At times like this, it's important to try to distinguish actual news from what is essentially just noise. Unfortunately, we live in the great age of PR-speak, so sometimes it is hard to tell the two apart. Most of the news cycle has been on Twitter today, so we're going to do our best to distill its essence, and let you know what we think.
part I, it's all still on fire
This yesterday and this morning, players, fans, and media were still pretty shellshocked. Some media appearances have been filtering out, with prominent voices in the CWHL speaking out. A common thread throughout these public comments has been that nobody had any idea this was coming, and that there has been a critical lack of support to the CWHL by those who could have made a difference – such as broadcasters/the media, the NHL, and the Board of Directors itself.
- CWHLPA co-chair Liz Knox joined CBC's The Current this morning, along with Courtney Szto and our own Kirsten Whelan.
- Last night, Sami Jo Small spoke on 590 The Fan. She very specifically says she does not buy the Board's explanation that the model was not financially sustainable since it was meant and designed to be a nonprofit.
- Chelsea Purcell, former GM of the Markham Thunder, has been particularly vocal on Twitter over the last year about the idea of an NHL-backed women's league. She also made an appearance on CTV's Your Morning yesterday with Erica Howe, essentially calling on the NWHL to "do what we did" and fold so that the NHL can step in.
You can search Twitter for any player or team staff member's name and see their ongoing reactions, grieving, and hopes for the future. They're raw and they're real. It'd feel a bit gauche to repeat them here. Suffice it to say, the unified sense of loss is overwhelming. Your standard talking points all apply, except in pure and genuine tones. They were doing this for the next generation of players, to give them a place to play. These teams were like family. They have always deserved better.
part II, just add gasoline, and breathe those fumes for good measure
It took Dani Rylan and the NWHL a few hours after the announcement to say that they were interested in expanding into the recently vacated CWHL markets. It took them less than two days to claim that this was officially going to happen, and less than two days for the NHL to throw its support behind the NWHL financially by redirecting money ($50,000) that they had previously given the CWHL to its American, for-profit counterpart.
As was pointed out by many, $100,000 is a completely ridiculous and inconsequential sum of money for the National Hockey League, which routinely gives such sums away as prizes, bonuses, and charity donations, as was masterfully highlighted by @AshonIce on Twitter (click through to read the whole thread; it's staggering):
However, $100,000 is a lot in women's hockey, where it's often the sum total salary for an entire roster in a season.
The wrinkle with this NWHL announcement is that no one from the CWHL was consulted. While there had been previous talks between the two leagues, there had been nothing since the news came down about the CWHL. The NWHL made this announcement without notifying anyone from Toronto or Montreal, the markets they intend to expand to by next season.
Look at it from the perspective of a CWHL player, coach, or GM. On Sunday morning, you woke up and all of your furniture was gone, including the bed you had been sleeping in. On Tuesday afternoon, a stranger tells the whole world that they're actually moving into your house, and they'll be receiving your work paycheck now – but you can stay, if you want. Relationships between Dani Rylan/the NWHL and the CWHL had not been good before this, and they aren't going to suddenly become good just because the former CWHL staff and players don't have their league anymore.
The general sentiment from the former CWHL teams is that they intend to persist in finding the best path forward for themselves – not just jump on board with the NWHL. This afternoon, all of the former CWHL general managers, as well as Liz Knox and Karell Emard on behalf of the CWHL Players Association, and Danièle Sauvageau acting as a business advisor, released a statement clarifying that there are no negotiations occurring with the NWHL at this time.
Earlier in the day, when asked if she or any other former CWHLers would play for the NWHL, Liz Knox said "not likely" to Kristina Rutherford of Sportsnet:
With the IIHF Women's World Championship less than two days away, everyone involved has emphasized that they do not want to make any decisions until those players return.
This includes the NWHL Players Association, per Anya Battaglino speaking to Erica Ayala:
Battaglino notably says that the two Players Associations will be meeting with each other and working together. So it's entirely possible that whatever the NWHL is planning (or, going to plan, since it seems they've rather put the cart before the horse here) may not go as expected if both groups of players intend to combine forces. A united front of all current professional players could have enhanced leverage to negotiate what all professional women's hockey players seem to want: that is, increased financial support in the form of a living wage; better access to resources; and real, meaningful exposure in the media with broadcasting deals and major media partnerships. It seems unlikely, though, that the NWHL will be able to provide this, especially if they're trying to pull off a Canadian expansion in less than six months.
part III, but wait there's more
Just going to leave this here.
This isn't the first time that the NWHL has talked expansion into Canada, except this time it's ostensibly a real thing and not a cryptic video posted after they awarded their first-ever Isobel Cup. But it still has the air of something completely astroturfed and not thought through, complete with some guy in Toronto who has allegedly never heard of the Toronto Furies or Natalie Spooner wondering when he can buy season tickets to a team that does not yet even exist or have players.
The other thing is the notion that the NWHL could just adopt the existing franchises, which Dani Rylan keeps bringing up as if it is a possibility. There is no indication that they could do that. The CWHL (and in some cases certain NHL franchises) own the existing logos and trademarks associated with those teams, and there is no indication that the staff associated with those teams are even on board.
Oh, and they might not even stop at two additional teams! In case you were wondering.
The NWHL also has issues with at least two of its existing franchises. They floated the idea of relocating the Connecticut Whale, who have yet to post a winning season record and have been steeped in personnel drama since the franchise was founded. The Metropolitan Riveters also went from winning the Isobel Cup last season to a dreary 4-12-0 record, despite having much of the same roster, thanks to what many have observed as absolutely abysmal and incompetent coaching which has gone without comment from the league itself. Expanding into new markets without having your current franchises on solid footing would, however, very much be in line with the NHL's business model.
Let's be clear: absolutely nothing about this is a done deal, and there will likely be no firm developments of any kind until all NWHL and CWHL players who are competing at Worlds return from Finland to participate in talks. The players are correct in that they have an immense opportunity here to get some of the power back in this situation from the people who have been holding the purse strings and also telling them what they are worth as a product.
Here's Liz Knox again, to Rachel Brady of the Globe and Mail:
"Adding teams in Toronto and Montreal just like that, this seems so quickly thrown together, where is all the information, the ownership the infrastructure?" Knox said. "For a group of women who have just been through what we've been through, a hastily planned idea doesn't sound so good to us right now."
"Where is all the information?" is indeed kind of a general theme of the last three days, which have sapped the mental and emotional energies of everyone involved who cares about the sport of women's hockey.
Here's hoping the Players' Associations can be the ones to get all the necessary information – and use it to their advantage.