Former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson says she is stepping in to attempt to resurrect the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which said on Sunday it would cease operations in a month.
“I am certainly tomorrow going to talk to [interim CWHL commissioner Jayna Hefford] and the people I know from the league,” said Ms. Clarkson, who donated the league’s championship trophy, the Clarkson Cup. “I’d like to talk to women to see if we can salvage this.”
Ms. Clarkson is a long-time supporter of the CWHL, a not-for-profit league that features Olympians and world champions. The CWHL owns and operates all six of its teams on a $3.7-million annual budget.
“I knew they had financial difficulties,” Ms. Clarkson said. “The Cup is there, and it is to be contended for and it’s beautiful. I absolutely want to see it awarded to a women’s hockey team next year.”
On Sunday, a week after the Calgary Inferno won the Clarkson Cup, the league’s board of directors said the CWHL will cease operations as of May 1 because its business model was “economically unsustainable.”
“I think that we’ve come to the conclusion that we can’t continue to operate under this model and advance the game,” said Ms. Hefford, herself a former CWHL player and Canadian Olympic medalist.
The demise of the CWHL could possibly have a long-term ripple effect on the Canadian Olympic team, if it lessens the opportunities for young women to progress in the game.
The CWHL is home to 130 of the world’s top players, several of whom are headed to play at the world championships in Espoo, Finland, later this week. Over 12 seasons, the league has been the everyday playing grounds for many women honing their skills between Olympic Games. Without the chance to play regularly, there is a concern that the Canadian women would not be as well prepared for the Winter Olympics.
The teams – which include the Calgary Inferno, les Canadiennes de Montreal, Toronto Furies, Markham Thunder, Worcester Blades and Shenzhen Vanke Rays – were stunned when they received the news in a conference call with Ms. Hefford and board members on Sunday morning.
Interview requests for several players went unanswered Sunday, but many of them tweeted out the same unified message: “This morning we were informed the #CWHL is folding. As players, we will do our best to find a solution so this isn’t our last season of hockey but it’s hard to remain optimistic. #NoLeague”
Retired Canadian star Hayley Wickenheiser reacted on Twitter: “Can’t help seeing today’s #cwhl news as a positive step in the long run for women’s hockey. One step back, two steps forward perhaps?“
The league did have some corporate sponsorship, but it was not generating enough revenue to keep the league going long-term, said Ms. Hefford and Laurel Walzak, chair of the CWHL’s board of directors. Players began being paid for the first time only last year – stipends of between $2,000 and $10,000 a season. A record 175,000 fans tuned in to watch the Clarkson Cup finale in Toronto on TV. The players are scheduled to be paid on Monday.
“We’ve had many conversations with Hockey Canada, the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association, the NHL, the NHLPA, and the Ministry of Science and Sport, and everyone is aware that this is our current situation,” Ms. Walzak said. "The future is bright, but we can’t speculate about what those others are going to do.”
Former Olympian Sami Jo Small, the general manager of the Furies, said the CWHL "said we should reach out to our stakeholders for inquiries about what the future holds, so we did, and our contacts at the Toronto Maple Leafs told us they don’t know this was coming and they don’t know what’s coming down the line,” said Ms. Small, who had been one of the league’s co-founders and a former player. “For us in Toronto, we want to be in those conversations about how we can create a structure that really is sustainable in the long-term.”
Players had already stepped up their calls for one women’s pro league, as players were spread over the CWHL and the U.S.-based five-team National Women’s Hockey League. Ultimately, one strong league may be the only way women’s pro hockey will survive in North America.
In an e-mailed statement on Sunday, the league said, "The NHL’s position has been consistent for some time and remains unchanged with this news. We would consider starting a women’s league if there were no alternatives for women to play professionally in North America.”
The NWHL said in a statement it had no prior warning of the CWHL’s closing, either. It assured NWHL fans that its next season will begin on schedule in October.
“We had an excellent meeting with the CWHL in January where we presented significant proposals to them about forming one league, and we agreed to meet again in April. We are sorry to know those talks will not continue."