On Saturday afternoon, the latest chapter of the Boston-Montreal hockey rivalry played out north of the border. It was a game filled with fast-paced play, great saves and plenty of skill. However, it wasn't another Bruins-Canadiens game.
This was the 2015 Clarkson Cup championship game, the Canadian Women's Hockey League's (CWHL) version of the Stanley Cup. In a hotly contested game between the Boston Blades and the Montreal Stars, Blades forward Janine Weber beat Charline Labonté with a wicked shot early in OT to give the Blades a 3-2 win and their second Clarkson Cup title in three years.
After the game, Weber, a 23-year-old Austria native who played at Providence College, told CWHL.ca it was "the biggest goal [she's] ever scored," high praise from someone who has represented her country on the national stage on plenty of occasions.
As is the case with many championship-wining hockey goals, reports surfaced that the Hockey Hall of Fame contacted Weber to add her stick to its collection. Weber reportedly obliged; who could turn down something like that?
However, there's a problem:
Yes, you're reading that correctly: the forward who scored the championship-winning goal likely had to think twice about seeing her stick on the Hall of Fame, because it was only one of two that she had. Thankfully, gear manufacturer STX appears to have stepped up and gotten Weber some new sticks.
Where does the NHL fit in all of this? That's a good question, and, more accurately, kind of the point: the NHL's treatment of the CWHL is a joke.
In a great article posted on Thursday, the New York Times details the struggles faced by the young CWHL, in terms of drawing fans and sustaining operations. More powerful, however, are the details about the trials the players themselves, many of whom have been Olympians on more than one occasion, face on a daily basis.
These are women who are truly dedicated to playing the sport they love. Players clean their own gear, work 9-5 jobs, and go months without seeing their families, oftentimes for no pay.
You'd think that with this kind of passion for the sport on display, the NHL would be all over it. You'd be very wrong.
From the NYT article, here are the thoughts of an NHL official (emphasis mine):
"While it was determined the overall development of women’s hockey at the grass-roots level through the college level isn’t at a point where a professional league is viable, we very much believe in the importance of the women’s game," he wrote. "But it’s going to take some more time, more development."
Translation: "We don't think we'd make money off the CWHL, so good luck ladies lol."
Contrast that with the NBA's treatment of women's basketball, another sport largely rooted in amateur competition. Sensing an opportunity, the NBA fully backed the WNBA at its inception in the mid-90s. Early teams were owned by the league itself, with the NBA undoubtedly pumping a ton of money into operations.
Now, many of the franchises are independently owned. According to Sports Business Daily, several teams have recently posted profits. WNBA games are regularly televised, the league has several big-time sponsors and appears to be generally healthy.
Why? Because the NBA, recognizing an opportunity, sank money into getting the league off the ground, knowing it'd take a while.
It's estimated that the NBA homepage is visited more than 20 million times per month. Notice something right at the top?
Hmmm...the NBA is actually promoting its female equivalent, and GEE WHIZ it's actually doing OK!!!!!!!
While the NHL isn't the official sponsor of the CWHL, surely they do some kind of promotion, right?
Oh. Well let's try somewhere else, maybe?
Oh. Well let's just go search for it, it must be hard to find.
Are you kidding me?
Let's compare that some similar searches: "CHL" returns nearly a thousand results. "USHL" returns more than 700. Even "KHL," a league competitor (though that may be a bit of a stretch), offers nearly 800 results.
It's pretty clear, then, that the NHL is only interested in some sort of "you scratch our back, we'll scratch yours" partnership. Sure, they'll promote the CHL because they know people in Halifax or Thunder Bay will tune in to see their junior players in the big leagues.
While the league as a whole has turned a blind eye to the CWHL, some teams have done better. Calgary, Montreal (boo!) and Toronto have deals in place to support their CWHL counterparts.
But that's pretty much it. The Bruins have honored the Blades at a game (even though in the NYT article linked above, Chris Kelly admitted he didn't know who the Blades were) Hilary Knight skated with the Ducks. Ho hum. Thanks, NHL!
Even the players themselves, who should know better than anyone the work these women have put in, are complicit in their ignorance. From the Times:
"It’s kind of crazy that we’re supposed to be their male version," Blades forward Denna Laing said. "When we were there with them, it definitely didn’t feel like that...It kind of felt like [the Bruins] were talking to a youth team."
It's simple: it comes down to money. Money talks for the NHL, and yeah, business is business.
"So what," you ask. "Should the league lose money just to promote the women's game?"
Yes. Yes, it should.
The NBA probably lost millions starting the WNBA. Now, the league is doing OK, and you can be sure that the NBA gained tons of new fans in the process. Did it recoup all of its money? No, probably not. But it certainly wasn't crippled.
To fully fund the CWHL and pay the players a "livable" wage, it'd take millions per team. That's a big ask, sure. But how much has the NHL poured into money pits like the Coyotes? Or the Thrashers? Or the Panthers? Tens of millions, at least. But hey, that was worth it because...it'll make us money someday?
The NHL is OK with spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on press events and publicity for a potential NHL franchise in Las Vegas, but a great hockey player like Janine Weber has to worry about donating her stick to the Hall of Fame because she only has two. Seriously?
The things is, the CWHL could make you money someday too, NHL. It'd be hard at first. You'd lose money at first. But eventually, using the power of promotion, sponsorships and exposure, you'd have that viability your front office suits so desperately crave. Hell, you might even make a few bucks. Uncle Gary could get himself another car or two.
All the while you'd be growing the game loved by millions of women across North America and the world, providing a new career path for thousands of talented amateur women players who'd love to keep skating. The market is there, waiting to be tapped: nearly 5 million people watched the 2014 women's gold medal game, not including those streaming it online.
How can the NHL start?
- Exposure Something better than a passionless Tweet. The Bruins and Canadiens are playing at Gillette Stadium in next year's Winter Classic, an event that'll bank millions for the league. How about having the corresponding women's teams play that week? Stars vs. Blades at Gillette. The exposure from an event like that alone would do wonders for the league.
- Sponsorship The NHL has dozens of sponsors, from gear to beer. Get Easton, Reebok, etc. to give the CWHL players some equipment so something like this doesn't happen again.
If not, keep doing what you're doing, NHL. I'm sure female hockey players and fans around North America would much rather buy pink jerseys than see great hockey action featuring female players. Yeah, that's just what every woman wants..........
Hilary Knight didn't work any less than Sidney Crosby to reach the elite level she's at today. Neither did Brianna Decker, or Julie Chu, or Weber. It's time for the NHL to step up and recognize that.