After a busy summer, the CWHL is hoping for a big winter in 2017-18
The Canadian Women's Hockey League has made bold moves, paying its players for the first time and adding two China-based teams. Could this be the shot in the arm that women's hockey has long needed?
The Canadian Women's Hockey League made some intrepid moves this summer. Now it's time to put the show on the ice.
The league promised to pay its players for the first time and added two expansion teams in China through a partnership with a Chinese business group trying to grow hockey in the nation of 1.3 billion people ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
The moves prompted applause, curiosity and naturally, skepticism. How would the small, centrally run CWHL tackle intercontinental travel for seven teams and compensate its athletes for the first time in its decade-long existence? Women's hockey has long needed a shot in the arm – could this be it?
The CWHL had complex logistical challenges to navigate in just a few months. It had to devise rules for its modest new player stipends. The two expansion franchises had to take shape – Kunlun Red Star and the Vanke Rays – inside an extraordinary arena in subtropical Shenzhen, China. Top talent jumped aboard, including big-name Olympians and Chinese-Canadians willing to play abroad. A schedule had to be created with teams travelling between the continents – a schedule sensitive to players who also have full-time jobs.
This month, the newly expanded CWHL will open its 11th season. It will be missing its usual Canadian and U.S. Olympians until after the 2018 Pyeongchang Games but will offer a glimpse of two goals being creatively weaved together: the CWHL's attempts to expand the women's game and attract new fans, along with China's efforts to transform the world's 18th-ranked women's hockey team into a medal contender at the 2022 Olympics.
Kunlun Red Star coach Digit Murphy spoke excitedly into her cellphone while she and her players navigated the busy streets of Beijing on their walk to a team dinner on a hot September night during the expansion team's first training camp in the Chinese capital. She marvelled at the buses and bicycles, the crowds and countless shops.
Murphy was a long-time coach at Brown University and later led the Boston Blades to two Clarkson Cups, the CWHL's championship trophy. The well-connected American coach was hired last spring by the Chinese business group also named Kunlun Red Star (KRS), one made up of deep-pocketed Chinese business professionals and advised by North American hockey experts such as NHL legend Phil Esposito and Scott MacPherson, a Canadian hockey executive who works closely with the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).
KRS had already added a men's team by the same name to the KHL, and now they wanted Murphy to develop Chinese female players. In the women's hockey world, that means playing and training with top Canadians and Americans – perpetual winners of Olympic and world-championship medals. She devised a program to strengthen the women's national team and its talent pipeline, and among her suggestions was having Chinese teams join the CWHL.
"I feel like my whole career has led to this moment – to help the Chinese women and leave all my knowledge on the table for them," Murphy told The Globe and Mail over the din of Beijing's bustling streets. "Our story is going to be like movie material. We like to use the hashtag #BeijingMiracle2022. Why can't the Chinese women's hockey team be the next Miracle on Ice?"
Just as with the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2022 Games offer another chance for China to shine. Chinese President Xi Jinping said he hopes the Games prompt some three million Chinese citizens to participate in winter sports.
"China is going to become a hockey power. It's not a matter of if, but a matter of when," MacPherson told The Globe in June. "The Chinese believe in engagement through diplomacy in business and sport, and they want to be a major player in the hockey world."
On June 5, KRS and the CWHL announced their partnership in a news conference at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
They inked a five-year deal but did not disclose financial terms. Brenda Andress, the commissioner of the CWHL, told The Globe the league was already on course to introduce small player stipends because of increased sponsorships in recent years. But she confirmed the contract with KRS did inject money into the league by including payments for things such as licensing, marketing, merchandising and broadcasting rights in China, as well as travel to China for the other teams.
Although most thought the CWHL was adding just one Chinese expansion team, it quietly added a second team called the Vanke Rays with virtually no publicity. KRS pushed for two teams to create a competitive environment and double its opportunities to develop Chinese players and have more games in China. Murphy hired another well-connected U.S. college coach – Rob Morgan – and they began drumming up interest among players around the world before the CWHL draft.
They followed CWHL rules – players had to be drafted or signed as free agents. In the CWHL, players get to indicate which teams they'd like to draft them. Teams can have up to six imports (players without citizenship to the country in which the team resides). Vanke and KRS both drafted a mix of Chinese national team players, world-class stars, and top North American players of Chinese heritage eligible to play for China at the Olympics.
The group includes Jessica Wong, a 26-year-old from Baddeck, N.S., who played for Canada's U-18 and U-22 teams, won an NCAA national title at the University of Minnesota Duluth and a Clarkson Cup with the CWHL's Calgary Inferno. Her Chinese heritage comes from her paternal grandmother, but she had never been to China before now.
"These women are improving so rapidly, and I think we're going to give teams in the CWHL a very good run," Wong said. "We're trying to get China a medal at those Games, and we intend to achieve it."
A few big-name Olympic medalists came aboard too, giving instant credibility to the venture. Finnish Olympic bronze-medalist Noora Raty – often called the world's best female goaltender – jumped aboard. American two-time Olympic silver medalist Kelli Stack requested her release from the competing National Women's Hockey League (NWHL), which had previous to this year been North America's only women's hockey league that paid its players.
