Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Rethinking the Meco Cup

Although it would be easy to criticize the structure of the 2012 Meco Cup because the Canadian Under 22 women’s team failed to capture a gold medal, the reality is that the concept of the tournament was somewhat compromised. Traditionally, the Meco Cup (formerly known as the Women’s Air Canada Cup, followed by MLP Nations Cup) was a tournament for teams representing their respective countries with female players under 22 years of age.

The 2012 edition was radically different because Canada was the only country to ice a team in which every player was under 22 years of age. Other countries had summoned their senior national teams, while others had a blend of players, both under and over 22 years of age.

If the concept was to provide parity, it hardly mattered as the most dominant countries of women’s ice hockey (Finland, Sweden and Canada) topped the medal podium. The key difference was that Canada finished with a bronze medal. Although Canada bravely battled on against some difficult odds, did any of the other countries truly gain more confidence by fielding teams that had over 22 players?

Although Finland earned its first ever gold medal in the tournament, does this win give them the confidence to take on the Canadian and/or American senior national teams? Hardly. By not having the tournament truly take on its Under 22 concept, a false sense of superiority is being created.

Had Canada not had players such as Marie-Philip Poulin and Melodie Daoust drop out of the tournament, there is no question that a gold medal would have been within reach. Still, the idea is that only players under the age of 22 should compete. The core value of the tournament should be to give players under 22 the opportunity to further develop their skills and gain experience on the international stage. By having countries bringing teams with players of various ages, it prevents many younger, deserving players from having an opportunity to continue to represent their country.

What needs to be done with the Meco Cup is to restructure the tournament so that Under 22 players can truly gain confidence, while playing against a suitable level of talent. Rather than have Pool A and Pool B compete in a medal round, it might be more suitable to crown a champion for Pool A, and another champion for Pool B. Pool A can be the elite teams, such as Canada, Finland, and Sweden. In addition, a fourth team could be comprised of a European Under-22 All-Star Team. By having the elite Europeans outside of Finland and Sweden form an All-Star squad, they could truly gain more confidence and test the mettle of the elite countries. The countries in Pool B would be restricted from competing against Pool A teams, thus ensuring that all competitors in Pool B feel a more elevated sense of competition.

While the IIHF and many elite players and coaches from Canada and the United States are striving for parity in the game (which is truly needed to ensure its survival internationally), the one concept that has eluded them is the concept of a European All-Star team. Although this would not be allowed for Winter Games or World Championships, a tournament such as the Meco Cup is the perfect training ground to attempt such a concept. When one considers that the quality of NCAA women’s ice hockey has increased dramatically with the involvement of more Canadians and Europeans, a European All-Star team would help elite European players learn from each other, while giving them the confidence to not only become winners, but to become leaders.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

USA Hockey should sponsor pro league for women

With the absence of the Minnesota Whitecaps from the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, USA Hockey should look at this as a potential building block towards developing the sport even further. With the level of talent in Minnesota and Wisconsin, USA Hockey could sponsor a four team league, with the Whitecaps as its signature franchise. Each state could easily stock two teams, allowing players an opportunity to continue playing after their NCAA careers come to an end. In addition, it could be a great opportunity to bring prospective members of the US National Team to play and develop. With the level of support for ice hockey in Minnesota and Wisconsin, there would be a strong enough fan base to bring the league a strong level of stability. In addition, having the teams in those two states would help keep travel costs low, while ensuring that strong rivalries can grow between the teams.
A professional league for women based out of the United States would be reminiscent of the early years of the United States Hockey League in the 1970’s. Herb Brooks, famed for his contribution to the Miracle on Ice, cut his teeth as a head coach in the USHL with the Minnesota Jr. North Stars. The league started out with the intention of giving high school graduates who were overlooked for scholarships an opportunity to play and gain more experience. While a women’s league would definitely be a competitive one, the opportunity to also serve as a developmental league, giving opportunities to girls who were overlooked for NCAA scholarships is very worthwhile. Although there are many girls who play both, soccer and hockey (USA goalie Jessie Vetter and Canadian goalie Kim St. Pierre played both sports competitively through high school), the existence of a pro league might inspire more girls to stick with hockey.
One of the points of tension in the Canadian Womens Hockey League is that they do not have sponsorship from the National Hockey League, nor from Hockey Canada. Any Americans that compete in the CWHL would give serious consideration to an American league supported by USA Hockey. With respect to the CWHL, competition creates a better product. Not only could a team from the American league challenge for the Clarkson Cup, but an American versus Canadian battle for the coveted cup could  result in the game being broadcast on American television. Quite possibly, such an intense level of competition could help the CWHL bring in their highly coveted sponsorship.
Another strong point of the league would be the opportunity to help develop its Under 22 program. The United States does not ice an Under 22 team for the Meco Cup (formerly known as the MLP Nations Cup), an annual hockey tournament held in Germany during the New Year. Many Canadian women who went on to win gold in ice hockey at the Winter Games developed in the Under 22 program while competing at this tournament.

