Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Deep Breath... And Go!

Ok, so it happened. It really did happen, and it's not going to change. Jayna Hefford was on Sportsnet tonight and continued to offer her side of the story - I find it to be rhetoric, but whatever - about the CWHL's model not working and the need to fold the league in order for women's hockey to move forward. The league has been laid to rest, the dirt thrown atop the coffin, and the grave site is official. The CWHL is dead, and accepting this fact is the first step in moving forward from the period of grieving.

Deep breath.

It felt as though the NWHL put on their best dancing shoes and found a dance floor on the grave of the CWHL when, just 48 hours after the announcement of folding, the NWHL announced they had secured the CWHL's annual $50,000 payment and would be expanding into the markets of Toronto and Montreal. Those two markets were the key markets in all professional women's leagues that have come and gone, and they were the centerpieces to the CWHL. To have the NWHL seemingly sweep in and kick the corpses aside made a few people - me included - a little defensive.

Again, deep breath.

I was accused on Twitter of being "that person" who had nothing good to say about the NWHL. I'd like to clarify that that statement isn't entirely true. Yes, I was harshly critical of some of their business practices, accounting methods, and overall approach to the game, but they did a number of good things that need to be recognized.

First, finally getting the Minnesota Whitecaps to join the NWHL was a move of sheer brilliance. There was no doubt that Minnesota was a gold mine just waiting to be claimed, and they certainly showed incredible return-on-investment for the NWHL. While no one should be surprised that Minnesota was a successful market as selling hockey there is like opening a water stand in the desert, the fact that the team in Minnesota was more-than-successful both on and off the ice only reinforces the smart decision that the NWHL made in bringing Minnesota into the fold.

Second, the NWHL's social media strategy has always been superior to anything that the CWHL did, and I will credit the NWHL for using an unwavering resolve for shameless self-promotion via social media to really get their messages, promotions, and information out to the masses. The CWHL failed miserably at social media, and the team accounts, while occasionally inspirational and informative, often resorted to grade-school antics between themselves and some of their followers.

Finally, the synergies that were created by the NWHL in partnering with NHL teams were superior to those partnerships that the CWHL forged. In fact, having the Pegulas own a team allowed them to do a lot more with the Beauts than what the Flames and Leafs ever provided to the Inferno or Furies, respectively. While the bond between the Canadiens and the Canadiennes was strong, it still couldn't match what the Beauts were receiving and may have even fallen short of what the Riveters received from the Devils. In short, the NWHL may have formed better partnerships with NHL clubs than the CWHL franchises did.

Credit given where credit is due. Once more, deep breath. This might actually work.

The first thing that the NWHL should do, but appears that they won't, is review the markets they're in. They indicated on one of their releases that they were investigating a potential Connecticut Whale move in the future, but there are other glaring problems that I see when looking at the cities in which they play.

One example? Why is Boston such a poorly-attended team when it's in one of the largest markets that's supposed to be a "hockey city"? The Blades, when they called the city home, may have had trouble keeping fans as they bounced between rinks and had no household names on the roster, but the Pride should have been an easier sell with Olympians on the roster and a steady home in Warrior Arena. Yet they averaged just 706 fans over eight home games last season - a total of 5648 people in a season. That's almost unbelievable, but the numbers were published by the NWHL. Why does Boston not show up to watch women's hockey?

Regardless, deep breath. Here's why these deep breaths are needed.

This, in theory, CAN work. If a not-for-profit model worked for so long, a for-profit model should be able to pick up the pieces and start working with those sponsors and backers to get things rolling. It's not perfect as there is a lot of money being left on the table without the inclusion of Calgary, but the NWHL seems confident enough to add two more teams in Canada's biggest markets. I fear this might be a bigger jump than they should make at this time, but time will tell if this was a wise move.

The harsh reality is that there are no other options for fans of women's hockey at this very moment. Even if you don't like the NWHL for whatever reason, one has to look at this objectively as a viable option for women who want to play professional hockey because, at the end of the day, professional women's hockey gets relegated to a niche sport once more at best if the NWHL now fails. And if the NWHL fails, the naysayers and internet trolls win because women's hockey will only be "relevant every four years" at the Olympics.

Look, I'm not saying you have to buy season's tickets and every piece of merchandise that you can find, but that would help immensely. There will be players - more than a few, it seems - who opt not to play in the NWHL, and that's their right and their freedom to choose. I was likely one of Dani Rylan's biggest critics and certainly one of her league's biggest detractors, but I need to swallow my pride because this may be professional women's hockey's last chance to be a part of the North American sports landscape.

I won't buy tickets because there's no team near me. I'm not going to buy merchandise because it costs a minor fortune in shipping to get it to me. I understand that after everything I said above, I'm doing the opposite of what the NWHL needs - solid revenue streams. But I do realize that this may be the only league for women's professional hockey for what could be a very long time.

Take a deep breath, women's hockey fans, and let the anger and frustration dissipate because this might very well be our last chance at having a professional hockey league for now where we can watch the best women to ever tie on a pair of hockey skates compete.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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