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Haley Irwin of the Calgary Inferno tapes up her stick prior to their Canadian Women’s Hockey League game against Les Canadiennes at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Dec. 10, 2016.

Interest in the game spikes every four years when the Olympics rolls around, but wanes in between. The creation of two competing professional leagues has given more women the chance to play at a high level outside of their national team and college programs, but are those options sustainable? As Eric Duhatschek reports, joining forces and establishing stronger ties to the National Hockey League may be the best path forward


he most dramatic and uplifting hockey game played at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi didn't feature Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby or Patrick Kane. It occurred in the gold-medal match between the Canadian and U.S. women, a game that went down to the wire. Canada tied it in the dying seconds and then won in overtime, after a U.S. shot at the empty net in regulation came gently to rest at the goal post.

It was high drama. It had a pleasing heroine – Marie-Philip Poulin, who has scored the golden goal for Canada's women in back-to-back Olympics – and it had an opportunity once again to jump-start interest in the sport of women's hockey.

So here we are, just over a year out from another Olympics, and while the landscape for women's hockey has changed and improved on some levels, it still hasn't caught on with the viewing public in any meaningful or long-lasting way.

Many of the best young female players can earn scholarships and play at a reasonably high level in the U.S. college system.

The problem is what happens next, after their eligibility runs out.

Right now, there are two competing professional leagues to choose from – the five-team Canadian Women's Hockey League and the four-team National Women's Hockey League. The CWHL doesn't pay its players. It covers costs, and some equipment, but not sticks and skates. The NWHL, founded in 2015, does pay salaries, though they are modest and, recently, introduced a 50-per-cent across-the-board pay cut to its players on the grounds that it was the only way to get to season's end, without folding.

If that sounds eerily similar to the rivalry that once existed between the NHL and the World Hockey Association, there may indeed be a parallel.

Former Canadian Olympian Cassie Campbell-Pascall, a CWHL board member and a Hockey Night in Canada commentator, believes the league's relationship with the NHL is its best hope of one day morphing into a for-profit operation that pays its players a living wage.

"The NHL is watching us, they're interested in us and they want it to work," Campbell-Pascall said. "To be honest, what kills women's hockey is people who don't understand the big picture. It's about eventually having a relationship with the NHL, where we have a professional league, and all of our teams fall under the umbrella of NHL teams.

Les Canadiennes prepare for warm up at the Bell Centre prior to their Canadian Women’s Hockey League game against the Calgary Inferno. They believe their association with the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens has been a productive partnership.

"We have two leagues right now and I think we need the powers-that-be – the people who lead our leagues – to come together and make it one to make it successful."

The CWHL has seen some heartening moments this year. On the second Saturday of December, a crowd of 5,938 attended a game at the Bell Centre when Les Canadiennes de Montreal defeated the defending champion Calgary Inferno 1-0 in a battle for first place. In February, the annual CWHL all-star game will be played at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. For the second year in a row, Ottawa's Canadian Tire Centre will hold the Clarkson Cup.

Playing in an NHL building boosts the credibility of the CWHL, which counts among its 13 major sponsors, four NHL teams – the Canadiens, the Senators, the Maple Leafs and the Calgary Flames. Caroline Ouellette, the CWHL's career scoring leader and a four-time Olympic gold medalist, believes the association with the Canadiens has helped immeasurably in spreading the gospel of women's hockey in her market.

"When we used to be the Montreal Stars, we would meet people and they didn't even know we played hockey in Montreal," Ouellette said. "When we rebranded with the Montreal Canadiens, it was a bit of a feeling that we were now part of their organization. Hopefully, this is a start."

Oullette, like Campbell-Pascall, sees the evolving relationship with the NHL as the most effective means of going forward, noting bluntly: "For me, it's a question of gender equality – for young girls to have the same dream as young boys. Right now, that really doesn't exist.

"I don't think my teammates and I am delusional and think we can fill an NHL building at the moment. I don't think anyone is aiming for million-dollar salaries. But if it was an amount that would allow players to make a living playing the game and not have to work full-time, imagine how great the product can get."

