Monday, 3 July 2017

Expansion For The Good Of The Game

One of the best things that happens late in the summer is the CWHL Draft. Dozens of women would be drafted to the five teams, and this season will see six CWHL franchises make selections with the addition of Kunlun Red Star. While it may sound like there wouldn't be logistics problems in drafting some 60-75 women into a six-team league, there are only so many open spots available for players to compete for on a roster. Most teams have two established goaltenders, so that doesn't leave a lot of positions open for those players, and there are only so many spots for skaters due to retirements or free agent moves. In saying that, it might be time for the CWHL to consider true expansion to allow a vast number of talented women to play in the league.

The expansion into China is a very unique situation in that it isn't a true expansion in the sense to which North American fans are accustomed. It's not like the Kunlun Red Star team is picking off players from the other five teams' rosters to build their team. No, they went out and signed free agent Kelli Stack. They have an agreement in place, it seems, to draft goaltender Noora Raty when the draft takes place. Zoe Hickel is also reportedly headed there. There are literally another half-dozen names of verified star players linked to Kunlun's team. If anything, the Kunlun team should be competitive from Day One with the other five CWHL teams.

Instead, the CWHL should look at domestic expansion in order to give a vast number of women who have been drafted in the past and who will be drafted in the future an opportunity to play professional hockey. This shouldn't happen tomorrow or even this summer, but there are a vast number of women who could be and should be playing hockey for the CWHL if only the league would consider traditional expansion. That's not to say they haven't considered it. After all, I have no access to the Board of Directors' meetings nor should I. But with the numbers climbing every year for the CWHL Draft, the CWHL is finding itself in the same place the NHL was with its Original Six teams in 1967.

Expansion is fraught with peril when it comes to a league-run, league-funded organization of teams. Any team that fails affect the others, so this examination of where and when to expand should be prefaced with the idea that if the five teams - again, China is a case on its own - are doing relatively well after the league's first season of paying the players and the league is still making money, it might be time to open up more jobs for women who exceptional in the game of hockey. There are too many women who are good enough to play in the CWHL that are not playing in the league right now due to a variety of factors, so the league should look at adding at least two more domestic teams.

League finances will be kept under close watch this season with the CWHL expanding its overall pay to it players, but this league has built markets and worked hard in those communities to carve out niches for themselves that are still growing at this moment. There are solid followings within a number of communities across North America where women's hockey is doing fairly well without a professional team, but the additional of a CWHL team would validate those efforts in one fell swoop. Places like Manitoba, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and northern Alberta have very well-established minor-hockey programs, junior programs, and university programs to help the success of teams that may set down roots there, and there are a vast number of players who would most likely move to those areas to play for said teams.

If the CWHL were to expand domestically, they need to look at making a Western Conference to give Calgary a fighting chance when it comes to expenses, as well as helping the other four teams with that long-distance between them and the Inferno. This would promote more inter-conference play while allowing more women into the game as there would potentially be 60+ new roster spots opened. Your playoff format would move from a four-team playoff to an eight-team playoff with the Western Conference champion meeting the Eastern Conference champion for the Clarkson Cup. The two conference playoffs could run at the same time, so the CWHL wouldn't even need to add weeks of play to its schedule for the playoffs.

In saying this, the league shouldn't necessarily add three expansion teams to play alongside the Inferno as that would set off a serious imbalance in the league with how good Calgary has been over the last few years. In fact, I recommend that they seriously consider the Minnesota Whitecaps as their first addition to the Western Conference simply due to the fact that the Whitecaps already run like a well-oiled machine. They would provide instant competition to the Inferno, and they are well-established in terms of a following within their market. Having two established teams in the Western Conference makes it better for the league as a whole.

The second place I would look at expanding to would be Edmonton, Alberta. The Alberta Pandas are a program in rich and deep history, and they would be an instant pipeline of talent for the newly-formed team in the Alberta capital. Alberta has outstanding minor-hockey programs as well, and the fans in Edmonton really do come out to support women's hockey. They have a number of hockey academies producing top-level talent, the Alberta Midget AAA program has a vast number of outstanding players, and there are a pile of Alberta-born and Alberta-trained players who would love a shot to stay in the province where they were born, raised, and taught to play hockey. It would also be perfect for road trips in that a two-day weekend road trip for the teams out east would see them play Edmonton and Calgary in the Alberta road swing. All in all, it makes too much sense for Edmonton not to be considered as one of the new expansion teams.

While some would say that the fourth team - second true expansion team - in the Western Conference doesn't make much sense, I believe it does. Winnipeg is a stone's throw from Minneapolis/St. Paul where the Whitecaps play. They have a strong female midget program in the province, a few good hockey academies, and the Manitoba Bisons women's program is the highest level of female hockey in the province. They have produced some high-end talent - Sami Jo Small, Jennifer Botterill, Jocelyne Larocque, and Halli Krzyzaniuk to name a few - for many other teams, and they continue to send top players to NCAA and U Sports teams across North America. Winnipeg would be the fourth team located in the Western Conference.

By filling out the Western Conference, the East would shift to Toronto, Brampton, Montreal, and Boston. Just as the 1967 expansion showed us, Montreal would most likely still be the class of the Eastern Conference for years to come, but Toronto, Brampton, and Boston would have ample opportunities to fill potentially-vacated roster spots with new talent as some players head west. Players like Jenelle Kohanchuk, Katie Wilson, and Bailey Bram could return to Manitoba to play. Players like Toni Ross, Emily Grainger, and Nikki Robinson may be able to find roster spots with Edmonton. Any and all of these vacancies will allow more women to get into the game than in the past, and it would literally make for a stronger CWHL.

You may be thinking that the NWHL will have to expand its season to accommodate these new teams. You'd be right, but I'd suggest that we wouldn't need to change very much. The season would expand to 32 games so that every team plays each other twice at home and twice on the road. The Kunlun Red Star team would visit North America twice for the two series while each CHWL team would visit China once with a two-game set in that country while doing ambassador work there as well. Growing the game will take a league's worth of effort, so let's get the league onboard with these visits to China. All in all, each team will play each other four times in a season with regional road trips - Brampton-Toronto, Montreal-Boston, Edmonton-Calgary, Winnipeg-Minneapolis. Two-game road sets would mean visiting these cities twice in a year. It makes a ton of sense to keep things "regional" within the framework of the league.

While I realize that we're talking years down the line for this idea to even be considered, it might be a good time for the CWHL to go exploring to see if there's a way to put down stakes in these cities. Growing the game has to happen domestically as well as across borders, so keeping the momentum up in North America is always going to be a challenge within the five markets the CWHL currently calls home. There's room for growth from within, to be sure, but there's also room for outward growth where the bigger, untapped market exists. Planning will need to be done - and maybe it already has been? - but the potential for the CWHL to go big is on the horizon.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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