Saturday, 12 December 2015

More Than A "Blunder"

There's no denying that Hilary Knight is as every bit an icon that Cammi Granato was for young girls today when they need a hockey hero. She scores in bunches, she's a natural leader, and she's extremely personable in meeting and greeting fans. These factors are part of the reason, I assume, that made Dani Rylan fight so hard for the NWHL to be featured as one-half of the women's game that will be played at this year's Winter Classic. It's the biggest stage right now for the biggest and best stars that her league features, so putting the roster of Olympians into the game makes sense when trying to promote the game.

Until USA Hockey stepped in.

USA Hockey shouldn't be vilified here, though. They had planned a camp long before this hockey season started that allows for Hockey USA's players - many who are collegiate-aged players - to attend without disrupting their lives. This camp runs from December 27 until December 31 in Minnesota, so it's a centrally-located, easily-reached location for players who may need to commute from various schools and programs across the USA.

With the Winter Classic women's game scheduled for December 31, you see the conflict at this point. For players who play for the Pride and are part of USA Hockey's program, this means that they would be required to leave on December 30 to rejoin the NWHL club in time for the December 31 game. I'm quite certain that USA Hockey may not cut the likes of Knight, but some of those players further down the roster could have their roster spots called into question if they happen to walk away from the camp at the midway point. USA Hockey has a mandate going into the World Championships, and they want to see their goals attained as well.

Ken Campbell of The Hockey News threw a little fuel onto the fire with his article today that outlined the battle between the NWHL, USA Hockey, the CWHL, and the NHL that is underway over this scheduling conflict. He writes,
The USA Hockey source said the players themselves are free to skip the camp to play in the game if they choose to, but it would put their chances of playing in the World Championship, scheduled for March 28 to April 4 in Kamloops, "in serious jeopardy." The source said USA Hockey wants to do everything it can to help promote the women's game, but has had this camp in place for more than a year now. Since the camp takes place in Minnesota and the outdoor game is in Boston, it would necessitate the players missing two of the four days of the camp, one that is critical in evaluating who will represent the country at the World Women’s Championship.

There is precedent for USA Hockey to excuse players from World Championship camps and has done so in the past to allow players to play in the Frozen Four tournament, the championship to decide the national collegiate champion in the U.S. But there is a marked difference between a national collegiate championship where all of the players involved are on athletic scholarships and an exhibition outdoor game.
Mr. Campbell notes in his last statement that "there is a marked difference between a national collegiate championship where all of the players involved are on athletic scholarships and an exhibition outdoor game". He's very right about that, but there's also a second factor that goes into that statement that he didn't actually frame.

There is a very strict period of time where collegiate-aged players can be away from school in December due to exams, and this schedule rarely changes each year. Because of this, USA Hockey is almost at the NCAA's whim as to when to schedule their camp out of respect to the collegiate-aged players USA Hockey has on its roster. It's this respect, though, between the NCAA and USA Hockey that allows NCAA-level players the opportunity to miss time during the school year for international tournaments.

The NWHL and CWHL don't have collegiate-aged players on their rosters, though, so this camp may have been an oversight on their parts, especially for the NWHL who focuses exclusively on American-born players. However, both leagues boast partnerships with USA Hockey so there definitely should have been some awareness about this camp. Both leagues factored in breaks for their leagues during the Four Nations Cup to allow the respective players competing in that international competition the time they needed for their international commitments, so it's not like these two women's leagues aren't aware of the time needed by the international programs to grow the game and continue to add to its success.

