescreen for the sexist idea that women must cooperate to be successful. Perhaps it’s a misconception of exactly how many high-end players there are, and the Olympic Games are a likely culprit. Each country’s Olympic rosters are only so large, and with international play being the only place a lot of fans know players from, it might very well have fostered this misunderstanding. Now, with two leagues rostered, we’ve seen that the elite talent pool for women’s hockey player is larger than it’s largely been thought to be.

While there might be a brief dilution of talent, as players move to the league and team that suits them best, it’s in a lot of ways a re-balancing of the scales.

The CWHL’s Boston Blades didn’t get to be the overwhelming juggernaut you may remember from last season without being the most accessible option for US players, after all, and particularly US Olympic players, who are often encouraged to stay and train in the Boston area. By “diluting” the talent pool, the addition of a league ensures that more players will get time with these Olympic-caliber players, will learn from them and grow their own abilities.

The quality of player will only increase as time goes on. The more players see that there’s the opportunity for a hockey career after college, the more non-North American players see that there are elite pro opportunities period for them, the more players we’ll see interested in playing at the elite level. We’ve already started to see non-North American players that we normally only see at the second-tier Worlds or some Olympics start to come out of the woodwork. The more players who don’t have to choose between paying their car loan after college or putting their time and money into playing the best hockey they can, the more we’ll see the pool grow.

Second, arguing for a merger between the CWHL and the NWHL ignores the very real differences between the two leagues. In all fairness, we don’t know a ton about how the NWHL will operate. They’re a squeaky new league, just starting their first practices, while the CWHL has years of operation and successes under its belt. The CWHL has some big name sponsors: Bauer, Rodgers, Under Armour, and more, as well as NHL team partnerships for multiple teams. The NWHL’s funding is unknown, and their announced sponsors are much less prominent.

But what we do know is this: The NWHL has very different priorities than the CWHL. The NWHL is already demonstrably a players-first league; their commitment to paying players, to providing all the gear and medical care players need to compete at an elite level has already been shown. They also have tried to be very transparent about this. Concussion baseline tests were done for players at their first practice, equipment fittings done in front of media, and a players’ association was one of the first things announced by the league. Admittedly, it’s sometimes been a little rough, and things haven’t always been as polished as they could have been. The NWHL’s draft model, for example, was changed partway through due to NCAA regulations. 11 players have committed to the league whose names we don’t know, and so on. That aside, the NWHL is a league clearly trying to be bold, transparent, and player-first.

The CWHL, on the other hand, heavily values sustainable growth, and has been insistent on ensuring they have the budget in place before pursuing their end goal: raising the profile of women’s hockey while providing a place for the best female hockey players in the world to train and compete. They have been aggressively courting sponsors, and working on creating and growing ties to their local communities. They have a large emphasis on growing the love of hockey in young girls as well, trying to #GrowTheGame as we hear all the time. The CWHL wants to provide high quality training and competition for players, and as such part of their goal is to pay players and enable them to spend more of their time on hockey and not on paying the bills. They want to expand, but responsibly, and they want to make sure teams are placed in locations that will embrace them. The CWHL has focused on having clinics and meet-and-greets for young women and girls, so that they can meet and learn from the best in the world. It’s apparent the CWHL is taking a slow and steady wins the race approach– they want to last, and the way they think they can best support women’s hockey overall, their league, and their players is by taking their growth one step at a time.

What the constant call for merger misses is that the two leagues, with their two very different approaches, might not be compatible. To top it off, we don’t yet know which is more successful. The CWHL has sustained itself this long, but they are already changing and improving in response to the competition of the NWHL. In a few short months they have gotten a better social media team together and are starting to provide more equipment to players.

I’m not totally against the idea of collaboration or, even, eventually a merger between the two leagues. I think collaboration could be fun. Each league’s champions playing for a trophy or bragging rights sounds like a great idea to me. Someday a merger might be the right thing for each league. But it’s not a forgone conclusion, and indeed may never occur. This insistence that the two women’s leagues take their separate models, staff, and players and combine them devalues the very real choices that each league has made in how they position themselves. It’s also, in no small way, sexist.

Which CWHL players generated the most offense?

Knowing how many points a player has is usually an effective means of showing how well they have generated offense. However included in those points can be goals, first assists and second assists. It can be argued that first assists have more value because they led directly to a goal while a second assist may have a higher relation to luck.

With that in mind we will compare the top ten CWHL players in terms of overall points and first points (goals and first assists only).

graph
tP= total points, tPr2= total points rank, P1r-= first points rank, rDiff= points ranking difference

As can be seen based on the above table some players received more “help” from their teammates than others did. Both Cathy Chartrand and Julie Chu of the Montreal Stars were ranked seven spots lower in terms of first points. While Kim Deschenes and Jessica Campbell were nine and six spots higher respectively in terms of first points.

