CWHL ceases operations
by Andrew Podnieks|01 APR 2019
Just one week after Calgary Inferno won the Clarkson Cup the CWHL announced it will fold.
photo: Mathew Tsang / RiverSpiral Photography / Hockey Hall of Fame
The Canadian Women’s Hockey League is no more. 

Just one week after the Calgary Inferno won the 12th Clarkson Cup in Toronto, watched by a record 175,000 fans on TV, the league announced on Sunday that, “while the on-ice hockey is exceptional, the business model has proven to be economically unsustainable.”

The immediate reaction to the news has been, of course, one of devastation. For most Canadian players, the CWHL was the place to play. It also included several American and international stars.

“The CWHL provided an opportunity for many of the world's best hockey players,” Fran Rider, president of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association and a member of the IIHF Hall of Fame lamented. “It promoted female hockey as a premier participation and spectator sport showcasing incredible role models. This situation demonstrates the challenges female sports continue to face in attracting much needed and much deserved financial support.”

While Rider made a heartfelt thanks to, “the sponsors who have had a powerful impact through their contributions to female hockey,” over the last 20 years, she also commented that, “now is the time for sponsors and supporters to step forward.”

The U.S.-based NWHL will play its fourth season starting in October, but its commissioner, Dani Rylan, also reacted with disappointment by the announcement.

“All of us at the NWHL were very saddened to learn that the CWHL is discontinuing operations,” Rylan said in a statement. “The CWHL was the first successful professional women’s hockey league in North America, and we have the deepest respect for all of the players and leaders who built the league.”

Said Canada’s Natalie Spooner on Twitter: “Today the hockey league we played in and relied on to improve as players, folded. The support we felt throughout these years was tremendous & we would love to keep this momentum going. The future generations need to be able to see their role models on the ice.”

Marie-Philip Poulin, two time gold-medal winner at the Olympics, was also clearly upset in her Twitter post: “This morning we were informed the #CWHL is folding. As players, we will do our best to find a solution so this isn’t our last season of hockey, but it’s hard to remain optimistic.”

The news might not be all bad, though. The NWHL in the U.S. started in 2015, and ever since then the feeling has gotten stronger and stronger that the women’s game needs one dominant league, not two competitive leagues. Rylan’s tone on the matter was not optimistic on Sunday:

“We had an excellent meeting with the CWHL in January where we presented significant proposals to them about forming one league, and we agreed to meet again in April,” she said. “We are sorry to know those talks will not continue.”

But Mel Davidson and Hayley Wickenheiser used their social media accounts to take a glass-half-full attitude:

Asked Davidson rhetorically: “When one door closes, another door opens??? Here’s to hoping this is the case.”

Wickenheiser, who will be inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame in May at the men’s World Championship, added: “Can’t help seeing today’s CWHL news as a positive step in the long run for women’s hockey. One step back, two steps forward perhaps?”

Media reports suggest that the NWHL may be interested in adding teams from Canada following the CWHL’s folding.

The birth of the CWHL can be traced back to 1990, when the IIHF sanctioned an official Women’s World Championship. That first tournament, held in Ottawa, Canada, was a tremendous success, eventually leading to the tournament becoming an annual event, and as important leading to the inclusion of women’s hockey at the Olympics (starting in 1998). 

Out of this international success was born the National Women’s Hockey League in Canada in 1999. This league consisted of teams mainly in Ontario and Quebec, but teams from Western Canada moved in and out of this league and their own. By 2007, though, the league had disbanded. 

Over that summer a core of women, led by Sami Jo Small and Jennifer Botterill, managed to produce the financing for a not-for-profit league called the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. Inspired, former governor-general of Canada Adrienne Clarkson created a championship trophy in her name, and the league attracted most of the top Canadian players who were out of university.

In its 12 years it tried to pay its players and become more self-sufficient, but there was little to buttress this. Attendance at games was never strong, and games were rarely televised except for the Clarkson Cup. Sponsorship was enthusiastic, but came and went, ensuring a lack of stability. 

“Founded in 2007 by players and members of the community, the League’s mandate was to grow the sport of women’s hockey, and to that extent it more than achieved its goal,” the CWHL said as part of its statement yesterday.

And so for now, the NWHL must go it alone, but it also has had similar problems. It is a for-profit league and pays its players, but salaries are not sustainable either and had to be lowered after an enthusiastic start. 

Today, women’s hockey looks to be in a bleak state, and when the CWHL officially ceases on May 1, there will be a void. But given the world-class roster of players now looking for a place to play, the opportunity is there to create one league, with teams in Canada and the United States, playing professionally and perhaps playing under the NHL umbrella. 

Today’s sad state might, in the near future, lead to a better world for the women’s game. And, with the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship starting this Thursday in Espoo, Finland, all the best players from the top-ten nations gathering in one place, this might be where it all begins.

Yes, the CWHL is dead, but from the ashes might rise something much greater. Maybe the #OneLeague of which many in women’s hockey have been dreaming. Let’s hope.