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The CWHL is awesome right now, and you're missing out

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After years of being an NHL fan and thinking it was the best pro sports league in the world, I'm kind of coming around to the fact that this isn't true.

You've heard it all before, I'm sure, but I'm going to say it again, in case you've been blocking it out, or in case no one told you, somehow. Let's start at the beginning.

If you are a hockey fan, you probably watch the NHL. The on-ice product combines over a century of history and mystique with extremely high level talent and accessibility over a variety of mediums. The NHL fan community is strong, widespread, loyal, and engaged. I love hockey because of the NHL-- but the NHL itself has some problems, by nature because it has become an enormous brand and multinational corporation in a society that is inherently biased towards men and that distributes wealth in transparently unconscionable ways.

We love our favorite NHLers. They're (usually) not bad guys by any means. They are Phil Kessel's Twitter bio -- they're nice guys, they try hard, and they love the game.

They also own Porsches, build mansions, and at the very least have an entire brilliant staff managing their equipment and carrying their bags for them.

Would you still do your job at the highest possible level if you weren't getting paid to do it?

By nature, professional sports can be somewhat infantilizing, enabling poor attitudes and bad behavior, but the NHL is somewhat of a dark horse among professional sports in North America in that its cultural climate encourages humility. This may be because hockey is a team sport that requires more cohesion and actual teamwork than most other games do. But it's also why outspoken, strong-willed Joshua Ho-Sang was apparently considered too risky to be invited to Team Canada camps. "If I am a problem child, that means they don't like problems, that they have an issue with fixing things, that they like when things are easy. That actually means that they don't possess the ability to develop and that they are just taking players to fit their role that have been developed somewhere else," said Ho-Sang in and interview with TSN, quoted in the linked piece.

It's true--men's hockey culture really doesn't like to fix things. Ho-Sang has a certain astuteness about the nature of change that most kids his age don't have. And we live in a cultural climate and power structure where silence is rewarded, and where change comes slowly, if at all, well after everyone has already realized that something is (for lack of a better term) kind of fucked up.

I could go on and try to philosophically break down the nature of athlete culture and celebrity culture and what its function is in society, but I won't, because that's way beside the point I want to make here. I love hockey, I watch hockey because I love it; it's a form of entertainment that I dig, as many of you do as well. Let's just accept that part as an established truth.

So, let's talk about how the NHL treats us, the fans, its loyal consumers, all in an effort to protect their brand and corporation.

The NHL allowed four strikes/lockouts over the course of a mere 20 years. This means that the NHL player's union (the NHLPA) and the League's owners could not settle the players' collective bargaining agreement. In the most recent lockout, pretty much everyone involved in these messy labor negotiations on both sides was a millionaire, and most of the sticking points ended up being about money: how much people were going to get, what percentages of it would go where and to whom, and when they were going to get it.

The NHL expands to markets that can't financially sustain their own operations, greatly diluting the talent pool available to each team and funneling tens of millions of dollars into failing enterprises on a regular basis; meanwhile the ownership of big-market teams lines their pockets.

The NHL let a dangerous culture of fighting become the norm, to the point that otherwise intelligent people really believed it wasn't dangerous. People literally had to die in order to change the conversation about it. 2011 was a summer of death among NHL enforcers: Derek Boogaard (accidental overdose), Wade Belak (possible accident or possible suicide), and Rick Rypien (suicide). At the time, everyone, including NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, was quick to say that the link between the enforcer role and head injuries, depression, and substance abuse was tenuous at best. However, the subsequent near-disappearance of enforcers from the NHL feels like a much-too-late acknowledgement of the problem and desperately insufficient tribute to their memories.

Oh yeah, and all of these people are still getting paid a lot of money.

Would you still do your job at the highest possible level if you weren't getting paid to do it?

In the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Canada won the gold medal in both men's and women's ice hockey. For the men, the gold-medal-winning goal was scored by Jonathan Toews, a 26-year-old who at the time had been playing in the NHL for nearly 7 years. In the 2014-15 season, he stands to make $6.3 million dollars. The year after, he'll make $10.5 million, every year until 2023.

The game, by the way, was a cruise of a win for Team Canada. They beat Sweden 3-0. Team Sweden was no slouch, but Team Canada made it look easy. Down 2-0 going into the third period, Sweden managed a mere 4 shots before the end of the game.

The women's gold medal game was a hard-fought affair between Team Canada and Team USA. It was easily one of the greatest hockey games played in years--perhaps of all time. Team USA led 2-0 on goals from Meghan Duggan and Alex Carpenter until only three and a half minutes remained. Canada managed to tie it with 55 seconds to go, and went on to win in overtime. The player who won the game--who also scored the game-tying goal--was Marie-Philip Poulin. Oh, and she also scored the only two goals for Canada when they won the Olympic gold medal in 2010 in Vancouver, also against the USA. Marie-Philip Poulin, at the time of her second career "golden goal", was a senior at Boston University.

***

"Make us look cool," Hilary Knight said to me when I met her after an exhibition game at BU's Walter Brown Arena in October. Knight is a forward for the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women's Hockey League, and an Olympic silver medalist. I had just introduced myself to her and told her I would be writing about the Blades for Stanley Cup of Chowder.

"You are cool," I blurted. "No, seriously." Knight's tone had been deadpan; she was serious about her request, but it was a self-assured one. She seemed to mean: figure out how to show everyone else how cool we already are.

