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How the NHL failed Women's Hockey at the Winter Classic

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The Outdoor Women's Classic was not a great success, but next year's could be.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

To say that the Women’s Outdoor Classic was a great success would be a lie.

This cannot be blamed, for the most part, on the CWHL or the NWHL.  This was an NHL-sanctioned event, making the failures theirs alone. When the NHL agreed to put on this event, they raised the expectations for women’s hockey fans not only in the NWHL and CWHL’s markets, but all across the country.

The news leaked via Hockey Night in Canada during their Saturday night broadcast on December 5.  The press box at Bright Hockey Center in Boston suddenly filled with excited chatter and speculation about the event.  Despite the fact that there was a goal-fest going on between the Boston Pride and the Buffalo Beauts, none of us could regain our focus on the game until after an intermission.

For the small group of women’s hockey reporters in the press box that night, this was the best news yet in the short life of the NWHL. We were ecstatic about what this could mean not only for the growth of the league, but the sport as a whole.

That bubble was quickly burst after the game, when Hilary Knight confirmed to media that none of the Team USA players on the Pride would not be able to attend due to USA Hockey’s Winter Training Camp.  Even though the event would fall on the final day of camp, skipping that day would supposedly have put their chances of playing in March’s World Championships in jeopardy.

After that, the hits just kept on coming.

There was radio silence from the NWHL, CWHL, and NHL alike for weeks with regard to the event. An NWHL league representative hinted that the announcement would come before Christmas. The holiday came and went. Many assumed that the deal fell through.

It wasn’t until Monday, December 28, just three days before the proposed date of the event, that the NHL released a statement to confirm it was still actually happening. It would be called the "Outdoor Women’s Classic," sponsored by Scotiabank, and was scheduled to take place prior to the NHL Alumni Game. In the press release, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the league "look[ed] forward to sharing the ice for the first time with two professional women's teams on the League's biggest stage."

The NHL was clearly not willing to share the spotlight on that stage.

The press release said nothing about TV coverage or online streaming. At the time of the women’s game on New Year’s Eve, the NHL Network aired recaps of the men’s practices, which had just been shown live a few hours prior. During their live coverage from Gillette, the women’s game could be seen going on in the background, but they didn’t provide a live look-in or any coverage.

There have been claims that this seemingly strange omission was due to "broadcast logistics" from the NHL. Essentially, they’re claiming that for whatever reason they didn’t have the facilities in place to broadcast any kind of live coverage of the women’s game - despite previously showing live PRACTICES from the men in the hours before and broadcasting the alumni game live and with the full broadcast treatment immediately afterward.

This means, effectively, that the NHL are attempting to claim that there was no way they could have shown even the bare minimum of live coverage of the women’s game (by which we mean one camera, no commentary and only ambient sound) on any form of media (broadcast or streaming).

Let’s get this straight here. Women’s hockey leagues -- both the NWHL and CWHL -- have been streaming games live with far fewer resources available ever since the inception of the league.  In many leagues across Europe, (including Britain, where one of us worked on live web streaming of games), live broadcasts of net streams are provided with no more than a single camera, a fast Web connection and a desktop (or even laptop) computer with the appropriate software. While this is by no means cheap, compared to the resources available to the NHL Network, it’s nothing.

This is especially damning because of a simple fact that, in theory, both leagues, and many leagues across this great nation of ours, didn’t previously have until they came to this specific avenue: Everything to broadcast the game was set up hours in advance and was at the stadium ready to go. NBC Sports, SportsNet, and maybe the Bruins official media group all have one thing in common: They set up at an early hour, they test every single thing, they make sure they’re ready for the big event they’re supposed to shoot, and then they wait around for said shoot. This was likely the gameplan for the Winter Classic for weeks, with apparently a gigantic hole in the middle of the schedule between the practice and the alumni game. There’s flimsy evidence to suggest that the mainstream media couldn’t have been convinced to keep at the very least ONE person on hand to move one camera back and forth by just saying they’d add the game to their paycheck.