These types of statistics help to give a better idea of which players to key in on in order to shut down the opposition offense. Players that have larger differences in ranks may have misleading point totals and more time should be spent checking others.

The best CWHL Players to have on the ice in close games

This past season I was very excited to have worked directly with both the Head Coach and General Manager of the Boston Blades to provide analytics reports to help win games. I was able to develop a number of metrics based on the statistics tracked in the CWHL to assist with coaching decisions.

An interesting one is Close Goals For Percentage. This is a measure of the percentage of goals the player was on the ice for while the score was within one goal in the first and second periods and when tied in the third period. This helps to give a better idea of which players should be sent over the boards in tight games when you are looking for a win.

The table pictured below has the top 20 skaters on the ice for at least five total close goals listed by their Close Goals for percentage relative to their teammates.

The column headers are defined as follows:

  • GP – games played
  • tP – total points
  • GFc – close goals for on ice
  • tGc – close goals for and against on ice
  • cGF% – close goals for percentage
  • cGF%rel – close goals for percentage relative to their teammates
The top player for each team:
  • Boston Blades – Kacey Bellamy
  • Brampton Thunder – Leah Whittaker
  • Calgary Inferno – Jenna Cunningham
  • Montreal Stars – Marieve Provost
  • Toronto Furies – Kelly Terry
It is worth noting that the Clarkson Cup winning goal scorer Janine Weber is ranked fourth overall and second on the Boston Blades in terms of this metric. While the other forwards on her line, Jordan Smelker and Corinne Buie, ranked sixth and tenth overall in the CWHL, as well as fourth and seventh on the Boston Blades.

best players to have on ice

 

It’s A Hard Knock Life: Labor In Women’s Sports

Who remembers the NHL lockout in 2012? Most people who read this blog, probably. I remember all the ducking and feinting, the inevitable delay to the start of the season, each side blaming each other, arguments being played out in actual press and blog-press, and so on and so forth. But what I also remember is the reaction to the NHLPA’s collective bargaining strategy – namely, I remember a lot of people blaming players for not taking the deals the NHL offered. They were, after all, making millions; why were they insisting on depriving fans of a season?

You might recognize this sort of attitude as being explicitly anti-labor in an old-timey robber baron way; if you’re a mindless servant to the causes of deregulated enterprise, you might not. (Kidding. Mostly.) But it’s true that how work stoppages are perceived often change over time, or relative to the inconvenience they cause people using the product no longer being produced. See, for example, the teacher’s union strike in Chicago , or any number of public transit or cab strikes. Often, our sympathy for workers – or in sports’ case, players – is commensurate to how inconvenienced we are by them deciding to withhold their work for a while.

Sports in general occupy an uneasy space in the world of work. People can beat each other up on the ice, even gravely injure one another and not face legal consequences. Team-adjacent employees can be exploited. Wives and girlfriends are put in tenuous situations, exposed to everything from locational instability to intimate partner violence, and are expected to sacrifice for the good of their husbands’ teams.

Making money from sports starts early on. The OHL, for example, employs kids as young as 16. Of course, they’re not technically employees – but they receive a stipend, and the OHL makes money from them. The NCAA works a similar system for colleges in the US: athletes get tuition and expenses paid, and the NCAA makes money from both their public personas and their work on the field, court, or rink. Various people in various mediums have questioned the morality and even the legality of these setups for years, but what often goes unacknowledged is that in the lower-cash world of women’s sports, labor becomes that much more valuable.

Let’s circle back around to the lockout. The CWHL was functioning that entire time, unpaid. I’ve written here before about the CWHL’s “love of the game” and “role model” narrative. Their commitment to the community can’t be questioned, nor can the heart-warming nature of the entertainment they provide. But because women’s hockey is continually called into question – its skill level, its competitiveness, its worthiness as entertainment and as work – a lot of media coverage of the CWHL comes across as condescending. It’s not work for these women, despite the fact that they’re contractually obligated to show up to practices and games. It’s something uncomfortably hovering on the line between hobby and work. They’re not amateur in expectations or skill, but the hours they put in, on and off the ice, are generally disregarded because they don’t hate what they’re doing. Love of the game is privileged over even using that work to put food on the table, much less making a profit from it as NHL players do.

Unfortunately for female athletes, devaluation of the work they put in isn’t commensurate to how risky it is. Girls and women are more prone to concussions than boys and men, and also just so happen to dominate a dangerous high-school sport in the United States – cheerleading, where participants are injured in under-supervised practices more than competitive events. It’s possible that my lady brain is more prone to injury than a strong man brain, but given the reality of women’s sports, it seems likely that concussions are a product of a paucity of care and coaching. Female athletes are far less likely to have access to elite anything: coaches, trainers, equipment, doctors. The line to more injuries is clear and stark. In hockey, Amanda Kessel is a recent example. Kessel was sidelined with a mysterious injury prior to the Olympics, came back just in time to play for the US, and has been off the ice since then with chronic concussion problems.

