Wednesday, 30 May 2012

College Hockey America: Two steps forward, one step back

While it is exciting to see College Hockey America (the smallest conference in NCAA Division I) add three teams to its conference, the loss of two of its programs in less than one year is a cause for concern.
The first loss came in the summer of 2011 as Wayne State University announced that it was discontinuing the Warriors women’s ice hockey program. March 2012 set the stage for the second loss, as the Niagara Purple Eagles (an NCAA member for over a decade) announced it was also pulling the plug on its program.
While both programs claim financial reasons for the decision, how could one not speculate that the dominance of the Mercyhurst Lakers did not have a role in determining the outcome? There is no question that both programs competed in economically depressed areas (Wayne State in Detroit, Niagara near Buffalo). How frustrating must it be to compete in a division of five teams and have the same team win year after year? Such a situation makes it very difficult to recruit talent, and both schools do not have the name recognition of other schools in their state, which puts them at a disadvantage.
The irony of this decision is that Mercyhurst showed vulnerability with its loss to the Robert Morris Colonials in the 2012 CHA championship game. Now that Mercyhurst has lost all of its superstars (Meghan Agosta, Vicki Bendus, Bailey Bram, Hillary Pattenden, Kelley Steadman, Jesse Scanzano,) to graduation, the program is finally beatable.
Wayne State had a very competent coach in Jim Fetter that maintained a very respectable program. Some of his stars included Alyssa Boldin (the last captain in Wayne State history), goaltender Delayne Bryan, Veronique Laramee-Paquette (now with Concordia of CIS), Jill Szandzik (who transferred to Mercyhurst), Melissa Boal, Ashley King, Sam Poyton, Gina Buquet and Lindsay DiPietro. Their greatest moment of glory came in the 2007-08 campaign, when they claimed a share of the CHA regular season title. In addition, the Warriors could boast the top four scorers in the NCAA in points per game. Melissa Boal became a top-10 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award, while Lindsay DiPietro led the NCAA with 48 assists. In addition, Wayne State found themselves ranked 10th overall in the national polls.
In 2002, the Niagara Purple Eagles earned their only trip to the NCAA Frozen Four. Coached by former Canadian national team member Margot Page, the program experienced an unsurpassed level of glory. A few years later, CWHL star Ashley Riggs developed her scoring touch with the Purple Eagles, while rewriting the record books. In Niagara’s final season, Jenna Hendrikx, along with Kaleigh Chippy, restored some of the competitive fire that had been lacking in previous campaigns. Goaltender Abby Ryplanski was a strong reason that there was optimism for the program’s future. Now, she will hone her craft with the Bemidji State Beavers in the WCHA.
With the loss of the Niagara Purple Eagles, the potential for a great rivalry with newly arrived Rochester Institute of Technology will never reach fruition. The Tigers rivalry with the Norwich Cadets at the NCAA Division III level was legendary, and admitting Norwich to the CHA would be a way to renew the rivalry. For now, Syracuse will build a strong rivalry with RIT that should help both programs to thrive. Niagara would have added another element of excitement. An element that becomes possible for the three CHA teams emanating from the state of Pennsylvania. Mercyhurst, Robert Morris and Penn State now have the foundation in place to create one of the best rivalries in NCAA hockey. With the Beanpot in Massachussetts and the Nutmeg Classic in Connecticut, it is only a question of time before Pennsylvania has its own tournament to showcase their state’s CHA clubs. Robert Morris has recently benefitted from superb recruiting, Mercyhurst is very well coached, and Penn State enters the CHA representing a university that has always had a strong tradition of competitive sports clubs.
For teams like Lindenwood and RIT that experienced glory at the Division III level, the loss of Niagara and Wayne State should be seen as a harbinger. Smaller schools are susceptible to unforeseen circumstances, and glory at the Division III level may not always be so simple to obtain at the Division I level. As an independent during the 2011-12 campaign, Lindenwood played their first Division I game against the defending Frozen Four champion Wisconsin Badgers. The Lady Lions lost both games by margins of over 10 goals, a welcome to Division I moment. Lindenwood and RIT are like expansion teams, and they have to truly rebuild their programs to be more competitive at such a higher level of competition.
Although Niagara and Wayne State never produced a Patty Kazmaier Award winner, or never won the NCAA Frozen Four, both programs served as part of the backbone of College Hockey America for nearly a decade. Their dissolving truly ends the first chapter of CHA hockey history. While the Lindenwood Lady Lions, Penn State Nittany Lions, and Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers constitute the next chapter in CHA women’s ice hockey, one can only hope that they will remember the path that was laid for them, so that they could gain entry into the league.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Open letter to Jim Balsillie:invest in women's ice hockey

