From their inception in 2010 until this spring, the Boston Blades were the only American team in the CWHL. Since the collapse of the Western Women’s Hockey League (WWHL) in 2013, they’ve been the only opportunity for most women who are US citizens to play at the highest level, aside from Team USA. The CWHL does not offer visa sponsorship to players, but because players need to be able to live (and work to support themselves) near their teams, with few exceptions, players for the teams north of the border are Canadian. Exceptions are generally either in school or working for an employer who could sponsor them for a visa. In 2014, a full third of the 21 players Team USA sent to Sochi were from the Boston Blades; this year at Worlds, 5 of 22 players on Team USA were from the Blades. Even with the relationship between the CWHL and the Blades obviously strained, there was no competition for star players like Hilary Knight. Until this spring.
With the advent of the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), there will be five professional women’s hockey teams in the United States. This includes the Boston Pride (NWHL) and the Boston Blades (CWHL), making Boston indisputably women’s hockey’s current hometown. While the NWHL and CWHL won’t be in direct battle on the ice, there’s going to be fierce competition for roster spots, and not just from US players. The NWHL has announced their intent to sponsor players for visas, which would allow them to bring in international players and pay them. Sponsoring players for P-1 (Internationally Recognized Athlete) or O-1 (Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement) visas isn’t cheap, so we may not see a bunch of them, but it’s likely that the CWHL will see some roster shakeups across the border as well.
What’s certain is that change is going to happen in the US, starting with the Boston Blades roster. Genevieve Lacasse has already expressed interest; Hilary Knight and Jess Koizumi were spotted at the NWHL launch party in April. The Blades are also losing both their head coach, Digit Murphy, and their general manager Aronda Kirby, who were let go by the CWHL following a legal dispute over the Blades’ logo trademark. While that’s going to make for an interesting 2015-2016 CWHL season, given that the Boston Blades are the 2015 Clarkson Cup champions, that doesn’t spell doom for the Blades by any means. They’re established in the CWHL, they have a short but strong history of competitive success, and women’s hockey is teeming with incredible players at the collegiate level. The Blades may be the main professional team represented on Team USA, the majority of players are actually from NCAA teams: 11 of 21 at the 2014 Olympics and 12 of 22 at 2015 Worlds.
There are so many incredibly talented women in the US right now who use up their NCAA eligibility and have nowhere to play afterward. Even for those who can get a roster spot on a CWHL team, the financial burden is huge. The advent of the NWHL is not only going to provide more women an opportunity to play at the professional level, but the ability to do so sustainably. While we’re definitely going to see an influx of younger players at first, in the long term, if the NWHL is successful, I hope it will also allow women in the US and abroad to have longer playing careers in hockey. Right now, most of the older women who headline the CWHL have spent their careers juggling undergraduate and graduate education as well as coaching and other employment on top of training, play, and family life. My hope for the NWHL is that it will allow players to be super athletes without having to be superwomen as well…
…and also that more support for women’s hockey at the professional level will net Team USA some gold at the Olympics.