Tuesday, 17 April 2012

CWHL needs to reconsider Ottawa

With the 2013 Women’s World Championships coming to Ottawa, the nation’s capital is quickly becoming the hub of women’s ice hockey activity in Canada. That impact is being felt at various levels. The Ottawa Lady Senators of the Provincial Women’s Hockey League have developed many talents for the NCAA. Stefanie McKeough (from nearly Carlsbad Springs) participated in the championship game of the 2012 NCAA Frozen Four with the Wisconsin Badgers. Fannie Desforges (with the Ottawa Gee Gees) made a name for herself as a two sport star. Not only was she a Second Team QSSF All-Star selection (in hockey), but she claimed first place at the Red Bull Crashed Ice competition in Quebec City.

When the city of Ottawa hosted the NHL All-Star Game in February 2012, the festivities included Canadian gold medallist Meaghan Mikkelson Reid and Caroline Ouellette at the opening of the outdoor Rink of Dreams. Canadian legend Jennifer Botterill and USA national team member Jessie Vetter were part of an XM Satellite Radio and a fan meet and greet at the NHL All-Star Fan Fair. That same event included an autograph session with Battle of the Blades champion Tessa Bonhomme.

The training camp for Canada’s contingent at the 2012 Women’s World Championships in Burlington, Vermont was held at Ottawa’s Carleton University (a post secondary institution which is turning its own women’s ice hockey program around by employing former National Team coach Shelley Coolidge). Nearby Aylmer, Quebec hosted two matches in which the Canadian women’s team played boys teams from Quebec. A warm up match for said championships was held on March 31 at the Ottawa Civic Centre which featured appearances by former OWHA president Fran Rider, 1990 world champion member Sue Scherer and 2006 Torino Gold Medallist Katie Weatherston. 

Despite all the energy emanating from the capital region, one key component is missing: the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. The CWHL’s Ottawa Lady Senators (formerly known as Capital Canucks, Raiders) were contracted in the aftermath of the 2009-10 season (along with the Vaughan Flames). In its brief history, the team had Katie Weatherston on its roster, while former Ottawa Senators player Brad Marsh served as head coach. Although the team was victimized by lack of marketing, fan apathy, and financial hardship, the city of Ottawa deserves a second chance.
Re-entry into the CWHL would produce a better franchise on talent alone. Over the last few years, local talent such as McKeough, Jenna Ciotti, Brianna and Cobina Delaney, Isabel Menard, Erica Howe, and Morgan Richardson have all earned scholarships to the NCAA. These players (along with local CIS talent Desforges, Danika Smith, Claudia Bergeron) would form the nucleus of a young, talented team that would compete for the pinnacle of CWHL play, the Clarkson Cup.

A litmus test to gage the interest (or potential) of CWHL hockey in the capital region would be for the cities of Gatineau, Quebec and Ottawa, Ontario host the Clarkson Cup as a joint effort. Preliminary matches featuring the Montreal Stars could be contested in Gatineau to stimulate French-Canadian interest, while the Carleton Ice House or Minto Sports Complex could host other preliminary matches. The Bell Sensplex would be a modest but suitable location for the championship game.

With the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League moving to a new arena in 2014 (and talks of a new arena in Gatineau), an Ottawa team in the CWHL could play in a modernized facility and add a touch of class to the league. Jeff Hunt, the owner of the Ottawa 67’s, is part of an ownership group for an expansion franchise in the Canadian Football League, would be an ideal owner for a CWHL franchise. From the outset, there would be no problems with an arena, and a CWHL team could easily be cross promoted with the 67’s. The same holds true for the Gatineau Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Hunt could easily use a new arena to host a hockey doubleheader; the 67’s would play the first game, and fans could stay to watch the CWHL could take to the ice and play afterwards. Based on the 67’s attendance, if only half the fans would stay to watch the CWHL game, there would be an attendance of 3-4,000 fans.

Even if Hunt would not want to own the team, if he would give a CWHL team in Ottawa free use of his arena (or free use of its practice facilities or office space), it would be a great civic gesture and a great statement about the commitment to developing women’s sport in Ottawa. In addition, it would help add a big league feeling to a beleaguered league.

Another aspect that would need to be considered in reviving a franchise in Ottawa is the potential involvement of the Do It For Daron charity, based out of Ottawa. There are many junior girls teams that have the DIFD purple heart logo emblazoned on their jerseys. The Ottawa Senators Foundation has worked with DIFD, and the Sens have hosted an annual Mental Health Awareness night in tribute to the Richardson family. In addition, the Carleton Lady Ravens hosted a DIFD Night in February 2012 (in a match versus Concordia). A new franchise in Ottawa could also have the purple heart on their jerseys as a way of helping to increase awareness, and host a DIFD night. As the CWHL has hosted games for charitable functions (breast cancer, blindness), DIFD would be an ideal complement.

Ottawa hockey figures such as Eugene Melnyk, Brad Marsh, Luke Richardson, Katie Weatherston and Shelley Coolidge have worked tirelessly to grow and maintain women’s ice hockey in Canada’s capital region. Nothing would be worse than to see their contributions gone for naught. The time is right to believe in Ottawa and ensure that the momentum that emanates from the 2013 Women’s World Championships carries through to newfound glories.

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