To Mr. Balsillie,
Stop wasting your time trying to buy a National Hockey League franchise. Even if Gary Bettman gets run over by a bus, and a new commissioner would welcome you with open arms, you would still be unhappy. You would have to learn to get along with 29 other owners, and try to compromise and appease to others agendas.
Why not do like the moguls of Boston Pizza did and start your own hockey league? In the 1990’s, Jim Treliving and George Melville founded the Central Hockey League in Texas, and today, the state has more professional hockey teams than any other area in North America. Borrow a page from them, and create a league where you can do things your way, and not have to be diplomatic and acquiesce to what others believe will benefit their own interests.
There would be just one small caveat – you would invest in a women’s hockey league. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League has some of the finest players in the world playing for them at NO SALARY?!?! In your own league, you could pay your players $1000 a season and they would be happy. Hockey games could be broadcast on the Blackberry and you would be able to have sponsors. The Blackberry could be used to broadcast a league draft, have a weekly hot stove, and serve as a strong foundation towards a women’s ice hockey empire.
While you probably have the charisma and marketing genius of a Jack Kent Cooke (one of the legendary team owners in professional sports), men’s sports does not need another billionaire owner. If you were to invest in professional women’s hockey, you would be seen as one of the pioneers or builders of that sport. Your contributions to women’s hockey would probably give you a better chance to get inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder of the sport.
You need to go where there is a challenge. Building a women’s hockey league might have the potential for failure like the ABL (American Basketball League) and the XFL (Xtreme Football League), but if it takes off, you will have a very valuable asset on your hands. If the CWHL can build an entire league on a shoestring budget, and survive, you could create a league that would do more than survive, it would thrive.
The cost of starting a women’s league (with four to six teams) would be significantly cheaper than buying a National Hockey League franchise. With the money you save, you could invest in marketing and promoting the league. Look at what happened to the American Football League. The Buffalo Bills were founded in 1960 for $40,000, and today, they are worth over $500,000,000. If you start a league and it fails, it is just a tax write-off. Should the league start and succeed, an initial investment of several thousand could be worth millions.
In reality, the building blocks are already in place to build a league. The Minnesota Whitecaps and the Manitoba Maple Leafs are looking for a home since the Western Women’s Hockey League folded. The Edmonton Chimos (the first true dynasty in post World War II Western Canadian women’s hockey), Ottawa Lady Senators and Vaughan Flames are all defunct teams that could use new life. Add another team in a United States hockey hotbed like Wisconsin, and you are in business.
While the media might have a laugh or two at your expense, rest assured that the players would be very grateful. Too many of the women in hockey have played in front of empty seats, and struggled for years in conditions that seemed more like a beer league, and less like a professional league. Many of them paid their dues at the university level, therefore, a chance for these articulated, well educated athletes to play at a professional level in which they would receive some type of compensation would make them very happy. In addition, you could offer profit sharing to the players, and that would be a tremendous motivational factor. The great irony is that your league could be so successful, the NHL might make you an offer to buy it.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Montreal would benefit from a second CWHL franchise

