Women’s Winter Classic: Let’s Look Beyond The NHL

We here at Watch This have been advocates of women’s hockey being seen on its own merits for awhile now, so the debate about the admittedly poorly executed Winter Classic (the NWHL/CWHL one, mind) is certainly relevant to our interests. The “Winter Classic” as a phrase and as a hockey concept is really the NHL’s own marketing invention, and has been increasingly explicitly a marketing bid in recent years: more outdoor games, less big-name/historic locations, and so on. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because marketing can be useful and women’s hockey in particular would benefit from larger institutions throwing their marketing weight behind it – but it does mean that you really can’t decouple the lackluster “Outdoor Women’s Classic” from the influence and background of the NHL’s Winter Classic brand.

When I (that is me, Elena) heard the news that a women’s Winter Classic was going to happen – but only sort of! individual tickets wouldn’t be sold! also it was last minute and not heavily advertised! – I just sort of sighed. Putting on an event in itself isn’t enough to guarantee profit or attention; the NHL knows that. After all, the NHL as a league is orders of magnitude more well-known than the CWHL or the NWHL, but they still advertise special events heavily. Putting on a women’s Winter Classic, but not planning ahead of time, promoting it, or really doing much of anything but the bare minimum of providing a space and a few tweets, is setting it up to fail. And, in the eyes of a lot of people, it did fail. If the event was meant as a way for the NWHL and CWHL to learn from the NHL’s experience putting on an event, then they appeared to have not left themselves with time to do it. This dry run didn’t result in a big crowd watching an outdoor women’s hockey game; time, money, and effort on the part of players and administrators – including the NHL – ended up squandered on an event for which individual tickets weren’t even sold.

But while the NHL’s lukewarm support certainly contributed to the women’s classic being more of a whimper than a bang, it wasn’t the only factor. The CWHL and the NWHL are ostensibly both grown-up, professional leagues. We therefore ought to be asking exactly why announcement of the game was delayed for so long, why details of the game were communicated so poorly to women’s hockey fans, who follow various CWHL and NWHL communications (email, twitter, and so on), and why, if there truly were hold-ups on various practical details such as broadcasting, the CWHL and the NWHL agreed to do this event this year at all.

More organized and comprehensive NHL support would be great. But if agreements between whatever parties needed to agree to make the event happen were only finalized a few days before the date, why wasn’t the agreement then to hold and promote a Winter Classic next year? As a women’s hockey fan who’s watched more than one women’s league in various sports come and go, what the rush to hold the Winter Classic this year tells me, rightly or wrongly, is that one or both leagues isn’t confident that they’ll even be around next year. It strikes me as incredibly poor marketing, on the CWHL and NWHL’s part, to rush this event out at the last minute – and I’m not really in favor of focusing on the NHL’s role in the event to the exclusion of looking at what the CWHL and NWHL have been doing. They had no coordinated media campaigns ready; they had no cross-league branding ready (merchandise and graphics in particular); they had no advertising ready. In short, they had nothing prepared to convince me, a fan, that the event was worth paying attention to.

That lack can be easily explained: the event was finalized at the last minute. But holding the event anyway, despite the last-minute nature of the preparations, was a poor choice. It signals disorganization within leagues, lack of cooperation, and lack of confidence in the future to fans. That really troubles me. We can talk all day about what the NHL could do for women’s hockey, but in 2016, when we have two independent leagues, we need to move beyond that. The CWHL and NWHL have both repeatedly asserted their confidence in the future and their ability to grow, both individually as leagues and as part of the larger community of women’s hockey. It’s time their actions reflected those statements.