The CWHL introduced player stipends. Each team would get a $100,000 (Canadian) salary cap from which players would get between $2,000 and $10,000 each, depending on experience, with the promise it will increase slightly each year. KRS devised a way to pay its imports more – players such as Stack and Raty who uprooted their lives to China. They hired them as full-time "hockey ambassadors" to do promotional appearances and mentor the Chinese players on and off the ice about hockey, weight training and nutrition. Several sources declined to say what those players are earning, but one described it as "a lot, a very nice living wage."
"For the first time ever, I can call myself a pro hockey player and I have nothing else to worry about, besides my hockey, taking care my body, and helping the Chinese improve," said Raty, who will play for Finland in the 2018 Olympics. "Before this, I was working as a full-time goalie coach in the U.S., sometimes teaching 10 hours a day, and doing my own training after. So this is a dramatic difference for me."
The expansion clubs spent most of September in China. They toured spots including the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square. While in Shenzhen, a city in southeastern China just north of Hong Kong, they trained on the beach and stayed in a modern apartment building with a dining hall. An existing arena was specially outfitted for them with new locker rooms, weight rooms, cold and hot tubs and a sauna – comparable, Raty says, to what she experienced when she played NCAA hockey.
The arena's ice, however, didn't hold up well during a hot September, so the team eventually went to practice in Beijing before leaving to play an exhibition tour against universities across North America in preparation for the season. They hope to have their home ice perfected before the first CWHL game in Shenzhen on Nov. 18.
Scheduling 30 games each for seven teams over two continents – with a two-week Olympic break in the middle – is complicated. It's estimated that Kunlun and Vanke will each make three trips to North America, playing several games before returning for a long homestand in Shenzhen.
The other CWHL teams – Montreal, Markham, Toronto, Calgary and Boston – will each go to Shenzhen once and play four games – two each against Vanke and Kunlun. The trips had to include suitable rest time without keeping players in China too long, because to travel, they'll all be taking time off their jobs. Players work a wide variety of jobs, from teachers to police officers, sales associates to hockey coaches, trainers to PhD students and jobs in construction and oil and gas.
The CWHL recognizes that because it does not pay its players full-time living wages, it can't make the trips mandatory. Some players are very excited, while others say they won't go because they can't get the time off work.
"The players had genuine concerns about taking time off to travel to China, and we totally understand. But we're taking them to Shenzhen, which has a Florida-like climate year-round, and the hotel where they will stay is spectacular," Andress said. "That's part of the reason we wanted to make sure they got stipends this year; to make sure they'd be covered for taking time off work. We recognize what we're asking of our players, but we believe it will be an incredible experience for them, too. Our players want to go; it shows how dedicated the women are in our league."
While creating a schedule with such complexities was time-consuming, players across the league asked for as much information as quickly as possible. Unlike athletes in other pro leagues, many needed to make vacation requests from their jobs.
"It's not easy, but we've all grown up doing it our whole lives – juggling work, school and hockey. We want the CWHL to get bigger and more popular around the world and for women around the world to get the opportunities hockey has afforded us," said Markham Thunder forward Kristen Richards, also a teacher and hockey-skills coach at The Hill Academy in Concord, Ont. "The biggest complaint about women's hockey has been, 'The only nations who are any good are U.S. and Canada.' We don't want to keep hearing that. We are all in this game to grow it."
The CWHL has also increased the prize money it awards for accomplishments such as MVPs and Clarkson Cup wins, as well as the salaries for its coaches and general managers.
"I've been doing this eight years, and we had GM salaries before, but now I'm earning a living wage," said Les Canadiennes de Montreal general manager Meg Hewings, who had been supplementing her income as a freelance writer. "Our players are starting with modest pay this year, but they all understand every step to professionalism is historic, and this is a long-term project."
Teams in the CWHL must work to draw more fans. Les Canadiennes de Montreal, one of the top draws and home to Canadian Olympic stars like Marie-Philip Poulin, averages a meagre 700 spectators per game. However, through a partnership with the NHL, some CWHL teams play a marquee game inside a partnering NHL rink. Last December, Les Canadiennes drew 6,000 fans to their game at Bell Centre, and this year will host KRS there.
"When our Chinese teams come to play in Canada, this is a chance to introduce our league to a different group of fans," Andress said. "We expect we will see Chinese-Canadian communities coming out to watch these games."
Growing attendance in both North America and in China will be paramount. Expansion-team players recently attended the NHL's first visit to China, watching exhibition games in their jerseys and doing promotion at the league's fan fest. While the atmosphere at those games was often exciting, scores of empty seats remained.
"I think absolutely the Chinese will maintain their interest in playing in our league even after this five-year contract, based on what they're doing right now and the success they're going to have in the CWHL," Andress said.
So what would success in the CWHL look like going forward? "We want to bring in two, three more sponsors, so every year we can keep increasing that player stipend," Andress said. "We also want to add more teams in other parts of the world. We want to continue our mandate to grow women's hockey globally, and this is going to be a special year."