In the aftermath of a historic Clarkson Cup that resulted in the Calgary Inferno becoming the first team based in Western Canada to triumph in the finals, such success may signal the need for the CWHL to add a second team in the West. Although past expansion talks involved US outposts such as Chicago and Minnesota, with a key focus to ensure that the Inferno have a rival, it may be best to look towards the future with Prairie Canada in mind.
With due deference, any CWHL expansion into the US would likely lead to some sort of dysfunction with its American counterparts, possibly becoming a battleground that does not benefit anyone in the game. In theory, it would be more practical if each league stayed in its respective country and worked towards strengthening the game on its side of the border.
Undoubtedly, Winnipeg would serve as an ideal location for a second CWHL team in Western Canada. Taking into account the city’s proud hockey legacy, which has included unwavering support for the Jets in both the WHA and both of its incarnations in the NHL, along with the IHL’s Manitoba Moose, and overwhelming support for Hockey Canada events, both male and female, the time is right for the city to extend said legacy and welcome professional women’s hockey into the fold.
While provinces like Alberta, Ontario and Quebec have dominated women’s hockey for decades, Manitoba has quickly risen towards prominence. Solid showings at the Canada Winter Games and at the Canadian Under-18 nationals, complemented by the excellent University of Manitoba Bisons program, speak volumes about the elite homegrown talent that could stock an expansion roster in Winnipeg.
Although Jennifer Botterill and Sami Jo Small (part of the CWHL’s Sensational Seven) are the two most famous women’s hockey players to have grown up in Manitoba, they are quickly being joined by many other promising stars. Of note, a trio of Manitobans were among the jubilant members of the Inferno to hoist the Clarkson Cup; Bailey Bram, Delayne Brian and Brigitte Lacquette. In addition, Jocelyne Larocque, who grew up in the same community as Bram, and played with her older sister for the WWHL’s Manitoba Maple Leafs, is currently the captain for the Brampton Thunder.
A pair of Manitoba-raised blueliners currently with North Dakota holds the potential to be future stars in the CWHL. Halli Krzyzaniak, also a member of Canada’s national team, and Meghan Dufault, could easily become the foundation for a defensive unit on an expansion team for Winnipeg. Along with Brooke Langlois, a stay-at-home blueliner who recently graduated from the University of Maine, and Jasmine Levesque, a former competitor with the Carleton Ravens in Canadian Interuniversity Sport play, each could be key contributors on the blueline.
Currently, any female player from Western Canada must look to the Calgary Inferno as their only option to extend their careers. The reality is that Calgary is also home to Hockey Canada and all its national teams. Therefore, many national team members have suited up for the Inferno, conveniently staying in close proximity to the national team headquarters, which is completely understandable.
Unfortunately, with only so many spots on the Inferno roster, many Western Canadian prospects may never realize their dream of pro hockey. Just like the days of the NHL’s Original Six, where so many prospects were the “could have”, “should have” and “would have” been types, there is an element of history repeating itself in the women’s game.
Placing a team in Winnipeg would not only extend several careers, it would also ensure a competitive balance. National team players or elite stars from Manitoba could opt to stay home rather than make the trek to Calgary (or Toronto) and uproot their lives. In so doing, it would ensure that no one team is stocked with too much talent from the national team.
Although the league has always been cautious about expansion, opting to do things properly, such a decision may quickly become an obligation. Should the Boston Blades endure another one-win season in 2016-17, it may be a harbinger indicating that the black and gold no longer have a place in the league, possibly forcing relocation.
For now, the league may consider having the Inferno play preseason games in Winnipeg, either against CIS teams or a CWHL opponent. Another option is to contemplate having the next CWHL All-Star Game at MTS Centre in Winnipeg, or possibly holding the 2018 Clarkson Cup there.
Inevitably, another team will need to be placed in Canada. As the number of registered players continues to grow, along with the quality of hockey in CIS play, the talent pool will eventually swell. Although Western expansion was not successful in the original NWHL, as teams in Alberta and British Columbia contracted, while scheduling struggles were compounded by travel costs, there is more stability in the game and better controls in place to not repeat the failures of the past.