Although the biggest objective for the CWHL is to be financially sound, a new problem is slowly emanating. Montreal and its surrounding areas have developed a large number of talented players that cannot be accommodated on one single team.
Similar to the Montreal Canadiens in the days of the Original 6, the Montreal Stars have so much talent in their area to choose from, that not everyone will earn the opportunity to compete with them. Tragically, many talented male hockey players in Quebec between the end of the World War II and the NHL expansion of 1967 did not get the opportunity to compete in the NHL due to the issue of territorial rights (players not being allowed to compete for teams outside of their territory).
History cannot repeat itself again. As CWHL players are not compensated, territorial rights are a privilege for many players, as they get to select the area in which they choose to play. This should not mean that some players in those areas are not given an opportunity to play due to a lack of available positions. The Greater Toronto Area has always had multiple CWHL teams. For over 20 years, Ontario and Quebec have constituted the majority of the national team roster, and with the NCAA producing talent, either the league will need to expand to accommodate the growing talent, or implement a developmental league as a stop gap measure.
While the debate of being good enough to make the Stars is one that could easily be brought up, the reality is that the Montreal area has enough talent to stock two teams. In the former National Women’s Hockey League, there were teams in other areas of Quebec (Ste. Julie, Laval, Quebec City). Compared to the NWHL, the game has grown, and many womens players have become household names.
Nancy Drolet was very effective in her role as a player and manager when she competed in competitive women's hockey in Quebec. The work that France St. Louis and Danielle Sauvageau have done in managing the Montreal Carabins has been nothing short of superlative. Any of these three Quebec hockey legends as consultants would ensure that a second team in the Montreal area would be able to succeed.
The Stars had four goaltenders on its roster during the 2011-12 campaign. If Kim St. Pierre decides to come back from maternity leave, and if Charline Labonte enters the CWHL Draft, a very difficult decision needs to be made regarding Jenny Lavigne. Her performance in the 2012 Clarkson Cup has proven that she is a prime time player and someone worthy of a starting role in the league. After the season that she had, can she truly return to a backup role, let alone the possibility of third string? If there was a second team in Montreal, she could be traded, and given an opportunity to fulfill a deserving starting role. If she is placed in a third string situation behind St. Pierre and Labonte, her only opportunity to play full time again would come in the 2013-14 season, when Labonte and St. Pierre would take a leave of absence to attend training camp for the 2014 Canadian Winter Games squad.
This is a situation that the league must monitor very carefully. With the talent that is continuing to be developed in Montreal, if the Stars remain the only team in Montreal, they could have a roster that is impossible to make. This could discourage many women from pursuing a playing career past university, let alone registering for the CWHL Draft. It would be a huge setback for the CWHL if the Stars had such a reputation.
The league could easily take a defunct team like the Burlington Barracudas (that managed only one win during the 2011-12 CWHL season) and relocate them to Montreal. A franchise relocation would be essential in the long term as teams need to be where the talent is high.
In the 2012 CIS National Women’s Tournament, the Montreal Carabins and McGill Martlets placed second and third, respectively. The Carabins head coach was a former coach with the Montreal Stars, and many of her players are primed for an opportunity to compete at the CWHL level.Considering that the McGill Martlets just had one of their greatest graduating classes (including All-World goaltender Charline Labonte, Jordana Peroff, CIS MVP Ann-Sophie Bettez, and Team Canada alumni Cathy Chartrand), all of these players could easily make the Stars lineup.
Once Melodie Daoust graduates from McGill, and current NCAA players (and Montreal residents) Marie-Philip Poulin (Boston Univeristy) and Lauriane Rougeau (Cornell) graduate as well, Montreal will have an embarrassment of riches in terms of talent. It will lead to a huge competitive imbalance in the league. Although some Stars players may have retired by then, the level of talent would indicate that many prospects will have to wait until a more established player retires to have a chance at making their roster. Therefore, a second team in Montreal would help ensure that the league is able to accommodate other talented players from Quebec, while establishing a more level playing field throughout the league.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

2012 CWHL Draft Preview

Alberta Honeybadgers
Profile: 5th place in 2011-12, Meaghan Mikkelson most notable player on the team, Jenna Cunningham led team with 10 goals

Needs: The club needs another sniper to complement Cunningham. If Bailey Bram is available, she would be the right fit. Team needs to address special teams (lack of goals scored on both power play and penalty kill). National team member Jocelyne Larocque would bring strong leadership to defense. Kendice Ogilvie from Cornell would help bring a winning attitude to the team, and contribute as a defensive forward.

