Tuesday, 20 March 2012

One win, many reasons

In the aftermath of the 2011 CWHL Draft, Burlington Barracudas draft pick Melissa Boufounos was the subject of a four part feature in the Epoch Times named “Chasing the Women’s Pro Hockey Dream”. After the disastrous season that the Barracudas endured, her not being selected for the final roster should be called “Avoiding the Nightmare”. In their first 27 games of CWHL regular season play, the Barracudas managed only one win. Before the season even started, the Barracudas had three strikes against them, which would set the tone the season would undertake.
Considering that Boufounos generated more publicity than other players on the Barracudas combined, not including her on the team was a tactical error. With the publicity that she generated for the team through the Epoch Times, there is no question that the paper would have continued to write about her during the season. She had the potential to be an ambassador for the league and a media darling. With so many other major newspapers in the Greater Toronto Area, it is distinctly possible that one of the bigger dailies would have picked up on her story. As someone with a media background, she would have been an ideal asset to help promote the league in a public relations capacity. Based on the Barracudas dismal performance this season, Boufounos would not have made any lesser contribution.
The retirement of Barracudas captain (and four time Winter Games medalist) Becky Kellar was another setback for the beleaguered team. After all her years of service (and sacrifices with the Canadian National Team), she proved to be an impossible person to replace. Her presence was clearly missed, and she definitely needs to serve in some capacity with the franchise in the upcoming season. Another Winter Games medalist that would be invaluable to the Barracudas would be former Waterloo Warriors head coach Geraldine Heaney. As a former Brampton Thunder player, she would be well suited to serve in a mentoring and consulting role with the team.
Despite these two strikes against the team, none had more impact than the 2011 CWHL Draft. If the Barracudas cease to exist in the near future, all reasons will point to this draft. From the outset, the Barracudas (who finished with the worst record in the 2010-11 campaign) did not have the first choice overall. Mercyhurst graduate (and Winter Games medalist) Meghan Agosta, the greatest women’s ice hockey player of her generation was eligible for the draft. Due to a clause that allows draft eligible players to play for a specific region (based on residence), Agosta was drafted by the defending Clarkson Cup champion Montreal Stars. Despite being a lifelong native of Ontario, Agosta married a resident from Montreal and relocated. The acquisition of Agosta for the Stars was similar to the Miami Heat (of the National Basketball Association) signing LeBron James, the greatest basketball player of his generation. Teamed with All-World players such as Caroline Ouellette and Julie Chu, the three Montreal Stars players are reminiscent of the Miami Heat’s Big Three (LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh).
That much star power on one team has the potential to cause an imbalance in the CWHL for years to come. From 1976 to 79, Professional Women’s Softball in the United States was victimized by a similar situation. Despite a lot of investment, and teams in many major US markets, the league was crippled by the dominance of 1 team. With softball legend Joan Joyce leading the Connecticut Falcons, they dominated the league with 4 regular season and postseason titles. Other teams were discouraged to play them and the league faltered. The key to the CWHL thriving (and to the success of Burlington) is to ensure parity is in play, or else the league will be forced to restructure as it did in 2010.
In addition to not being able to draft Agosta, there was another setback endured by the Barracudas on draft day. With the fourth pick overall, the opportunity presented itself to draft another Mercyhurst graduate (and 2010 Patti Kazmaier Award winner), Vicki Bendus. The pick (along with former Niagara Purple Eagles superstar Ashley Riggs) was packaged in a trade to the Brampton Thunder for Delaney Collins and Mandy Cole. Although it was a high price to pay, the acquisition of former Canadian national team member Collins had potential for various opportunities. She could play with Kellar on defense, or replace Kellar in case of retirement, while assuming a strong leadership role. In a cruel twist of fate, Collins never played with the franchise as she accepted a coaching position with the Mercyhurst Lakers. Had the club drafted Bendus, she could have been on the top line with Ashley Riggs and Sommer West and help the club win at least four to six more games. Bendus would have been a key building block in bringing them back to respectability but no one could have known that the trade would have gone in such an inopportune direction.
Although the Barracudas acquired 2011 Laura Hurd Award winner Sarah Dagg, and they have a proven winner in Joanne Eustace, along with Shannon Moulson (brother of New York Islanders player Matt Moulson), the challenge facing Burlington is acquiring the star power that can complement (and improve) the existing players on the roster. Despite recruiting Swedish star Danijela Rundqvist in 2010, she only stayed one season with the club. In 2011, the club managed to recruit Finnish player Anniina Rajahuta, but the one win disaster may result in another one and done situation. European players will be a key component to the growth (and competitiveness) in the CWHL. For a franchise like Burlington, they serve as an ideal short term solution for a rebuilding franchise. Going forward, recruiting Europeans will be a problem unless Burlington has some serious star power on its roster. No player, male or female, wants to play on a losing team, and the sacrifices involved with playing in the CWHL do not make losing teams desirable destinations.
After the 2012 Clarkson Cup celebrations are over, it must be the top priority of the CWHL to ensure that Burlington is given the proper tools to rebuild and ensure that parity is the path followed. In observing what other leagues have done in the past, sometimes a struggling franchise needs that extra push. In the early to mid 1980’s, the Cleveland Cavaliers of the NBA were maligned by financial struggles and executive decisions, which required the involvement of the league. It was decided to help resuscitate the franchise by allowing them some extra draft picks. By the end of the decade, Cleveland was a playoff franchise. The 1995 National Football League draft saw the league provide more draft picks to expansion franchises Carolina and Jacksonville. By the following season, both teams were within one game of playing each other in the Super Bowl.
With many elite players eligible for the 2012 CWHL Draft, the Barracudas must be given not only the first pick overall, but the second pick as well. The second pick is a form of moral compensation for the Bendus trade, and a statement from the league that it is serious to ensure that the Barracudas do not suffer through a one win scenario again. Ohio State graduate Natalie Spooner, and Boston University graduate Jennifer Wakefield (both have competed for the Canadian national team, and are Ontario residents) would bring instant credibility to a franchise that desperately needs it. In addition, it would give the Barracudas an opportunity to redeem itself from the outcome of the 2011 draft. Spooner and Wakefield would be the cornerstone upon which the franchise could be rebuilt and find itself on the path to success never experienced in seasons past.
In the next round, the club could draft Providence graduate, goaltender Genevieve Lacasse. Just like Spooner and Wakefield, Lacasse has competed for the Canadian National Team and is an Ontario resident. Although current goaltender (and Harvard grad) Christina Kessler has been the face of the Burlington franchise this season (and featured in Sportsnet Magazine), sharing the goaltending duties with Lacasse, would anchor the Burlington net for the next decade to come.
A roster that would feature three titanic superstars such as Spooner, Wakefield, and Lacasse could bring a beleaguered franchise ahead by a quantum leap. It would make the task of recruiting Europeans a lot easier, while alleviating pressure from other players on the team. The strength of the league can be measured by its weakest link in the chain, and going forward, what helps Burlington will help the rest of the league.

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