Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Merger between CWHL and WWHL may help make women’s hockey more viable

As women’s hockey struggles to be part of the larger sporting conversation, two rival leagues could benefit from working together. Currently, the Western Women’s Hockey League is on life support. Having shrunk to a two-team league (featuring the Manitoba Maple Leafs and the Minnesota Whitecaps), there is no indication that the WWHL has an opportunity to survive.

While the Whitecaps are a talent-heavy squad (featuring the likes of Olympian Jenny Potter and Minnesota Ms. Hockey Award winner Winny Brodt-Brown) that could survive as an independent (the squad has played many exhibition games in its history), the sad reality is that the WWHL is wasted talent. If the growing Canadian Women’s Hockey League were to absorb the league, there could be so much potential.

The not-for-profit Canadian Women’s Hockey League has benefited from an increase in corporate sponsors (such as Bauer and Kraft Canada), which indicates the league has a chance to not only survive, but grow. As there continues to be more talent in women’s hockey (which is evident at the collegiate level in the NCAA and in Canadian Interuniversity Sport), eventually the league will need to expand to accommodate the talent. With Minnesota and Manitoba already established, there is no headache of having to find people to run the franchise, hire coaches or hold an expansion draft.

In addition, the CWHL has been fortunate enough to have earned the sponsorship of two NHL franchises. Based on this momentum, if Manitoba were in the fold, it would be a strong selling point to attract the Winnipeg Jets. Of note, the Minnesota Wild has also been a supporter of women’s hockey (such as their involvement with Minnesota’s Ms. Hockey Award). Therefore, the Wild sponsoring the Whitecaps would seem like an ideal fit.

The reality of absorbing the WWHL is that it may help boost the morale of the CWHL’s struggling Team Alberta franchise. Although Alberta’s leadership structure features several remarkable individuals that can boast of affiliations with Hockey Canada (such as General Manager Chantal Champagne and head coach Tim Bothwell), it has struggled miserably in the wins department, finishing with the worst record in the league two straight seasons.

In the current configuration of the CWHL, Team Alberta sticks out like a sore thumb. With four teams in the East (Toronto, Brampton, Montreal, Boston), there is no rival whatsoever for Alberta. The absorption of the WWHL would certainly provide Alberta with two sorely needed rivals.

A Western Division could be formed with Alberta, Manitoba and Minnesota (and there is enough talent in Wisconsin to create a fourth team). In an effort to control travel costs, there could be no inter-divisional play (except in the Clarkson Cup postseason as all contests are in the same location).

This might be a blessing for Alberta as they won only one road game (and two home games) during the 2012-13 season. The thought of having to fly across Canada to be continuously beaten will only lead to a frustrated team with continuous turnover.

One of the motivating factors in starting the CWHL in 2007 was giving players an opportunity to play after university. With due deference to the league, it is convenient for a player that lives in an area where a CWHL franchise exists.  Considering the level of talent from Minnesota that competes in the NCAA, a CWHL team in the state would extend (rather than extinguish) many talented careers.

The 2013 CWHL Draft was somewhat frustrating as many eligible players from the Midwestern United States did not register. Stars such as Noora Raty, Megan Bozek, the Lamoureux sisters (Jocelyne and Monique) and Brianna Decker did not register. To be fair, those players are preparing for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games but they would have been great insurance picks for clubs willing to wait an extra season.

The absorption of Manitoba and Minnesota would help create a foundation in the West for players who are not willing to relocate to the East to play for one of the CWHL franchises there. While the 2012 CWHL Draft provided the league with a new generation of stars, the priority should be to ensure that these stars are part of a league that is truly coast to coast. 

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