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.

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