Seeing Is Believing for CWHL Fans

Written by: Jehan Jiwa

League’s visibility will have multi-career impact for decades to come

There was a picture book back in the mid 1990’s called “NHL’s Top Rookies.” Each page featured bios and stats on NHL players who had either won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league’s Rookie of the Year or who had come pretty close. The book featured the likes of Mario Lemieux, Martin Brodeur, Pavel Bure, and Teemu Selanne, just to name a few.

While their rookie year statistics were amazing, it was the book’s first page that was the most impactful. The book started with a fictional, yet likely fairly accurate depiction of a rookie’s first NHL game. The years of hard work to get to this moment, the pre-game jitters, the sitting on the bench waiting for the first shift, the tap on the back from the coach, the leaping over the boards and onto the ice. It was quintessentially the journey to making the NHL, summed up in a paragraph.

Boys and girls enjoyed pouring over this book and reading the stories of how their favourite NHL stars came to be. For the boys, they read the first page and dreamed about the moment when it would be their turn to experience the thrills of their first NHL game. But for the girls, dreaming about being an NHL rookie stopped there – at the dream phase – because, as everyone knew, females didn’t play in the NHL and there was no equivalent league for women to play in.

Girls barely played minor hockey back then and there was no women’s hockey component to the Olympics. Girls played hockey, if they were able, on boys teams and maybe they got the unfortunate task of being put in net when their brothers played street hockey.

Fast forward to today and the Canadian Women’s Hockey League is providing a home and a stage for the world’s best female hockey players to strut their skills. All of a sudden, young girls can aspire to have their own “rookie shift” in the CWHL, and the league continues to provide a platform on which to showcase the sport around the globe.

Women’s hockey, right now, is at a critical phase of growth. A beneficiary of society at large where women are demanding equality and letting their performance help drive this change. The CWHL, women’s hockey, and women’s sports in general are on the uptake.

Not many people are old enough to remember the early days of the NHL, but reading about the foundational years, the one thing that stands out is the humble beginnings. Back then, it wasn’t about eight-figure salaries, multi-million dollar endorsement deals, and thousands of fans in the seats every game. The goal of the NHL back then was to find a sustainable model and connecting with the fans was at the core of its existence.

That’s where the CWHL is now. It’s baby steps each day to get the word out there that outside of the Olympics, where every 4 years, all eyes are on the sport for the games, there is a league where all of those great players are playing. It’s about connecting with the fans, especially the young girls, and letting them know that the players they are seeing on the ice today, are the players they can become tomorrow.

And it’s not just about providing an attainable dream for players.

At the Esso Cup Awards banquet in 2013, Olympic Gold Medalist Cheryl Pounder told a story about how minutes before Team Canada entered the stadium for the Opening Ceremonies at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, she caught sight of a member of the women’s hockey team’s therapy staff standing in a corner crying.

Upon asking what was wrong, the staff member told Pounder that as a child, she had tried to “make it” in virtually every sport she could find, but that she got cut from every team and eventually had to concede that she was never going to make it to the Olympics. And yet, here she was, just moments away from walking into the Opening Ceremonies of an Olympic Games as a member of Team Canada.

“There’s always a way. It may not be the route you expected to take, it may be different, but there’s always a way,” Pounder concluded her speech with.

The CWHL is providing a platform for females in several landscapes to hone and showcase their knowledge and their talents. The coaches, referees, trainers, broadcasters, commissioners, board members, managers, marketing and communications staff, and even the volunteers are being given their own platforms – their own “rookie shifts” – to live out a dream that perhaps they had given up on when playing in the league was not feasible for them.

The platform the league continues to provide is, in turn, producing people who will help the league attain its goals, but also people who will make the world around them better.

Former CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress has gone on to establish SheIS – a network to ensure careers as professional athletes become viable and sustainable for women. Former Board member Cassie Campbell-Pascall has gone on to become a mainstay on Hockey Night in Canada’s broadcasting team. Sami Jo Small has gone from  Clarkson Cup winning goalie to now General Manager of the Toronto Furies. Jayna Hefford, the league’s Interim Commissioner, is a recent Hockey Hall of Fame inductee and a former CWHL player herself. The league’s Board boasts everyone from former Olympians to lawyers to high-powered executives. The league has already partnered with 3 NHL teams and has negotiated TV visibility of their regular season games, All-Star Game and Clarkson Cup finals with Sportsnet.

And there is still so much more to achieve. A unified league stands amongst the top on any women’s hockey fan’s wish list. Fair salaries for players and staff, expansion into more markets (Vancouver says hi!), and overall greater visibility for the league and its superstars is still on the growing list of goals.

Looking back on the NHL’s early days, we hear about the builders – the men with a vision and dedication who drove the league towards what it is today. That’s what we get to do with the CWHL. This is our league to craft and mold today into what we dream for it to be tomorrow so that young girls and women of all backgrounds will feel the thrill of a “tap on the back” when opportunity comes calling for them.


Jehan is the winner of the January Globe and Mail Fan Article of the Month.