The Status of Women’s Professional Hockey: Where Are We Now?

The Canadian Women Hockey League’s (CWHL) Calgary Inferno and Canadiennes de Montreal faced off in the Clarkson Cup championship game on March 24, 2019. A record 175,000 viewers tuned in for the game, which was broadcast across the United States through an agreement with the NHL Network. The Calgary Inferno defeated the Canadiennes de Montreal with a final score of 5-2.

Following the championship and closing out its twelfth season, the league announced on March 31, 2019 that it would cease to exist as of May 1, 2019.

Although the loss of the CWHL came a shock to many, the need for a model change was inevitable. The CWHL had coexisted with the one other North American women’s professional hockey league, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL). As of October 2018, commissioners of both leagues were in discussions for a potential merger, which would cut the competition between talent pool and financial resources. Despite several meetings, the CWHL folded, leaving the NWHL as the only remaining opportunity for the growth of women’s professional hockey in North America.

The NWHL announced it would expand into Canada shortly after the CWHL announcement broke. The NWHL’s Board of Directors approved a plan that would establish teams in Toronto and Montreal. Additionally, following discussions with the National Hockey League (NHL), the NWHL announced that the NHL would become one of the league’s biggest financial sponsors. Although implications of the relationship remain to be seen, this could signal a shift towards a model similar to the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) relationship with the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).

The NWHL released an announcement that it would revisit expansion for the 2020-2021 season, ending the hopes that expansion into Canada would begin in the 2019-2020 season.

Despite the NWHL’s strategic planning, another question remains: are the players willing to move forward? Shortly after the CWHL’s demise, over 200 women’s hockey players announced a boycott of playing professionally until a single sustainable league could provide players with necessary financial and athletic support. Along with a boycott, the players formed a new Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, aiming to provide the representation necessary for the needs of the players.

As of now, the NWHL expects to open the 2019-2020 season in October 2019 with five teams: Boston Pride, Connecticut Whale, Buffalo Beauts, Metropolitan Riveters and Minnesota Whitecaps. As for the boycott, players are beginning to re-sign with NWHL teams, indicating hope remains now that there is a single women’s professional hockey league in North America.

It remains to be seen if the NWHL will exist in its current form or redevelop through a closer relationship with the NHL. The future of women’s hockey currently stands at a pivotal moment, but its popularity makes it likely that the program will continue to grow. We will continue to monitor the NWHL and future of women’s professional hockey.

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