Sunday, 31 March 2019

Dreams Dashed

Some thought this was an early April Fools' Day joke, but I can assure you that it is certainly no joke, even in the slightest way. As of May 1, 2019, the CWHL will follow the same path as the WWHL, the first iteration of the NWHL, and a handful of other women's pro leagues that were full of promise, but ultimately ended up in the sports world cemetery. It's an unfortunate end to a league that looked like it was on the way up, but this end may have been on the horizon as it stood.

I want to be clear that I am speculating here, but I'm going on record to say that 2022 was likely the last season that the CWHL would have existed. Why that year, you ask? That was the year that the agreement with the Shenzhen investors would have ended. As you may recall, the announcement to pay players in the CWHL came about at virtually the same time that the Chinese investors were brought onboard with the league. Some will say coincidence, but I truly believe that had the Chinese investors not made a significant investment in the league at that time, we would have had this conversation a lot sooner rather than now. There is no way that the CWHL was in a position to pay players based on revenue generation before expanding into China and receiving the money from their Chinese investors.

Again, I'm speculating, but I raised the questions to the CWHL that we were seeing very little progress being made with the Chinese players who are on China's radar for the 2022 Beijing Olympic team, so what if the team had reviewed the results at the end of this season and simply decided that they weren't getting the return-on-investment they thought they'd see? These are businessmen first and hockey people second, so seeing return on the team they're bankrolling for 2022 would need to be significant if China is going to medal in women's hockey - something they have said is a goal on home soil.

That return? It's marginal at best right now.

Rachel Llanes is one of the best Chinese-heritage players in the CWHL, and her career stats in that league have seen her play 92 games while posting 23 goals and 25 assists. Jessica Wong is another Chinese-heritage player whose career stats have seen her play 94 games while amassing 17 goals and 46 assists. In other words, the North American-born players with Chinese heritage who likely will suit up for China in 2022 are middle-of-the-pack players when it comes to the elite talent in the CWHL.

But here's where things fall apart when it comes to the CWHL-Shenzhen deal.

Baiwei Yu is a Chinese-born player from Harbin, China who has played 54 CWHL games where she's scored two goals and five assists. Qinan Zhao is from Harbin as well, and she has one goal and seven assists in 54 CWHL games. Minghui Kong, also from Harbin, has played 56 career CWHL games and has just two goals and two assists to her name.

At what point do they expect any of these players to break out if they're skating on the third- and fourth-lines? Yes, it was probably a little ridiculous that the Chinese government thought that the Chinese-born players could skate with the likes of Poulin, Knight, Spooner, and Jenner, but you'd hope that your top Chinese-born player would have more than seven points in two seasons after assembling some solid talent such as Alex Carpenter, Hanna Bunton, and Cayley Mercer to play with them.

Further to this point, Kimberly Newell, who has Chinese heritage and will likely start for China in net in 2022, has played in just 10 CWHL games in her career while posting a 5-3-0 record, a 2.19 GAA, and a .904 save percentage. Even worse, Yuqing Wang, another Harbin native, played just 20 minutes in one game this season, and has a career numbers of 4-2-1, a 1.89 GAA, and a .905 save percentage in just 11 games over two seasons. In looking at those numbers, it seems the Shenzhen team was more concerned with winning as Finnish goaltender Noora Raty played in 40 games over the last two seasons.

In other words, two seasons of virtually zero improvement from Chinese-born players may have the group of businessmen in Shenzhen feeling like their money wasn't being well-spent. With no details on the contract that the CWHL and the Shenzhen group signed, it's possible that there was an out-clause in there for the Chinese investors which was activated at the conclusion of this season. If that's the case, I have serious doubts that the CWHL was generating enough revenue on their own to continue playing players.

Of course, this is all far-fetched, complete, and entire speculation on my part, but if the CWHL can't pay players, the league is dead. It's that simple.

Let me be clear here, though, in saying that I'm an optimist. I've watched a lot of women's hockey over the last number of years, and I can't simply be content in saying that the book is closed with regards to the work done by the CWHL over the last twelve years. There are too many skilled players and too many exceptional women to let this effort die. And here's where I lay my optimism on the table with one tweet:
If this is truly the first step in having the charitable fund that made the CWHL possible allow themselves 30 days to close off all the loose ends on the way to one league, this is a necessary first step. Legally, if the CWHL was going to merge into or be acquired by another entity, the charitable fund that holds the operating money for the league would need to relinquish its connection to the league. By doing so, that would end all funding for the league, so the league would have but one option to consider: dissolving.

By doing so, the remaining franchises and trademarks owned by the league would then be able to be purchased and/or transferred to a new entity. With the NHL having maintained its position that it would only get involved when there was no alternative for women's hockey or if there was one unified league, it seems that this move - if calculated properly - would open the door to the NHL's involvement as it was entirely a pipe dream to think that the CWHL and the NWHL could ever merge peacefully. With only one league hanging on for relevancy now, the NHL's involvement in running a women's hockey league just got significantly better.

I'm not convinced that having the NHL running a women's league is the right answer, but they have deep enough pockets and numerous resources that if they make a mistake or don't get the immediate fan support, it's not a national emergency. They can afford to take risks which is something that women's hockey was never able to say in either league.

It's still a day of black clouds hanging over the hockey world. Losing the CWHL means that 120 amazing women will now spend their summers weighing options and figuring out where they play next season. Many more people who ran the benches and sat in the front offices will need to figure out what they do next as coaching jobs, trainer jobs, and front office positions in sports are few and far between. There is nothing good that comes from this announcement, but there has to be a next step taken now that the announcement of the league folding has happened.

Two important questions are born out of this: who makes that next step happen, and when does it come? Time will certainly tell, and the clock is ticking.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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