Friday, February 27, 2009

She Shoots, We Score

Is A Pro Women’s Hockey League Far Off?

It’s Saturday night in Brampton and the Thunder is giving it to the Montreal Stars. Forwards are flying down the ice, slicing by the defense, letting shots rip. There’s a battle in the corner for the puck, which springs from a knot of players. It’s scooped and fired at the net. The goalie gloves it and the whistle blows. Rival players shove and yap at each other until the referee calls two penalties for roughing. The players go off but it’s all for naught – Brampton is ahead by four goals and there’s a minute left on the clock. There’s the feeling that after the buzzer sounds the teams will brawl, but it doesn’t happen. Destroying an opponent on ice is enough for Brampton. The first place Montreal Stars has not only been humiliated, now the team has to make the painful trek down the 401 in a snowstorm.

The fans stand and cheer for the Thunder. It’s announced that Hefford has just hit 100 points, a league record. The stands clear, folks filing out happy and satisfied. For seven dollars, they have just seen Olympic calibre hockey. They have. This is the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, home to some players on Canada’s national team.

“We started the league in 2007 after the NWHL folded” says Sami Jo Small, Olympic medalist and goalie for the Mississauga Chiefs. “Instead of waiting for someone to step in, a few of us decided to form a league ourselves. We organized and learned as we went. We registered under the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association, who helped us with rules and regulations, how to hire refs – everything we needed to run a league. “

It’s a thrill watching women’s hockey at an elite level. It’s a game of finesse and elegance, a fast, intense sport where the players are supremely skilled and conditioned. It’s a game where women are free to be themselves. The league doesn’t have to worry about marketing the game like it’s a novelty anymore.

“Women had to smile and look perfect in pictures,” says Brenda Andress, executive director of the CWHL, “but we’re in a time right now when the game is so excellent, it’s okay to see the real side of what makes us tick.”

Fans are past the days of side shows like Manon Rheume playing an exhibition game in the NHL. Judging by the 1500 people or so at a typical outreach game, the CWHL is proving itself a definite alternative to the NHL for hockey fans.

A pro women’s hockey league in North America isn’t a pipe dream. NBA MVP Steve Nash is an investor and part owner of Women’s Professional Soccer, a new soccer league launching this year with teams based in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New Jersey/New York, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. Andress thinks now is the right time for women’s hockey.

“There’s huge power within our league, so much skill and passion. It’s unbelievable that this skill could be here and no one knows about it. We’re bringing it to life ourselves.”

The CWHL has charitable status and is actively looking for sponsors to take the league to the next level. Currently, all players in the CWHL work or go to school full time. Some have small children. Sometimes Small babysits for the Chief’s Cheryl Pounder when she needs to go to practice.

“Cheryl’s with the national program and she couldn’t go skate because she couldn’t find a babysitter. The players help each other out that way, when the husbands aren’t available.”

Both Small and Andress are enormously grateful for the many people who volunteered and worked hard to get the league where it is today. They see it as catching on with a wider audience like the NHL original six did. Andress talks trades, drafts, coaching, revenue distribution — the whole shebang.

“We started up the CWHL because there was nowhere for elite players to go. A lot of Americans come up to play. They have the best university programs, but nowhere to play afterwards.”

Small played in a European women’s league briefly, but she says it’s not the same as here.

“Canadian players are the best in the world, and in North America, the best play in our league. If we could pay people, imagine how far we could go.”

Seeing excited little girls lining up to get an autograph from their hockey heroes after the match in Brampton, it’s easy to imagine the CWHL won’t have to wait long.

CWHL playoffs start in March. The final is on TSN, March 21 at 1pm.

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