Friday, 12 August 2016

Let's Slow The Expansion Talk

For as much as I give it to the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans on The Hockey Show, I happen to be a fairly regular reader of Pension Plan Puppets, an excellent Toronto-centric blog. The men and women who contribute to this blog have done outstanding work in the past, and I find their takes on the hockey world to be quite interesting in terms of providing a different perspective. I especially like to read up on their takes on the CWHL as they are at ground zero when it comes to covering the Toronto Furies. However, the latest CWHL article is off, in my opinion, as the writer, "nafio", proclaims that the number of players signing up for the draft means that the league should consider expansion.

Make no mistake in that I'd love to see this happen. Women's hockey has grown by leaps and bounds thanks to the groundwork laid by the CWHL and the work done by the NWHL. More players and staff are finding work in leagues outside the collegiate and university levels, and that's a good thing for both national team programs and for the sport as a whole. However, expanding now could be problematic for the CWHL with the changes that are impending for the next couple of seasons.

As nafio points out, there are some 81 women who registered for the CWHL draft and, unfortunately, not all will be drafted due to limitations on the teams and their rosters in the CWHL. For the first time in the league's history, there are literally enough players that would be left over that they could form an expansion team on their own and possibly compete for the bottom playoff spot.

What one must remember, though, is that this league will go through a major change in 2017-18 when salaried rosters are introduced. By cobbling together an expansion team this season, that team may face undue pressure with the introduction of a salary cap next season when players are paid. As you may be aware, the CWHL relies heavily on ticket and merchandise sales for its operating budget for each team, so the continued growth of the markets and fan bases should be priority-one for the current five teams. The league has shown sustained upward growth in the markets they currently inhabit, so getting that growth to continue would allow for the teams to have some additional wiggle room when it comes time to introduce salaried rosters next season.

In saying this, the other issue that the CWHL needs to face is the health of their only US-based team in the Boston Blades. The Blades have direct competition from the NWHL's Boston Pride, so the market is already divided with the two women's teams in the same city. Secondly, they endured a rather difficult season last year after the defections to the Pride by the majority of the women who play for the US national team, and GM Krista Patronick will need to rebuild the Blades quickly to try and grow the Blades' share of the market in Boston. I have faith in Patronick's ability, but the health of the Boston team is something of which the CWHL needs to be wary.

The fallacy that nafio falls into is confusing association with causation in that assuming one variable following the other in the flow of time is realistic. One doesn't necessarily result in the other. Just because draft classes are expanding does not mean that the CWHL necessarily has to expand whatsoever. Logically, it seems that the two would be related, but the two are not related in any capacity when you consider that the two ideas are independent of cause and effect ideologies. Larger draft classes do not necessarily mean that expansion is on the immediate horizon.

After writing all of the above, though, I do agree with nafio in that the CWHL will certainly have to look at expanding at some point. I think that there's a definite need to grow the league to allow more women to get into the game, but that time is still probably two to three years away. Once the league gets through the salary season and possibly a second season while paying players, the CWHL should have a much better idea on where expansion should occur based on league and team finances. That being said, where should the league expand to once it's ready?

The distance between the four eastern teams and Calgary is a gap that needs to be closed by having more teams in between the cities. While I'd be more than excited to have a team in Winnipeg, the CWHL really should be looking at Minneapolis with the WhiteCaps playing there. Having a second US-based team that is already established would be massive for the mostly-Canadian league, and would give the CWHL a boost with the number of US Olympians and stars that play with the WhiteCaps. Giving Boston a somewhat-direct rival could provide a lift for the Blades as well. It's still a hike to Calgary from Minneapolis, but having the WhiteCaps on the schedule could significantly benefit the CWHL.

On top of those reasons, Minnesota is a hockey hotbed for women's hockey, and there are a ton of colleges and universities around Minneapolis that would easily allow for a competitive WhiteCaps team to play season after season. If the CWHL were to include the WhiteCaps, we could see the WhiteCaps win multiple Clarkson Cups very quickly with all the talent they currently, and potentially could, have on their roster.

Another city that should be considered is Edmonton. The Edmonton-Calgary rivalry would be immediate, but it would provide visiting teams a two-game swing through Alberta before heading home. Edmonton was home to a previously great team when the Western Women's Hockey League existed, but there would be some work in finding a rink to play in that isn't named "Rexall". Nevertheless, having two teams in Alberta would reduce the "remoteness" of Calgary compared to the rest of the league, and could provide an excellent rivalry for the current CWHL champions.

If the western swing doesn't pan out or seems too unlikely, the three-year deal that the CWHL has with Scotiabank Place and the Ottawa Senators might provide for an excellent landing spot for the sixth CWHL franchise. Ottawa may have had a few fans who migrated in for the championship game last season, but there was a great crowd on-hand for the CWHL Championship series. If the crowds continue to grow in Ottawa over the next two years, expect Ottawa to be an ideal spot for the next CWHL team despite the city's distance from Calgary.

In any case, nafio and I do agree that expansion should happen for the CWHL. Hopefully, it would be within the next five years to match the growth of the CWHL draft classes, but the league has a few issues to work through before they start setting up shops in new cities. After all, strong franchises make for a stronger league.

If you're one of the 81 ladies who have registered for the CWHL draft this season, I truly hope you get drafted and can play beyond your final collegiate or university days. However, if you're one of those who doesn't get drafted, keep working hard and see if you can attract some attention as a free agent. Don't lose hope because there will be an opportunity soon. How soon, of course, all depends on how well the league is doing, so make sure you're supporting the league as best you can.

One day, you may have a job because of it!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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