Andrea Boras, captain of the Alberta Pandas in CIS, has won gold with the Canadian National Team at the Winter Universiade in 2009 and 2011. A 2010 CIS National Champion, and Canada West First Team All-Star, Boras is another talent that could help bolster Alberta's blueline. A significant upgrade in goaltending would give the team more opportunities to win. Hillary Pattenden, the all-time winningest goaltender in NCAA history could fit the bill perfectly.

Long Term Outlook: Club will continue to endure expansion woes. Hope is on the way with the Calgary Dinos of the CIS recruiting elite prospects that should develop into CWHL worthy players.

Boston Blades
Profile: Qualified for Clarkson Cup playoffs, top scorers included Erika Lawler, Kelli Stack and Gigi Marvin, Angela Ruggiero retired after the 2010-11 season

Needs: The club needs more scoring depth. As Lawler, Stack and Marvin go, so does the team. Hilary Knight, a member of the NCAA 200 point club, would bolster a second line and add another dimension to the Blades offense. Drafting defenders such as Anne Schleper and Jen Schoullis would ease the pain of losing Ruggiero. Kelley Steadman is a versatile player that could handle both offense and defense.

Long Term Outlook: If the Blades draft Florence Schelling, the goaltending situation for the club will be established for the next decade. Molly Schaus and Schelling would anchor the club and give it an opportunity to compete for the Clarkson Cup every season.

Brampton HC
Profile: Clarkson Cup runner-up, trading for the rights to Vicki Bendus in 2011 was a shrewd move, Liz Knox won 13 games as a rookie

Needs: Club should use the opportunity to focus on defense, so rookie defenders can benefit from Molly Engstrom’s knowledge. Prospects such as Kasey Boucher, Brittany Haverstock (who played at Engstrom’s alma mater Wisconsin), and Tara Watchorn would work well with Engstrom.

With Lori Dupuis and Jayna Hefford in their mid-30’s, another young sniper or two would ensure team has a competitive future. Haley Irwin (another member of the NCAA 200 point club) would be a superlative choice. Laura MacIntosh, the all-time leading scorer in Ohio State history, could emerge as the steal of the draft.

Long Term Outlook: Should Natalie Spooner or Jenn Wakefield become available, a player of such high caliber would give Brampton a better opportunity of winning the Clarkson Cup. Liz Knox is quickly establishing herself as an elite goaltender in the CWHL, and brings a strong presence to the team. Selecting Providence goaltender Genevieve Lacasse would be a great insurance policy should Knox fall to injury.

Montreal Stars
Profile: Third Clarkson Cup in four seasons, Rookie Meghan Agosta broke the league record for most points in one season, Jenny Lavigne had career year as goaltender

Needs: The Stars biggest challenge is to provide all their elite players with enough ice time. With Charline Labonte available, and Kim St. Pierre possibly returning from maternity leave, team needs to make hard decisions regarding their goaltending. With the upcoming Sochi Winter Games possibly depleting the Stars roster, Marieve Provost (the all time CIS scoring queen) would adequately serve in a high scoring role.

Long Term Outlook: The 2012 McGill Martlets (from Montreal) produced their finest graduating class ever. Labonte, Ann-Sophie Bettez, Jordana Peroff, and Cathy Chartrand are CWHL ready. With the prospect of Lauriane Rougeau and Marie-Philip Poulin graduating from their NCAA teams within two years, the Stars are poised to be the team of the decade.