Until that happens, the majority of the CWHL's unpaid professionals play for love of the sport. In turn, that has obliged them to become skilled multitaskers in order to fit jobs, family and life around their hockey schedules. National team players have an advantage, because of Sport Canada funding, sponsorship deals and other perks associated with their positions.

But the rank-and-file players – the equivalent of the NHL journeymen – play mostly in anonymity, their primary reward the chance to keep playing into their 20s and beyond.

Jacquie Pierri, an assistant captain with the Inferno, is a mechanical engineer who works for Atco full-time doing natural gas pipeline design. On a day in early December, she was up at 6 in the morning to drive to Edmonton for a meeting. After it was over, she headed back to Calgary and arrived less than an hour before practice, where her meal was an egg-salad sandwich bought at the WinSport cafeteria before she took to the ice for a 90-minute workout.

"Today was a little unique," Pierri said. "A normal day is a little less hectic. I usually work 8:30 to 5 – but it can be tough because I don't have time to cook and prepare meals – and it's really hard to get the compete-level up for practice after you've worked all day."

Many times, the Inferno will travel on a game day – flying cross country and then playing that same night. One time a few years back, they took a red-eye flight east and arrived in Montreal, where only two of their hotel rooms were ready for occupancy. It forced them to improvise – and they crammed 10 women into each room, getting their pre-game sleeps sprawled on the beds, sofas and floors.

Jeff Stevenson, GM of the Inferno, says that when he started with the organization three years ago, the team played at Calgary's Joan Snyder Arena, capacity 220, and often there were more empty seats than spectators. Recently, they've switched to the larger arena at WinSport and depending upon the promotions they've put on, can draw upward of 1,500 to a game.

"What I've noticed is that now we've got people who are buying season tickets, they're buying hats and jerseys and T-shirts, and they're walking into games, already geared up to cheer on the team," Stevenson said. "So we've established a very small group of loyal fans, which is great. It's a building block. But we have a rink here that holds 3,200 people. There's a lot of work still to be done to fill that on a regular basis. That's my goal – to see that happen in the next few years."

Ouellette believes potential fans need to see women's hockey as a distinct game and entertainment entity – and instead of comparing and contrasting it to the men's game, celebrate the differences.

"One of our challenges today is that we get compared to the boys all the time," she said. "In tennis, people would never say, 'oh, Serena Williams should play Roger Federer and see who wins' – and yet, we still hear that all the time. Our best player, Marie-Philip Poulin, doesn't train any less than Sidney Crosby. She'll never shoot as hard as he does, but their vision on the ice is incredible and exactly the same.

Les Canadiennes Caroline Ouellette battles Calgary Inferno’s Sarah Davis for the puck during their Canadian Women’s Hockey League game in Montreal, Dec. 10.

"We hope that we can get to a point where people recognize it is different hockey – and appreciate it the way they appreciate women's tennis as its own sport."

CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress makes a tour of the league once a year in the same way NHL commissioner Gary Bettman tours his league, in order to bring the players up to date on the growth of the game and the challenges that remain.

Recently, Andress was in Calgary, to address the Inferno players about the present and the future – and the challenges of operating in the black, with limited revenues coming in through ticket sales.

"I want them to know where the money's coming from and where the money's going to, so they have a complete knowledge of what's going on," Andress said. "They might say, 'why aren't we getting paid?' Well, 'this is why.' The more information we can give them, the more knowledge they have of the league and the better they can support the league."

According to Andress, the CWHL product has never been better. "Now it's just about marketing. The four teams in Canada – the parity is here, the players are phenomenal, the coaches are great, the partnerships are great. The thing that's lacking is the funding.

"They say hockey is for everyone in Canada. It isn't. It's for boys. If we get a $10,000 to $20,000 sponsor, we're lucky. Then you look at some of the money companies are putting into male sports. It's really about individuals standing up and supporting women's sports by actually doing something – writing a cheque or buying a ticket. That's how simple it is – and that's what has to happen."

Ideally, in the CWHL's strategic plan, they would like to start paying their players soon. "But at the same time, we realize once we pay our players, we want to pay them forever," Campbell-Pascall said.

"I think we can have a future women's NHL. The players aren't going to be paid very much to start, but I think players who are 10 to 12 years old now are going to have a professional league to play in – and it's going to be solid and it's going to make money. I really believe that."