The teams in the league could have a series of barnstorming exhibition games against a revived United States Under-22 team. This would be an effective method of helping the Under 22 team develop players for future Winter Games competitions, and give them more playing time. Although there are the occasional exhibition series versus the Canadian Under 22 squad, the fact that Canasda competes annually in the Meco Cup creates confidence, and familiarity among the players. A barnstorming tour for a US Under 22 team would have a similar impact.

An added benefit for the league would be the opportunity for USA Hockey to provide coaching opportunities. Not only would it help evaluate prospective coaches for the future, but it might bring back women who have been out of the game for several years.  With the WCHA having won the first ten women’s Frozen Four tournaments (Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, Wisconsin), there is a vast wealth of knowledge and experience among many of these championship players that has yet to be tapped into. Former USA players like Natalie Darwitz and Jinelle Zaugg have turned their attention to coaching, and would be ideal candidates for a new league.

Although the United States can be penciled into the gold medal game in ice hockey for the 2014 Winter Games, Finland and Sweden continue to improve. Such improvement has to be taken seriously considering Sweden beat Canada at the 2011 Twelve Nations Cup, and Finland grabbed the gold at the 2012 Meco Cup. USA Hockey has to make sure that it does not create a league once it has fallen behind other countries, because it would be too much of a burden to bear for many players. The need is to be forward thinking and try to maintain the standard that the rest of the world will be measured to.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The CWHL needs the Minnesota Whitecaps

In a league that needs to grow and develop, the exclusion of the Minnesota Whitecaps, the most successful women’s club team in modern United States hockey history, augments much discussion. The use of reasons such as budgetary restraints (including travel costs) or scheduling conflicts are not substantial enough.

Competition creates a better product, and Minnesota would help to improve the overall quality and marketability of the CWHL. The Whitecaps feature Winter Games gold medallist Jenny Potter and Minnesota high school legend Winny Brodt. The state has so much talent, that it could easily stock a second team.

Decades ago, there were rival leagues in professional basketball, football and hockey, and not all teams were absorbed into more lucrative, high profile leagues. Many of these exclusions were deemed as personal or part of a hidden agenda.

If there is any possible resentment attributed to the Whitecaps 2010 Clarkson Cup victory, such animosity needs to be left in the past. The CWHL, as a player run league, should have an open vote among the players to decide if the club should be allowed membership. For a league that hopes to one day be a self-sufficient, profitable business, the most important element is what is good for business. With the CWHL hoping for the NHL as a sponsor, the Minnesota Wild have been a key factor in women’s hockey in Minnesota, and would probably be a champion in helping the Whitecaps grow with the league.

The CWHL Draft would be much more viable for American born players with the inclusion of Minnesota. As the draft employs a clause in which players can select which region they will be drafted into, Minnesota would help the league give players the opportunity to play in their home state after their NCAA careers come to a close. In the history of the CWHL Draft, the Boston Blades have drafted many players from the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin (notably Erika Lawler and Jessie Vetter).

With all the personal sacrifice involved in the life of a CWHL player, to have to play halfway across the country (the way Wisconsin residents Erika Lawler [playing for Boston], and Molly Engstrom [playing for the Brampton Thunder]), it is a sacrifice that the league cannot afford to address. Many top level players from the United States come from Minnesota and Wisconsin, and without the Whitecaps, it is inevitable that many worthwhile players will give up their careers.

The added benefit for Minnesota is the opportunity it presents itself for rivalries. Manitoba is quickly becoming a prominent area in Canada for developing elite hockey talent (including NCAA talent Christine Bestland, Bailey and Shelby Bram, Meghan Dufault, Kayleigh Chipman), these players will eventually find their way towards the Maple Leafs. The trend has already begun with Ste. Anne native Jocelyne Larocque joining the squad after her NCAA career.
Geographically, Minnesota and Manitoba have the potential to develop a superlative rivalry. One of the key cornerstones in any sports league are its rivalries (Montreal vs. Toronto, New York vs. Boston, Chicago vs. Green Bay). Quite possibly, a strong rivalry between the two would stimulate interest in Wisconsin (another US hockey hotbed) to form a franchise.

The invovelment of Minnesota brings adage to the credo, Strength in Numbers. In addition, the management of Minnesota might help bring a fresh perspective to the league’s woes. If the CWHL claims it is where the elite play, it is time to bring substance to those words, and open the door to the elite of Minnesota.