Toronto Furies
Profile: Qualified for Clarkson Cup playoffs, Jennifer Botterill retired after 2010-11 season, Kori Cheverie led team with 14 goals, Mallory Deluce was the Furies leading scorer

Needs: In order to compete with the cross-town Thunder, the Furies will require more depth on offense. The Furies need a first line in which each skater averages at least one point per game. Rebecca Johnston and Catherine White, (both from Cornell) would be ideal choices, and complement each other’s skills. Botterill was a huge loss to the Furies and was never adequately replaced. Spooner could fill that role perfectly, while Wakefield would ease the scoring woes of the club by adding depth to the second line.

Another area that needs to be looked into is goaltending. Amanda Mazzotta was an unselfish player and a key reason that the Cornell Big Red were so competitive. She would be an ideal player to eventually anchor the team’s goaltending needs.

Long Term Outlook: If Jesse Scanzano can regain the scoring touch she had with the Mercyhurst Lakers, Toronto will gain the opportunity to be more competitive. Suzanne Fenerty (from St. Francis Xavier) would work well as a defensive forward and shut down the high scoring Brampton skaters. Tessa Bonhomme is the face of the franchise and will anchor the defense for years to come.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

CWHL All-Star Game will help to extend the brand

As the quality of talent in the CWHL continues to improve, an All-Star Game would be an ideal way to showcase the game. With so many players sharpening their skills in the NCAA, there is no shortage of incoming talent. An All-Star Game would not only celebrate the talents of these outstanding athletes, but help extend the brand that is the CWHL.
In a league that must get more television exposure, an All-Star Game would surely generate some interest among the sporting television networks. The network TSN2 broadcasts the Clarkson Cup (which signifies the end of the CWHL season), so an All-Star Game would be an ideal way to start the CWHL season. If said game could be broadcast on national television, it would surely help to generate interest in the league. Considering many sports networks broadcast soccer matches from Europe, it is also important to focus on sporting Canadiana.
Every worthwhile event that occurs will only help to spread the name of the CWHL, while exposing fans to a product that may have been wrongly overlooked. The league could borrow from the early days of the National Hockey League, and utilize an All-Star format of defending champions versus a team of league all-stars.
Many hockey purists would argue that the NHL All-Star Game was at its highest quality during the format of league champion vs. a group of all-star players. Not only was it a litmus test to prove if the league champion was truly worthy of its championship status, but the games carried a competitive intensity.
With the Montreal Stars having won three of the first four Clarkson Cups, they are the first dynasty of the league. Montreal versus a team of CWHL All-Stars would be an epic confrontation that would bring back that intensity which is lacking in other all-star games. As CWHL players are not compensated by the millions, their careers are defined by winning, and nothing is more visceral than to lose.
The Stars dynasty is very reminiscent of the Edmonton Oilers glory days in the 1980’s, and they have enough talent to defeat the national teams of numerous countries. Consisting of a plethora of stars, hockey fans in Montreal have an embarrassment of riches in the world of women’s ice hockey and many do not even know it. Hosting the first All-Star game in Montreal (with the right promotion behind it) would help fans realize they have a very special team representing their city. Sports fans in Montreal take great pride in their championship teams, and such a game would help introduce many fans to the Stars.
With only six teams in the league, the game could be hosted in a different city every year. While hosting a fan convention (like the NHL does to promote their game), would not be feasible, an exhibition at a shopping mall might be practical. The league could have a meet and greet, and have a display similar to what some NHL teams do outside their arenas (opportunities to take shots with a plastic puck, highlights on a video screen, free merchandise, photo ops). If young fans (and others not familiar with the game) could meet legends like Gililan Apps, Jayna Hefford and Caroline Ouellette, it would turn them into fans for life.
Although the Clarkson Cup has been essential in helping the game grow and gain exposure, an All-Star Game would be another tool that helps promote the game. It would only rival the Winter Games as a display of some of the greatest female players in the world. As a celebration of the game, the opportunity to gain new fans and entice new sponsors would be tremendous motivational factors.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Order of Hockey in Canada: Which women are Next in Line? (Conclusion)

