Mark Weightman, the Vice-President, Development & Operations of Place Bell and the Laval Rocket for Groupe CH, the tip of the pyramid that includes both the Rocket and the Canadiens, has been one of the most involved people within the organization at supporting women’s hockey.
He credits his time with Linköping Hockey Club as a senior marketing advisor for seeing how men’s and women’s hockey teams can work together and help each other. Last year, he started a partnership with Les Canadiennes of the CWHL where he gave them office space, practice time, and games at both the main rink and the community rink.
With the CWHL folding, he is continuing to support the PWHPA. The Montreal chapter holds practices at Place Bell, and the first AHL/PWHPA doubleheader was announced for December 28 when the Montreal chapter will face the Minnesota chapter following the Rocket taking on the Toronto Marlies.
Weightman doesn’t see himself or the Rocket as taking on a specific role in supporting women’s hockey.
“I just see it as a wonderful opportunity to be able to put these girls on the pedestal that they deserve and put on this kind of a show and entertain,” Weightman said. “I think whether we’re being leaders in showing the way or if you see that just as doing our part, either way I just see it as something that is very positive for hockey in general. We’re just excited about it.”
One of the things that the Canadiens organization have constantly said is that supporting women’s hockey is simply supporting hockey. It’s a statement that Weightman repeated at the announcement. If you ask Weightman, or any women’s hockey players, the biggest challenge is getting people to be aware of not only the quality of play, but that it exists at all.
“If you’ve never seen it, you don’t know what you’re missing,” Weightman said. “I have yet to meet anybody who’s walked out of Place Bell after a Rocket game, or anybody who came to our games last year where the Canadiennes were playing where they didn’t walk out of there going ‘well, that was that was awesome. I’ve got to come again’”
“The hardest thing for us is to get people to come through the door for the first time,” said Canadian Olympian Ann-Renée Desbiens, who will be playing for the Minnesota team. “Once they see a game they like to come back, but I feel a lot of people don’t know. So to have venues that encourage people to come those are really important to us.”
Montreal has had the most consistent support for women’s hockey as a market, playing before sold out crowds and having some of the highest regular season attendances in North American women’s hockey history thanks to games at Place Bell and the Bell Centre over the last three years.
“The Montreal market over the years has been a very saturated NHL market because we have the ultimate privilege of having the Montreal Canadiens,” Weightman said. “So we’re educating people about what it’s all about. And again, same parallel here, the Rocket or women’s hockey and getting them to try it once. [Those are] your first two big steps. Once you accomplish that, people come back.”
The Rocket, and by extension the Canadiens — the announcement was held at the Bell Centre, not Place Bell — are not the only men’s team to be involved with the PWHPA but they are the first to use their arena for a PWHPA game in Canada.
“I think before the clubs didn’t necessarily know how to get involved,” said Hilary Knight. “Now this is an open door to say, ‘hey we want to bring you guys here.’”
After a slow start to the season, things are ramping up. Montreal in particular are hosting two games in December before a Toronto showcase featuring six teams in January. Other events are in the works for the 2020 part of the schedule. Knight says they are running out of available weekends for the rest of the season.
Knight also says that they are hitting their stride in terms of organizing the Dream Gap tour and other events.
“When you come from a place of just playing hockey...” she starts. “I’m a history major. We have some players who are communications majors. We never learned event planning so we’re figuring this out as we go along but we have the right partners in the room to help cultivate the right product.”
The fact that the CWHL announced it was folding in March put an accelerated strain on the time they had to be organized. There is still work to be done and players are planning for every eventuality regardless of if they have a new league ready for next season.
“With the CWHL folding, the time window that we had to put something like this together while maintaining our status of players is unconscionable,” Knight said. “We’re going to be a well oiled machine. If we have to do a Dream Gap Tour year again then we’ll do it again and it’s going to be even bigger and even better and I think that’s what’s exciting is that there’s so much more attention on it.”
Weightman doesn’t see this game as being the end for what the Rocket and Canadiens can do. “I’m an eternal optimist. I always want to do more,” Weightman said adding that he was thinking of adding more to the two games the Rocket hosted a year ago before the league folded.
“We’re always looking to see what we could do next,” he said. “This is our opportunity as an organization to support women’s hockey.”
Between games and event planning, the PWHPA also has players representing their National teams. Hockey Canada has held mini camps throughout the season so far, and Canada and the USA played earlier in the year in Pittsburgh. The Rivalry Series kicks off with games Saturday in Hartford and Tuesday in Moncton, New Brunswick.
Taking a stance by not playing in any post-collegiate women’s league in North America, and the NWHL being the only such league in North America has raised tensions off the ice. Knight recently took a lot of heat for calling the league a “glorified beer league” among other things in a recent article, something she said about the CWHL as well.
“It’s tough because you want to have these frank interviews and you want to tell people what’s going on and then people bash you for being honest...” Knight said. “It does take another level of energy to block out the noise and make sure we have the right information to continue to succeed.”
“We’re too stubborn to fail,” she said.