Thursday, 29 December 2016

Could a merger really work between the NWHL and the CWHL?

Since the NWHL’s opening faceoff, there is an appearance of serious undercurrents about tensions and/or hatred taking place between them and the CWHL. While the Women’s Winter Classic should have been a brilliant showcase highlighting the talents between both leagues, significant media coverage leading up to the event only focused on the animosity between the existences of both leagues.

Unfortunately, that black cloud was an ominous harbinger of things to come. Not only did the contest end in a 1-1 tie, as relations between the league remained in stasis, a devastating injury to Denna Laing (who played in both leagues), cutting such a promising career short, is a tragic legacy of the event. Through no fault of her own, said injury also held symbolic connotations, as both leagues should have worked together in a collaborative victory, using their platforms to raise funds for medical expenses, along with increased awareness on injury prevention, but only one league exerted such measures while the other opted to remain somewhat neutral.

Sadly, a sophomore slump plagued the NWHL as reduced attendance and dwindling revenues forced a re-evaluation of their salary structure, bringing about very painful cuts. Undoubtedly, said cuts have brought out the cynics and the skeptics, eagerly predicting the ambitious league’s demise.

Taking into account that the players have displayed tremendous professionalism, taking to the ice and remaining loyal to the game and their gracious fans, it reinforces the notion that the players are the heartbeat of any league. Undoubtedly, one of the greatest aspects to the NWHL’s inaugural season was an emphasis on recognizing the world class efforts of the non-Olympic talent, subsequently extending their careers.

Such players (like Brittany Ott, Madison Packer, Kelley Steadman and Shelby Bram among others) not only got a chance to shine, proving that they could be ambassadors for the league, but fan favorites as well. Fittingly, many of these non-Olympic stars made their mark at the NWHL All-Star Game in Buffalo.

Even though the NWHL should stay the course and find ways to be more innovative going forward, the harsh reality is that the spectre of merging shall not go away anytime soon. If the NWHL is unable to regroup and folds, there is no question it will set the professional women’s game in the United States will be set back at least a decade, evaporating any momentum that may have been built, while extinguishing many promising careers.

For a surviving league to not pick up the remnants (it could probably do so with unpaid players), it would likely work against them. Not only does it open the door for another rival league to take place in the future, such a league could have more financial clout and a more ruthless approach, potentially haunting the cautious league into a regrettable oblivion.

Considering that the season (2017-18) to follow shall be an indicator of each league’s viability, with hockey superpowers Canada and the US both holding centralization in preparation for the Winter Games, it will be a challenge to see which league can recruit, and retain, the best talent available.

Traditionally, professionally sports cannot exist with the presence of rival leagues. Football saw the NFL absorb the entire AFL, while portions of the ABA and WHA were granted entry into the NBA and the NHL. These mergers were based on the existing (and escalating) fight for talent, while increasing salaries cripple cash flow and certain markets become battlegrounds, such as Boston has become with clubs in both professional women’s leagues. 

Considering that a significant aspect to the game’s future shall take place in the United States, the admirable efforts of the NWHL to establish strong markets, especially in New York State, along with bringing its second All-Star Game to Pittsburgh, not only comprise part of the league’s legacy, it is a platform upon which to keep building the game.

One could argue that there is no obligation between these two leagues to merge, regardless of which league is better operated, but if either league were to collapse, there is an argument that the other would need to provide an assist for the greater good of the game.  Realistically, there are components from both leagues that could be applied to one amalgamated super league and put it in the proper direction.

Not only did the dedication of the players prevent the NWHL from folding after its visceral announcement concerning salary reductions, the reality is that the CWHL is an unpaid league, which survives because of the loyalty of its players. While the NWHL’s biggest criticism was its secret investor (which may emerge as its Achilles heel), it did many great things, including the arrival of Dunkin Donuts as a premier sponsor, along with a remarkable amount of media exposure in its inaugural season. One could argue that such attention in one season was more than its Canadian counterparts ever accumulated in its entire existence.