This was my first Blades game, by the way, and it was an exhibition match that didn't count for either the Blades or the BU Terriers. But the tenor of the game was intense and practiced. Both teams played hard and energetically in a way that was markedly different from NHL games I've seen--some of which have been pretty intense themselves. Maybe it was the fact that it was quiet. Maybe it was the fact that the players are engaged in what they are doing without the benefit of spectatorship. In the NHL, players must develop a Panopticon-style awareness that they are being watched at all times. Women's hockey is a slowly growing sport, and the players are achieving transcendent athletic prowess and playing an astonishingly exciting brand of hockey--while seemingly no one is watching.

Knight's comment was related to a perceived image problem with the CWHL, which is that no one is aggressively selling the fact that it's good. The CWHL seems to approach its product with a strange kind of self-consciousness, almost as if they are unaware that their teams are actually a tightly-knit community of collegiate and high school superstars, Olympians, and passionate staff that men's hockey really can only dream of having at such a pervasive level. Elena at Watch This Hockey wrote an articulate plea to the CWHL asking them to tell people about what the league actually is--exciting, elite talent.

The CWHL seems to approach its product with a strange kind of self-consciousness.

Elena also mentions the "rec league" atmosphere. It's getting better, it seems, in the last few years, but that comparison is legit. After every CWHL game, the players carry their own gear out of the building, through the same doors the fans use. Lots of kids come out for these games. The players mingle with the fans afterwards. When an autograph session was announced after the Blades' home opener (this year at the Clark Athletic Center at UMass Boston), I thought it was because it was the home opener. But they announced it again the next day, too. (In two games over the weekend of November 15-16, the Blades scored 11 goals and thoroughly trounced the Toronto Furies. To call it impressive would be an understatement.)

People have been writing about the magic of the CWHL for awhile now. The league is in its eighth season. In December 2012, with the NHL stuck in its 2012-2013 lockout, Steve Wulf wrote about attending a Blades game at the Veterans Arena in Somerville for espnW: "Once the puck is dropped, you realize you've been let in on a secret. Even though the teams are playing their third game in 42 hours, the speed and stickwork are breath-taking."

At the exact same time (literally, three days prior), SBNation published a detailed profile of then-new Blades' coach Digit Murphy by WBUR's Bill Littlefield. One of the final paragraphs of that article sticks in my chest like an arrow, because it's so painfully true:

The larger context matters to Murphy, because she understands the challenge she has accepted with the Blades as part of a more ambitious struggle. "It's about how women value themselves, and how society values women," she says. "We have to value our athletes for the sport they play. You're not gonna get things unless you ask 'Why not?' It's about how you value yourself."


And that's the great thing about the CWHL, the reason why I couldn't stop myself from telling Hilary Knight that she was cool. These women, preeminent athletes in their sport, have come to value themselves on their own merit, rather than by who is watching and how much they are paid. Unlike the kids you see pulling on jerseys as their mothers cry at the NHL draft, they haven't been raised in a society that treats what they love to do as an opportunity to make millions of dollars, let alone a viable career choice. It isn't. Yet.

I can also fully recognize the irony of what I want, as a female hockey fan and writer who wants to get as many people interested in the CWHL as possible: the complaints I have about the NHL are proportional and related to its size and revenue focus. All good things come to an end, and wealth breeds corruption. Media saturation makes the NHL a lesser product, an enterprise first and a sport second. And everyone knows the old cliche, said about everything from your favorite band to the Los Angeles Kings: "I liked them before they were cool." Well, the CWHL is cool, by mere virtue of the fact that it doesn't need you to tell it that it is.

But I don't see a dystopian future in which the CWHL has become as diluted and messy and money-driven as the NHL has become--simply because all the key figures in the sport know what true value is. They've already learned the hard way how to be who they are. It took hundreds of years of male-dominated Western culture to create the NHL. In just eight years, the CWHL has become something even better. Whether it can actually, realistically become popular the way the men's sport has become is, of course, a difficult question. We show up to NHL games because they are ubiquitous and inescapable, as is the information and journalism about them. You have to ask yourself "why not?" but you also have to ask "why?" in the first place. Why? Because the CWHL is, at this point, more competitive than the NHL, because the CWHL is a more concentrated pool of extremely elite talent, because each game, even in the regular season (hell, even in exhibition) is played with toughness and focus.

I'm not trying to dump on the NHL, necessarily. I watch and love the NHL; I'll probably be a Penguins fan until I die. I'm not suggesting that anyone stop watching the NHL, not by any means. But if you have a chance, you should try going out for a CWHL game on a Saturday night instead of staying in and watching men's hockey. Lots of other people will be watching the NHL regular season in your stead and be able to fill you in later.

As I try to recap Boston Blades games in a journalistic sense, I find myself struggling to convey how actually wonderful the experience of a Blades game is. But I'm going to keep trying. This is a sweet spot for the Canadian Women's Hockey League. I would urge you not to miss it, especially if you live in or near a CWHL city (right now, Boston, Toronto, Montreal, Brampton, or Calgary). You will be surprised at what you see, who you meet, and how good it feels to be involved in a venture that is at once unpretentious and enthusiastic.

As I've mentioned here in the past, the CWHL season streaming package consisting of 23 live games over the course of the season is available for just $10CAD.

All Calgary Inferno home games have free live audio coverage, available at cwhl.ca.

All single game tickets are $15CAD and available for purchase online via credit card, with instant printout for e-tickets.

A season pass to all home games is available for each team at a cost of $140CAD.

Like it or not, if you're not watching the CWHL, you're missing out. We're reaching an era where an increased understanding of feminism/equality and unprecedented ease of content delivery are combining to create real choices in how we spend our money and our time, and how we express our passions. It's still an uphill battle to achieve parity and sustainability. But if you want to see and meet people who know that, and are willing to do it anyway: go out to a CWHL game.