Again, the question must be asked: how was USA Hockey's World Championship camp overlooked completely by the NWHL? Once more, we take information from Mr. Campbell's article.
A source close to the CWHL said the league originally had an understanding with the NHL to provide two of its teams – the Canadiennes and the Boston Blades – for the outdoor game, a plan that changed only recently when a source said a lobbying effort by the NWHL to the NHL prompted a change in plan to allow the Boston Pride to replace the Blades in the outdoor game. A spokesperson for the NWHL said Rylan has no comment and will have a statement on the status of the game on Monday.
"No comment." This seems to be the modus operandi for the NWHL at the moment whenever they are asked questions that require some explanation for which they have no answer. "No comment" is a safe way of avoiding a question for the time being, but it also offers up some damnation in that "no comment" allows the public to fill in the blanks before the league can speak out publicly about its side of the story. For a woman like Miss Rylan who has worked in the media and taken her master's degree with a slant towards sports media, she should know the damage that "no comment" can cause when hot topics are allowed to fester.

I, however, will not do that. I want to see what Miss Rylan has to say on Monday, and I anticipate that solutions will be similar to what Mr. Campbell postulated in his article.
One possible scenario would see the Pride round out its roster with players from other NWHL teams with New England roots, something it's believed the CWHL does not support. It is not known whether the CWHL would withdraw its participation from the game, but it's clear the Canadian league is not pleased with the most recent development. A source close to the CWHL said the league is waiting to see what will be planned for the game before it makes any announcements.
Honestly, allowing the Pride to pick up any players it likes to fill out its roster is pretty ridiculous to consider. This isn't a CWHL-NWHL all-star game, and allowing the Pride to assemble the best-of-the-rest stacks the deck in their favour heavily.

However, the timing of the NWHL's resolution to this conflict - a mere 17 days before the event - is forcing the CWHL into an untenable position in that it either plays with the deck stacked against Les Canadiennes or it withdraws from the event and faces heavy criticism. Neither option is good for the CWHL's image, and, for two leagues who are supposedly are doing this for the best interest of the game, it seems their personal politics and differences go directly opposite to what's good for the game.

No, this was no blunder as Mr. Campbell wrote. This is one league who is desperately doing everything it can to make it onto hockey's biggest radar in the US and trying to win the NHL's attention only to find out its marquee roster is decimated by Hockey USA's goal of winning a gold medal at the World Championships. As a result, the one seemingly logical solution of allowing the Pride to build a team from the rest of the rosters in the NWHL puts the NWHL at a significant advantage both on the ice and in the eyes of the public if the CWHL doesn't acquiesce to their wishes. And if they do acquiesce, there's a good chance that Les Canadiennes may lose on December 31 to the NWHL's faux all-star squad which will only boost the image of the NWHL in the public's view who don't know the backstory to this whole debacle.

Kudos to the NWHL for turning a negative into a positive if I can deliver my own backhanded compliment. It takes real skill for the NWHL to turn unpreparedness and the inability to communicate with its partners into a positive for itself and a negative for its main competitor in the CWHL who was both prepared and working with its partners. While some seriously-biased NWHL apologists have made it clear that Hockey USA should be vilified for their decision, the fault of this entire problem lies directly at the feet of the NWHL who either can't read a schedule or refuses to work with its partners. It's these same NWHL-slanted apologists who seem to think that Hockey USA wouldn't hold these players back if the tournament was held in Canada. Because when all else fails for your beloved NWHL, hey, blame Canada.

No, the best answer right now for the NHL would be to keep these two squabbling sides apart from one another. Both make backhanded comments about one another, neither agrees with the other on anything, and there is clearly a bit of one-ups-manship going on so that one league always comes out looking better than the other. The NHL should do what any good parent would do with two siblings who can't be in the same room as each other without raising holy hell: ground them.

Yes, that's right: cancel the game outright before one ticket is sold. If the two leagues can't play nice, then they can't play at all. The NHL won't see much backlash from the women's leagues' fans and if they feel any heat, all they need to do is issue a statement that says the two leagues couldn't come to an agreement that satisfied the needs of both leagues. Put the issue back on them, and let them deal with the fallout. The NHL is doing both of these leagues a favour by including them in the Winter Classic, and these two are fighting like the Hatfields and McCoys in the process of looking out for the "good of the game".

Depending on the announcement from the NWHL on Monday and the CWHL's reaction to it, the NHL should be prepared to kill this game entirely. At this point, it's the only way to put this headache to rest.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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