Of all the candidates discussed in the previous posting for the Order of Hockey in Canada, there are many other worthy candidates to consider. One such candidate belongs to a family with a strong athletic bloodline; Jennifer Botterill. Although a household name and an inspiration for generations of girls, Botterill was never a captain for any of the Winter Games teams. Despite being overlooked, she was a gifted, articulate athlete with a heart of gold. Although there seemed to be another player that would earn more attention, or scored a bigger goal, she was an unselfish player that always gave Canada an opportunity to win.
A four time Winter Games medallist, Botterill rewrote several record books in the NCAA, while competing for the Harvard Crimson (also leading the Crimson to the ACHA title, while becoming the first player to win the Patti Kazmaier Award twice). A member of the Toronto Furies in their inaugural season (2010-11), she worked hard to put the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the Clarkson Cup on the Canadian sporting landscape while earning no salary. Despite her surprising retirement from the Canadian National Team, she left a legacy very few players could match, and deserves to have her number retired by Hockey Canada.
With so many great players from the 1980’s and 1990’s emerging from Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, Stacy Wilson was Atlantic Canada’s answer to a women’s hockey superstar. A member of the Maritime Sports Blades, she would help the club earn a silver medal at the 1995 Canadian Women’s Hockey championships. The captain of the first women’s ice hockey team at the Winter Games (Nagano 1998), Wilson was stoic as Canada was awarded a heartbreaking silver medal. A member of the World Championship team in 1990, Wilson supplied Atlantic Canada a voice in women’s hockey and proved that other parts of Canada were producing elite hockey talent. In later years, she would serve as an assistant coach for the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs. Despite her accomplishments, her toughness in the face of diversity at the Nagano Games earned her a placed in the hearts of Canadian hockey fans.
A recipient of the Isobel Gathorne-Hardy Award (daughter of Lord Stanley), Andria Hunter made a groundbreaking contribution to women’s hockey. Although finding information online about women’s hockey is easier than it was a decade ago, Hunter’s website was the first to offer any in-depth detail on the game. In the late 1990’s (and early 2000’s), her site was the premier resource to find any pertinent information. Today, sites such as Wikipedia and Ice Hockey Wikia have used her site as a point of reference in verifying facts.
A former player herself, Hunter proudly donned the Maple Leaf while winning gold for Canada at the 1992 and 1994 IIHF Women’s World Championships, respectively. In addition, she found glory while competing for the University of New Hampshire Wildcats of the NCAA (of note, Samantha Holmes, who wrote letters to Hazel McCallion and Brian Mulroney, pushing for women’s hockey in the Winter Games, was one of her teammates). Hunter also played a couple of seasons professionally in Switzerland. Although Hunter competed in a time when the women’s game was still nascent in the minds of many Canadian fans, her contributions on and off the ice make her a true hero.
Fran Rider (a worthy candidate for the Hockey Hall of Fame) has devoted her life to help the game grow, amid little fanfare and media coverage. Future generations of Canadian women’s ice hockey players owe her a debt of gratitude for all the contributions she has made to the game. While powerhouse figures like Alan Eagleson and John Ziegler (as well known as the players themselves) ruled the men’s game in the 1970’s and 80’s, Rider spent those countless years bringing order out of chaos. She worked to bring structre and direction to the women’s game, a game that had faded for decades in the wake of the Great Depression.
The president of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association from 1982 to 1993, Rider was instrumental in ensuring that women had a reason to play, and more importantly, a reason to be proud to play. During those years, Rider faced issues such as credibility, ice time, money, and the right to participate. Although she has been involved with every IIHF Women’s Championship and Clarkson Cup staged in Ontario, her legacy was forged before those events. A figure in bringing about the 1982 Canadian National Championship (in which the winning team was awarded the Abby Hoffman Cup), and the 1987 Women’s World Championships in North York, Ontario (not sanctioned by the IIHF), she was instrumental in paving the way for women’s hockey in the Winter Games.