Some have mentioned that the "logistics" phrase could refer to broadcast rights. The problem here is that the broadcast and image rights to the WWC is held by the participating teams and leagues -- which means that they would have to refuse to agree to the broadcast of the game. Is that something you can see two leagues both committed to growing the game seriously entertaining as a plan for even a second given, for example, Dani Rylan’s statements in the past?

The very fact the NHL continued to broadcast coverage from Gillette during the WWC on NHL Network is a glaring admission that this wasn’t a matter of not being ABLE to broadcast the game -- it was a conscious decision not to.

It wasn’t only on the broadcast front that the NHL fell incredibly short and appeared to have no interest in the WWC. The league was silent on social media as well. The NHL Tweeted about the event three times before it took place. Once, when it was announced on the 28th, again on the 30th, in the context of sharing a story about Olympian Julie Chu and again, to say that the gates at Gillette Stadium were open for both the women’s game and the Alumni game.

They provided score updates, photos, and video highlights from the Alumni game on Twitter. Instead of doing the same for the Women’s game, they promoted their own SnapChat account and shared historical facts about the Bruins v. Canadiens rivalry while the WWC was going on.

It wasn’t until 1:00 a.m. on January 1 that they tweeted a photo and coverage of the game.

After the game, CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress said that "the NHL is putting it out massively on everything they do." Perhaps she was, at the time, unaware of the complete lack of social media the league provided for the game, but she is likely aware of it now. We all know that the NHL is wildly popular on social media and updates all of their accounts very frequently, especially during big events. Hell, they even had a Winter Classic geotag on SnapChat. Clearly, they did not consider the first ever women’s professional outdoor hockey game historical or exciting enough to be livetweeted.

The Bruins, on the other hand, did a little better. They mentioned that the game was happening:

and provided a score update, for Les Canadiennes’ goal:

Strangely, they did not mention Blake Bolden’s game-tying goal for the Pride. They did tweet out the final score

They did not include either team’s Twitter accounts in any of their Tweets, which would have made it easier for possible fans to find and follow the teams. Although, that was probably too much work seeing as the Bruins don’t even follow the Pride on Twitter.

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Sadly, none of this is shocking. What is shocking is that the game was allowed to happen at all given the allegedly terrible ice conditions.

As reported by Seth Berkman of the New York Times, a member of the Pride termed the playing conditions "awful" and said she did not believe that Denna Laing’s injury was the result of tripping over a stick.  It was widely reported that both the Bruins and the Canadiens complained about the ice conditions following their practices earlier that day.

According to Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy, Dennis Seidenberg called one area of the ice, which had been exposed to the sun all day "slushy" and "very dangerous."  He was speaking of the same corner where Laing fell. Habs forward Lars Eller agreed, saying it was "very soft. Very slushy."

On the other hand, Pride coach Bobby Jay told media after the game that the Ice was "firm."  "No problems at all, the sun wasn't really an issue, softening it up. The ice was good," he said.

Since there’s limited video footage of the event, we will likely never know what happened in those moments at the end of the first period.  However, even with the chance that the ice conditions may have been the cause, the NHL should be doing more than simply tweeting a single status update on her condition.

News of Laing’s injury has spread far and wide, from Boston’s CBS station WBZ-TV showing up at the most recent Pride game to the Associated Press filing it under "The Big Story" heading.

But, let’s not kid ourselves: mainstream media would feel absolutely no guilt in continuing to ignore women’s hockey if not for Laing’s injury. If you ignore a story about a young woman being seriously injured playing the sport she loves, you look like an asshole. But failing to report on that same sport she has dedicated her life to, the sport that gave her that life-altering injury? In today’s media landscape, it’s expected.

As transcribed by Erin Bartuska of Watch this Hockey, Dani Rylan told media after the Outdoor Women’s Classic that "the NHL has been very supportive and also very forthcoming in saying that if they're going to do it, they want to do it right."

The NHL did not do it right. Saying "it’s better than nothing" is not good enough. Professional athletes should not have to settle for and be happy about the bare minimum just because of their gender.

The NHL failed women’s hockey as a whole on December 31, and they certainly failed Denna Laing.