While the weekend of March 12-13 was defined by a historic time that saw two women’s hockey championships contested in the same weekend, the inaugural Isobel Cup and the eighth annual Clarkson Cup, it may also be defined as a turning point in the game’s professional history in North America. In the aftermath of the weekend, an image showed up on social media with a map displaying where the NWHL currently has teams. Although this image was not sent by the NWHL, there was something unique in the fact that two Canadian flags in geographic proximity to hockey hotbeds Toronto and Montreal were also part of said image.
Although it is just speculation, the idea that those flags may foreshadow expansion into Canada is one of tremendous excitement. While there is no question that such an image on social media was highly strategic, it has made a powerful statement as media outlets have speculated on the future. It is one that captivated the interest of those with authority in the Canadian league.
The gist of their statement was one where the goal is one league. Well the reality is that one league would enhance marketing strategies and pool resources, possibly bringing about a living wage much sooner, but such a league does not need to exist via merger. Considering that one league is socialist in its approach, while the other is capitalist, wisely building its brand and establishing strong relationships with media, it is very possible that one league may simply eradicate the other.
Considering that the Canadian league has existed for nine years, it had ample opportunities to expand and create a brand that could have been the basis for an empire. Instead, there are some who look at it with a sad history of conceited individuals whose delusional grandeurs of glory tarnished the league’s image by burning bridges, fostering a country club mentality and displaying an independent arrogance. Having been founded as a player-run league, practice and theory are quite different as one could argue that a small group of gatekeepers are not looking at the bigger picture and stroking egos by making claims as the greatest run league in the world.
Despite their ability to gain support from big league hockey, one could argue that the Canadian league has not lived up to expectation. Said support does not even add up to the minimum salary of a big league player, hardly the basis to build a league upon. Taking into account that the IIHF does not recognize the Canadian league as a true professional league, it is another aspect that takes away from its supposed prestige. While several Canadian national team players have shown their support by remaining north of the border this season, their loyalty shall truly be tested should there is true expansion this autumn.
Even if such players remain loyal to the Canadian brand, the league should not be fooled as these players occupy nothing more than a dinosaur mentality. When the first women’s ice hockey tournament in the Winter Games was organized in 1998, the Canadian roster was composed of players who had competed at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport level. By 2006, the vast majority has been players with experience in the NCAA.
History is repeating itself again. Just as a generation of elite Canadian talent became part of a new movement where their first goal in post-secondary hockey was the NCAA, there will be a new generation of Canadian talent willing listen to the overtures of the NWHL before making any decision, even if the Canadian league engages in compensation.
The lesson learned from that experience was that Hockey Canada did not interfere in this generational change, respecting the wishes of its elite players to compete south of the border at the NCAA level. The harsh reality is that this will also be the case if expansion teams emerge in Toronto and Montreal. Hockey Canada’s only priority is to recruit the greatest talent available in order to win gold medals, not engage in petty disputes. Should that talent come from a league other than the existing Canadian league, then so be it.
One could argue that the establishment of an American league was truly an “I told you so” moment in modern women’s hockey history. Even if one could make a valid argument that the Canadian league was too cautious concerning their own expansion ambitions, the reality is that an American league would have eventually started up, even if the Canadian league had multiple teams in the United States.
Over the last few seasons, players such as Hilary Knight and Meghan Duggan have become household names and role models, only increasing the awareness of women’s ice hockey in the United States. As a new generation features Alex Carpenter and Kendall Coyne, they bring the potential to carve similar legacies. Should the United States capture the gold medal at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, there is no question that it will only lead to an increased interest in the game, which would have not included plans to be part of a Canadian league.
With due deference to the Canadian league, it may weather the storm and survive, but it needs to acknowledge the fact that it may exist in the same way that the CFL exists in comparison to the NFL. While the Clarkson Cup is an important part of sporting Canadiana, one that deserves to be contested in Canada, it may find itself evolving into the Grey Cup rather than the Stanley Cup, while the Isobel Cup could become the prime challenge cup in professional women’s hockey.