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For women’s hockey, #oneleague is easier said than done

Everyone knows the destination but no one knows how to get there.

CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress welcomed Hilary Knight back to the CWHL after her first game.
Shanna Martin

At this point it’s more than a movement.

Cassie Campbell has talked about it, and then left her position at the CWHL. Players in both the NWHL and CWHL have tweeted and talked about it. Even Gary Bettman has talked about it. If the adage is ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire,’ there’s plenty of smoke.

It is the wish among those involved in women’s hockey to see one professional league in North America that sees the best players competing with and against each other every year.

It used to be this way. Up until three years ago, the CWHL was the only North American league around for women who wanted to play after university. The NWHL came along with salaries and split the landscape.

A lot of people in women’s hockey would agree that the NWHL was necessary. It moved the game to American markets that were ignored, and, more importantly, gave a push to the status quo. The NWHL forced the CWHL forward, and vice versa. There has been more progression in the last three years than in the eight previous years the CWHL existed as the only option.

But those people now are calling for one league.

Easier said than done

It seems so easy. The CWHL has seven teams, including one in Boston. The NWHL has four teams, including one in Boston. Put them together, keep one Boston team, and you have a nice round number: 10.

Easy, right?

Not so fast.

For whatever reason — probably equal parts optics and resentment — the two leagues barely communicate (or even acknowledge each other by name) publicly. Brenda Andress says that they discuss privately, but the fact remains simple: if Andress, the CWHL commissioner, and Dani Rylan, the commissioner of the NWHL, wanted some collaboration like so many of their players do, there would be some collaboration.

The NWHL may still have pending litigations both from former investors and suppliers. In any type of merger, that would have to be taken care of.

In Montreal two weeks ago, Andress said that she always wanted one league. What she didn’t say didn’t have to be said: she wants that league to be the CWHL. And I imagine the same goes with Rylan and the NWHL. That’s what fuels the frustration we’re seeing bubble over.

I can see how this ends. A league ends up happening with the current teams (call the Boston team the BladePrides so that no one feels left out) and it will be called the WNHL with NHL blessing. I don’t know how we get there or what discussions need to take place to get there. I also don’t know how long it will take. Does it happen by 2022?

What happens next?

Of course, the tension is very high. Every interview with every big name has the one-league storyline underlying it. The CWHLPA has also made its opinion felt, and players are tweeting it on their personal accounts.

But here’s the ironic thing in women’s hockey: in the current landscape, until players get paid a living wage, they call the shots.

Hilary Knight wants to play in Montreal? She can. Alex Carpenter wants to play for Kunlun? No problem. Jess Jones wants to play for Buffalo in the NWHL? She’s a Beaut.

So if the best players want to get together and play together in one league, they can — whether or not the commissioners combine their leagues.

Of course, this isn’t ideal. Players who want to live in New Jersey or Connecticut don’t have an obvious place to play in the CWHL (much like players who want to stay in Canada in the NWHL). With salaries somewhat similar (of course the American and Canadian dollar is a real difference), the players can call the shots if they want to.

This also takes away jobs from the “bubble” players. Like I said, this option isn’t ideal for everyone, but it’s still an option.

Another wrinkle is that the Beauts are no longer owned by the NWHL. The Pegula family bought the team, and are the owners. Could they just switch leagues on their own? (I don’t actually know. This is a legitimate question.) If the commissioners don’t make the move, there may be options for the other parties involved.

I have personally felt for years that it isn’t good for women’s hockey to have a combative nature between the two leagues. It divides eyes, it divides sponsors, and it divides players and ends up diluting the product as a whole. Even if the two leagues have to exist, they should at least work together.

The Olympics are a big stage, but only 23 players per country get to taste that every four years. I’m sure CWHL fans would love to get a glimpse of Amanda Leveille, the best goaltender in the NWHL this past season and MVP candidate, just like NWHL fans would love to get a look at Ann-Sophie Bettez, a perennial MVP candidate in the CWHL or Noora Räty, who had retired from women’s league play after the Sochi Olympics before the opportunity with the Kunlun Red Star.

When Olympians come back after what is always a memorable Gold Medal Game, it's no fun to have the Americans in one league and the Canadians in another. That is what’s driving the one-league movement.

Everyone involved in women’s hockey wants to carry the momentum from the Olympics forward — even the two commissioners. It's how they choose to handle the next off-season that will be interesting to watch.

Everyone involved knows how they want it to end. But there are many roads to get there, and no one has a map.