Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Outdoor game may serve as next step in evolution of CWHL

While it is tragic that players in the CWHL are not compensated for their efforts, the concept of an outdoor game may seem like an unfair punishment. As the league continues to grow, and tries to write a chapter based on success and profitability, an outdoor game might be the catalyst towards reaching those goals.
As the 2012 CWHL Draft promises to bring the league its best ever crop of talent, the time is ripe to grow the game and bring it in unprecedented directions. As women’s sports get less than five per cent of airtime on major sports networks, an outdoor game could be the ideal way to get that much needed television exposure.
With two teams in the Greater Toronto Area, the Toronto Furies and Brampton Thunder could play each other at York University’s football stadium. As Dan Church, the Canadian National Women’s Team head coach, is also the head coach of the York Lions women’s program, perhaps an outdoor game with CIS teams could be held on the same day. A joint effort between the CWHL and CIS could only bear worthwhile fruit.
Another option between the CWHL and CIS would include another hockey hotbed of women’s ice hockey: Montreal. The defending Clarkson Cup champion Montreal Stars at McGill Stadium has potential. Possibly opposing the McGill Martlets (with future superstar Melodie Daoust) would generate publicity and raise money for charity. During the 2011-12 campaign, the Montreal Stars wore pink jerseys in a match against the Boston Blades. Said jerseys were sold for Breast Cancer research.
An outdoor charity match would showcase two of the finest women’s ice hockey teams in Canada. In addition, the opportunity for a joint promotion presents itself. The Armada of Boisbriand (suburban Montreal) was one of the top ranked teams in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. If the Armada were to play the Quebec Remparts or the defending Memorial Cup champion Shawinigan Cataractes, an outdoor doubleheader would guarantee television exposure while ensuring there are sponsorship dollars. With the Montreal Canadiens of the National Hockey League poised to rebuild, teams at the junior, university and women’s level must be creative in attracting hockey fans.
Among hockey purists, the concept of an outdoor game is still very much a topic of debate (is it a gimmick or a new tradition). After the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers match at the storied Fenway Park, high school and university teams have experimented with the concept. Events have been held every year since and many fans have come to call the event Frozen Fenway. It was the NCAA that provided women’s hockey fans with the first outdoor game for women. The Northeastern Huskies (with All-World goaltender Florence Schelling) participated in the first women’s outdoor game at Fenway Park.
Although the attendance was not as robust as the NHL version, Fenway has hosted several other university games featuring men’s teams and women’s teams. With the Boston Blades developing into one of the better franchises in the CWHL, a match at Fenway Park does not seem out of reach. As the community of Boston has embraced the concept, the Boston Blades versus the Boston College Eagles (with Alex Carpenter) or the Boston University Terriers (featuring Marie-Philip Poulin) would be a unique match that could have potential as an annual event. As various sports channels in New England have broadcast the Hockey East women’s championship, an outdoor event featuring such superlative women’s ice hockey talent would be an ideal showcase for New England hockey fans.
Whether the outdoor game is a fading gimmick or an evolution in hockey tradition, it must be explored by the CWHL for the simple reason that the league needs to extend its brand. Events that build the brand have the potential to become experiences that are value added. The CWHL Draft was the league’s first attempt to build its brand and create an annual event. With the talent available in the 2012 edition of the draft, the potential of the event to become an exciting experience for fans and players alike is easily a springboard to considering other options. An outdoor game carries risk (in terms of cost and injury) and may have a limited shelf life, but the hope that the experience which may emanate from such an event might be part of the foundation upon which the next chapter of the CWHL is written.

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