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The CWHL became exactly what it was trying to get away from

The board lost track of what the league was supposed to be, and now people are left to pick up the pieces.

Shanna Martin

Twelve years ago, women’s hockey players were coming to terms with their league being taken from them. The owners of the original NWHL decided to fold, leaving players in the lurch. The players decided to make a new league. It would be for the players, by the players. They wouldn’t have to deal with this again. The CWHL was born.

You know by now what happened. The CWHL was taken away from the players on Sunday in the exact same fashion. The board of directors, without consulting any team staff or players, decided that their business model was no longer sustainable.

The CWHL board was reached for comment, but they did not respond to multiple requests. Eyes On The Prize has heard that they also declined or flat out ignored interviews with several outlets, all of which covered the league the longest and most consistently, as this one has. This seems to be typical of the CWHL board, based on how they also treated the staff and players who made the league what it is.

The players and team staff are everywhere in the media this week strongly and bravely putting a face to a decision they had nothing to do with. The ones who made that very same decision are hiding behind an anonymous email account picking and choosing which outlets get to talk to them, ignoring ones with enough experience, context, and information to actually confront them. Multiple inquiries have been made to individuals on the board only to be pointed to the email address that has been ignoring the initial requests.

Transparency has always been one of the biggest issues in the CWHL, and women’s hockey as a whole, and the board has so far done nothing to alleviate those claims in their final moments.

Quite frankly, it is unacceptable, and the board should be ashamed of themselves. If you aren’t willing to defend your decision, maybe it shouldn’t have been a decision you made.

The makeup of the board used to include players. When one of the co-creators of the CWHL, Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, was GM and player of the then-Montreal Stars, she would spend two hours a week in meetings with the board of directors for the first four years of the league. Sami Jo Small was also on the board of directors, which makes her shock at not being consulted before the league decided to fold even more unbelievable.

The board, in other media statements, has said that it exhausted every possible situation to keep the league going and improve the model, but did not go to the players or GMs of the league. One has to wonder how “exhaustive” their work actually was.

“The right league”

Charline Labonté has mostly been silent and out of the spotlight since retiring two seasons ago. She released a statement on Tuesday afternoon that touches on the fact that the players are the product and that they will decide what is right for them. This generation of women’s hockey players have shown they will stand up for what they believe in.

From starting the CWHL in the first place, to the Boston Blades forfeiting two games over a contract dispute, players always understood their power in the game. The Blades forfeit in 2014 may have set the second iteration of the NWHL, started in 2015, in motion with almost all players from that team jumping to the new league.

Then in 2016, the NWHL cut salaries without telling players setting in motion a wave of support for players and them taking even more control of their rights. The United States’ Women’s National Team players, some of whom played for the Blades and then in the NWHL, revealed their threat of a boycott of the 2017 World Championship, seeking (and receiving) a wage increase from USA Hockey.

These women are strong — and brave. They are willing to take an unconventional, often controversial road in order to stand up for what they believe in. That’s what makes Labonté’s statement poignant.

The players know their worth, and as CWHL Players’ Association head Liz Knox told The Victory Press about concerns of an NHL-run women’s hockey league, the players won’t play for something they don’t believe in.

“I think the thing people fear is that somebody is going to come in and turn this into something that it hasn’t been. Or turn this into something that it’s not. At the end of the day, it just won’t happen because the players will not play for something that they don’t believe in,” she said.

That statement applies for whatever is next on the horizon as well.

The NWH-elephant in the room

News came on Tuesday that the NWHL board approved investment in two Canadian markets. They expect to have teams in Toronto and Montreal this upcoming season, but there are still hurdles to clear before the league has its first international franchises.

On the surface, this seems to be the happy conclusion to a very dramatic week. But let’s go back to Knox’s comments. Most players in the CWHL had the option to go to the NWHL, even before the CWHL started paying them anything. They chose not to.

Hilary Knight told The Victory Press this about why she chose the CWHL in 2018:

“I felt that playing in a league whether I like it or not is essentially endorsing that league and I wouldn’t feel comfortable endorsing something and having the kids look up to something... you know, when I’m comparing the two, the recent movements and what’s happened at the pro level, I think the CWHL is closer. It’s a closer model to what I want to see in women’s hockey.”

Knight isn’t the only player to have left the NWHL for the CWHL. US Olympians Kacey Bellamy, Brianna Decker, Megan Bozek, Kelli Stack and Alex Carpenter are among others to make the switch in the last two seasons.

Now, things are different. On the surface, the players now may face a choice of NWHL or nothing.

But the former CWHL general managers stand united in a statement also released on Tuesday, which indicates they may not want a solution that only helps two of the soon-to-be-defunct league’s six markets. The Toronto Star says that a group has started the legal paperwork to start a women’s hockey league. Former CWHL board member and investor Graeme Roustan told Women’s Hockey Life that “unlike the Board of the CWHL, I’m not quitting on women’s professional hockey.”

Danièle Sauvageau, who is listed as a business advisor to the former GMs and players, was on L’Antichambre on RDS and the conversation went to the NWHL:

The ideal is to have one league. Is that league the answer? I’m not at all convinced. The quality, the experience, and the somewhat catastrophic establishment of that league a few years ago hurt the CWHL, and at the same time, Hilary Knight -- one of the best players -- left it. She has a lot of power and she chose to come to Montreal. There are others, as well, who chose to play in Toronto, who chose to play in Calgary. It was created with a model that, in some regards, exploits players in the sense that it tells them what to do and how to do it. I think those players came here to be part of a league where they would have some semblance of input and a voice.

It’s not simply the former CWHL staff and players not wanting to join the NWHL. It’s about the former staff and players working together to find a model that works for everyone. The players were adamant that they wanted one league (you can check out the #OneLeague hashtag on Twitter) to cover all of North American women’s professional hockey, but many have been pushing for the NHL, which has stated that they don’t believe in either the NWHL or CWHL model, to take over. It appears that some in women’s hockey aren’t convinced either.

In the end, the players may have more options than the one right in front of them. And they are the ones who will ultimately decide what is next. There are a lot of moving parts that will settle between now and October.

One thing is for sure when it comes to the players who are without a league: While they excel on the ice, they are sick of being left out in the cold.