In women’s sports, even the most elite players experience the same kind of grind and disregard that fourth-liners do in the NHL. Those same fourth liners have made headlines in recent years by committing suicide. Let me be clear: those deaths are a tragedy and absolutely point to the NHL’s disregard for labor. But this disrespect is an issue at every level; with women’s sports being as devalued as they are, most female athletes have no chance of escaping the level where their health and autonomy is disregarded. Female players can wind up very sick or even disabled, with pretty much nothing monetary to show for it.

So, you’re a women’s hockey player. You can reasonably expect a grinding level of hard work, a high risk of injury, spotty access to new equipment and good doctors, and career prospects that are pretty much limited to college employment or a cobbled-together combination of endorsements and gigs with the IOC, hockey federations, and so on. There aren’t really millions to be made here. If you’re in charge of a fledgling women’s league, then, how do you behave? What lines do you draw?

Unfortunately, in the CWHL’s case, the answer to those questions appears to be, respectively, “poorly” and “almost none that don’t explicitly benefit us”.

It’s fairly common knowledge that last year’s canceled Blades games were related to a work stoppage. This summer, we’ve experienced near-continuous changes that relate to another league, the NWHL, starting up. The CWHL initially reacted to the NWHL’s existence with some language that hinted at litigiousness; since then, we’ve seen lower-profile players sign with the NWHL, while higher profile players like Duggan and Knight remain mostly mum about their intentions, attempted actions with the CWHL, and so on.

I’ve heard reports from various places, including sources of this blog’s writers, that the CWHL is blocking big name players. Their contracts allow for release with adequate notification. This is, according to a lawyer we spoke with, fairly common language for non-paying contracts. It basically opens the way for people to leave should a paying opportunity arise. It’s possible, I suppose, that the people who failed to notify the CWHL of their intentions in a timely manner are all big-name, valuable players. It’s possible that the CWHL fighting to retain people like Hilary Knight is only related to genuine respect for legality, and has nothing to do with Knight’s own reputation as someone who’s struggled with the CWHL, her high profile in the world of women’s hockey, or her presumed value in name recognition for any team she plays for. It’s possible – but not likely, because the CWHL hasn’t invented underhanded tactics to try to control players. They’re simply following in the footsteps of the big men’s leagues that have come before.

Again, the NHL is the most recent example of this. They had a work stoppage only 3 years ago. The negotiations that each side made during that work stoppage are largely the stuff of rumor, but each side made some negotiations public, and thus, a matter of public opinion. As previously mentioned, the NHL has its own problems with player health as well. They’re currently facing a class action lawsuit specifically citing mishandling of concussions.

But – and this is a big but – the NHL at least pays its players and has a union. They continue to react strongly to the possibility of competition, and that includes becoming combative with their employees – the players – when the time to renegotiate the CBA comes around. This behavior might be less than ideal, but it at least is accompanied by the players’ union having representation for their side. The CWHL, in contrast, appears to want the benefits of a competitive market without ever having to have substantive competition – for players or for fans.

In short, it’s wrong. Pressuring players to sign long-term, restrictive, non-paying contracts is wrong. Using those contracts to try and control big-name players is wrong. Obfuscating the role of labor representation – a union – is wrong. And the fact that the CWHL is a non-paying league, full of highly skilled Olympians who play in games resembling rec league matches more than professional bouts, only makes their refusal to treat their players fairly more cruel. I have long held that the CWHL doesn’t seem to think women’s hockey is a product that can be profitably sold; they’ve historically skimped on marketing and promotion. Seeing their reaction to a league that clearly disagrees with that business plan has been profoundly disappointing. Female athletes already encounter disrespect from various institutions and people. They shouldn’t get it from their own tiny leagues, as well.

Of course, this isn’t a non-fixable problem. The CWHL should be releasing players on equal footing if they’re not already. The CWHL has a players association (not a union, as the players are unpaid), and that PA should have a more visible voice. Information on player issues shouldn’t just come from the league, but also from the CWHLPA. And, of course, they should try to compete with what the NWHL has to offer players. There are signs that the CWHL is trying to do the latter, including increased front-of-office communication and better equipment supply for players, but they’ll need to sustain that momentum and build on it. As both a blogger and a fan, the single most exciting thing about the NWHL has been their willingness to sell their product: women’s hockey and the people who play it.

Promote the players. Promote the game. Make players feel valued and excited by what you have to offer them, and make fans feel respected and catered to. If you want to hold on to “role model” lingo, then by all means do, but go beyond being a charity league for little girls to cheer on. Women’s hockey is valuable because it’s fun to watch. Sell me on that idea, then sell me on the people I’ll be watching. And also, treat them like people whose work you value. It’s very, very possible to move beyond the current player-rights gridlock, and I’d be delighted to see the CWHL do so.