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Women's hockey has banner weekend in North America

The women's game is growing, and it was never more apparent than this weekend.

Shanna Martin

The two North American women's hockey leagues held their all-star games this weekend. The NWHL charged $20 a ticket, and drew about 1,200 fans in Buffalo, while the CWHL charged $10 a ticket, and packed close to 7,000 people in the ACC in Toronto. The interest in women's hockey clearly exists, and it has never been more apparent that right now.

The problem is that there are two leagues, one in its first year of operation (the NWHL) and one in its ninth. We've seen it time and again with professional sports; two leagues can't survive. Either one folds, or the two eventually merge (as was the case with MLB, NFL/AFL, NHL/WHA, etc.) For right now though, there are two leagues, something that players, coaches and general managers haven't said much about, until this weekend.

Hayley Wickenheiser is a rookie in the CWHL, something that may seem surprising. She's a four-time Olympic gold medalist, a seven-time IIHF World Women's Championship gold medalist, a ten-time Four Nations Cup champion, and she's the first woman ever to score a goal in a men's league (she played professionally in Europe).

Her name is synonymous with women's hockey, and she's a likely future inductee to the Hockey Hall of Fame. She recently wrapped her CIS career after five years as a member of the University of Calgary's hockey program, and was drafted by the Calgary Inferno, making this year her rookie CWHL season at 37 years of age.

This weekend, Wickenheiser dropped the proverbial gauntlet. On Friday night at the Frozen Fantasy All-Star draft, she told the crowd: "We all know there are two leagues. There should only be one league and this is THE league." She wasn't available to comment further after the draft, but she did provide some context after the all-star game on Saturday afternoon.

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Image Credit: Shanna Martin

"You've got to amalgamate into one league. One league with the best players in the world. Maybe have six to eight teams with two conferences, and the NHL behind it. Playing in NHL buildings, maybe on an afternoon of an NHL game that evening like we're doing today. More showcases," Wickenheiser told the media.

"But it's always a case of the chicken and the egg. You need corporate dollars to grow the game, and you need television. If you don't have one, you don't get the other, and that's where the crux of the game is right now."

Right now, most of the Canadian national team plays in the CWHL, while the majority of Team USA plays in the NWHL. Julie Chu is one of the few US National Team members who stayed in the CWHL. Chu captained Team Black at the CWHL all-star game, and plays defence for Les Canadiennes in Montreal. She also coaches at Concordia University.

"Once you graduated from college, you were really piecing things together to try to compete, and try to play, and it was challenging. It's challenging to be an elite hockey player when you don't have games, you don't have a league, you don't have structured practices. You can get open ice, but you can only work on your toe drag so much, obviously," Chu said.

"I know that I might not have gotten a chance to be on those Olympic teams if I hadn't had the CWHL as a support system."

As of right now, there are no plans to merge the CWHL and the NWHL. but the growth of women's hockey is everywhere you look. Thirteen million Canadians tuned in to watch Team Canada defeat Team USA in overtime to win the gold medal in Sochi in 2014 (compared to 15 million who tuned in to watch the men win Olympic gold).

The CWHL and the NWHL are the places to turn to watch these elite Olympians compete on a regular basis. Buying tickets and watching the live web streams is only the beginning in securing the long term financial success of both leagues, and to continue to support the women's game.