Should a merger actually take place, the reality is that it needs to be one that works not only for the players, but for the fans as well. A list of ground rules should be established that all parties can agree to:

Hire a new commissioner that both sides can agree on

Neither CWHL czar Brenda Andress nor NWHL founder Dani Rylan should be allowed to run a new amalgamated league, simply because it would make it appear that one league won over another or that one individual holds more influence, altering the perceived balance of power among fans.

Both individuals could still remain involved, either contributing as heads of divisions, board members, or even be allowed to pull double duty and also be granted GM positions. Realistically, Rylan would bring a much more visually appealing approach helping to promote a superleague in a PR role, while Andress is likely better suited in an administrative capacity.

Someone with a strong background in women’s sports, but not hockey (seriously) would have to be agreed upon as a new commissioner. If a new hire is brought in with a hockey background, it may create further tensions, likely perceiving them as influencing and/or manipulative. A name that comes to mind as a possible candidate (or compromise choice) for commissioner would be Val Ackerman, who worked tirelessly during the early years of the WNBA.

Give the league a new name

Even if the CWHL were to rename a merged league as the Continental Women’s Hockey League, it would not work because the acronym would suggest that it is the superior league to the former NWHL. Once again, no league can appear to be a winner. A complete rebranding would have to take place, such as the WNHA – Women’s National Hockey Association. There would be one Canadian division comprising the CWHL teams and an American division with the NWHL teams.

Compensation structure would have to change

Undoubtedly, the efforts of the NWHL to provide a living wage to its players hit an unfortunate snag in its second season. In a merged league, compensation would have to exist but in a much different way. In an 18-game season, each player could earn $225 per game ($4050 per season). For a roster of 20 players, that would comprise $81,000 per team.

Financial incentives could be provided for whichever player captures the league scoring title, rookie scoring title, goaltending title, along with compensation for appearances at the All-Star Game and in the championship game.

No interdivision travel

In order to control costs, Canadian and American teams would no longer play each other. One of the Boston teams could either relocate to Canada or fold altogether. The division champions (determined by postseason play) would play each other for the Clarkson Cup in a neutral site, preferably an NHL arena. Both teams would receive compensation for appearing in the finals. An exception to this rule would be participation in an outdoor game.

Keep the Isobel Cup

Taking into account that the Isobel Cup represents a proud chapter in professional American women’s hockey, it deserves to survive in a merged league. The American-based team that finishes with the best regular season record could be awarded the Isobel Cup in recognition.

Have no more than 10 teams in the league and just 1 in Boston

So much of the dysfunction between these leagues took place because of Boston having two teams.  It altered the talent pool and decimated the Blades. One team should remain while the other could relocate to Winnipeg, providing the Calgary Inferno with a much needed Western-based rival. The American division could welcome the Minnesota Whitecaps, giving the team a long overdue place in a professional league.

Consider a closer relationship with both the AHL and the OHL

There seems to be this fantasy that one day, the NHL shall be the white knight for women’s hockey, transforming pro hockey into a WNHL, making it flush with cash and providing everyone with a living wage. Sadly, this appears to be a pipe dream at the moment.

Realistically, women’s hockey needs to make itself more appealing in order to attract big league interest. For now, a merged league would have to look at building relationships with leagues such as the American Hockey League and the Ontario Hockey League.

With the impact of the Buffalo Beauts and the New York Riveters, they could easily align themselves with multiple teams in the AHL because so many are based in New York State. Between Albany, Binghamton, Rochester and Utica, the opportunities for promotion are endless.

As a side note, the Toronto Furies have participated in women’s hockey day with the AHL’s Marlies and it is an important event on each team’s hockey calendar. If the Furies and Thunder could work more closely with teams in the Ontario Hockey League, it could work beneficially for both sides as each league markets itself as value for families, which could result in increased marketing and brand awareness for both.

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