Monday, 5 June 2017

Welcoming The World

Every so often in a sports initial stages, there are some earth-shattering moments that take place. Obviously, historical moments will be remember, but there are events that change the course of the sports' history in profound ways. That being said, the CWHL decided to do a little shaking of the planet with the news of including a Chinese-based women's team that will play home games in China for the 2017-18 season. There have been other leagues who have played a game or two in Europe and Asia. There has even been a league that allowed a Russian-based team to play its North American teams for an entire season without having a home to call its own. However, for the first time in history, we'll see a professional league in North America welcome an Asian-based team to participate in a full regular season. History is being made!

Despite the CWHL not allowing the video of the press conference to be embedded, the announcement was made tonight in front of a small amount of press. The news of the women's league expanding is new in that most expansion was expected in North America as opposed to across an ocean. With the Minnesota Whitecaps still operating independently with Olympians in their fold, the natural thought was to see the CWHL incorporate them into their league. Instead, the league went off the board with this announcement.

"It is a very historic moment for Canadian women's hockey and for women's hockey across the world. The CWHL is extremely happy that we will be expanding to six teams and that sixth team will be in China. It's an opportunity to grow the game for women, which is important for all of us," Canadian Women's Hockey League Commissioner Brenda Andress told the press in attendance.

With China hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, the Chinese government is seemingly prepared to spend whatever is necessary in making their teams competitive when it comes to medals. The Kunlun Red Star group is a deep-pocketed organization who run a KHL franchise, and now have a five-year agreement with the CWHL as part of China's "2022 China Ice Hockey Action Plan" that focuses on increasing the country's status on the world rankings and on the ice. Joining the CWHL - seen as the premiere women's hockey league on the planet - should help with that goal.

With travel now including overseas travel, there seems to be a number of logistics to work out with scheduling, costs, and everything in between. Kunlun Red Star chairman Xiaoyu Zhao stated at the press conference that costs for the travel and accommodations in China will be covered by the Kunlun Red Star franchise. Each of the teams will travel to China on a week-long road trip that sees the visiting team play the host Kunlun Red Star squad three times in Shenzen, China at the Shenzhen Dayun Arena. The Red Star team will travel to North America on two-week road trips three times and play each of the five North American teams once. In total, all teams will play 30 games in the upcoming season, up from 24 the year prior. It's a 15-hour flight from Toronto to Beijing, but it seems that the league and the teams are willing to make that sacrifice to grow the game on a worldwide basis.

There was a second announcement at the press conference as Finnish goaltender Noora Raty and American defender Kelli Stack have both signed on to play for Kunlun Red Star for the upcoming season. Digit Murphy, the former head coach of the Boston Blades, will be behind the bench, and she'll be joined by recent Yale University head coach Rob Morgan as associate head coach. Former Chinese national team star Rui Sun will serve as the deputy sports director for the team.

It seems that the opportunity to add the sixth team in China happened relatively fast with the Kunlun Red Star group approaching the CWHL with the idea of joining the league for the upcoming season. Reports had the group approaching the league within the last eight months. To get this off the ground in that short time period required major efforts from both sides on this expansion. Clearly, both the league and the Chinese team are ready for the upcoming season.

The Chinese and Asian market for hockey is growing by leaps and bounds thanks to the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Games and the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games. The women's team finished fourth at the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games, but has since fallen to 18th-overall in the world rankings. China's investment in their program has seen the country's hockey programs put on fast-forward with some 400 rinks being built across the country prior to the 2020. For a country where 120 million people watched the Olympic gold medal game in Sochi 2014 and a reported 22 million people are watching the current Stanley Cup Final on TV - more than in Canada and the United States combined - the CWHL might be getting into the market at the exact right time.

There had been talk of the CWHL planning to pay players this season, and Commissioner Andress was asked at the press conference what the status of that plan was. She did tap-dance around the question without answering it directly, so there's little to report on that front except the status quo which is no firm pay structure at this time. While she left the door open, the league will probably want to look at costs and issues with this new travel schedule before committing to a set salary cap. That being said, if Kunlun Red Star is covering costs of travel to China, the issue of pay may be resolved before the start of the season yet. I admit there's a slim chance of that happening, but hope springs eternal.

The announcement today has the potential to be a major game-changer not only for the CWHL, but for women's sports entirely. Players such as Nachi Fujimoto and Sato Kikuchi in Boston, Akane Hosoyamada and Aina Takeuchi in Calgary, and Sena Suzuki in Toronto can be pioneers for Asian-born players across the world while the league itself embraces new cultures and players from faraway lands. By bringing in an emerging team in an emerging hockey market, the CWHL has the chance to possibly even cultivate an Asian Division that could include teams from China, Japan, South Korea, an eastern Russia who could square off against the North American Division champion for the Clarkson Cup. It would be a true "World Cup" for women's hockey if this partnership grows strong. From Commissioner Andress' comments, it seems the CWHL is dedicated to seeing that happen.

"Our national team and other national teams travel all around the world to play hockey. The next step for us is to do the same thing," she said. "We will work together with the CWHL Players' Association to make sure that when the players go to China for this experience that there’s a lot of great things to see, there's great hockey, they will play in a great facility and get top professional treatment that allows us to continue this partnership."

It's an exciting day for hockey, and women's hockey in particular, as the CWHL becomes the first true international hockey league with teams on three continents. How cool is that?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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