Whoever wished on that monkey’s paw for there to be one women’s professional hockey league in North America, way to go, that’s exactly what happened, because effective May 1, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League is closing up shop. So, yes, there will now be one league, as the National Women’s Hockey League is the one left standing.
Nobody knows exactly what will happen in the weeks and months to come, least of all the best players in the sport, who happen to be rather busy at the moment with the IIHF world championships in Finland having just gotten underway. But we do know that the National Hockey League is doubling its financial support of the NWHL – or, more accurately, is maintaining its budget for support of women’s hockey by redirecting the money it had been giving to the CWHL.
The exact amount of the contribution to women’s professional hockey being $100,000 is so perfectly wrong, only the NHL could manage to pull it off. If the league gave nothing, on the premise that it’s not their business to funnel money into leagues where they do not have a business stake, it would be short-sighted and a bad look, but at least logically defensible. Instead, the appearance is of giving out of obligation, with a dollar figure that sounds impressive but does little to nothing to really provide a boost.
How much is $100,000 to the NHL? It’s one month’s salary for a player making the league minimum. Or, you could say it’s $3,225 per team. The Florida Panthers could more than recoup that by selling one season-ticket package for 17th-row seats on the blue line next season. For a team with a better supply-and-demand situation, it’s even easier.
But then, the NHL isn’t really interested in seeing the NWHL succeed. Back in October, commissioner Gary Bettman told The Associated Press, “If at some point the leagues say, ‘We’ve had enough, we don’t see this as a long-term solution, we’d like you to start up and we’ll discontinue operations,’ then we’ll do it. But we’re not pushing it. If we’re going to get involved, it cannot fail, which means it has to be on us.”
You can forgive any skepticism about the NHL’s ability to not fail with women when, just a little more than two months ago, four women demonstrated the events at the All-Star skills competition and got paid exactly zero by the league for their efforts. After a social media campaign, equipment maker CCM stepped up to give Brianna Decker the $25,000 prize she should have won for having the fastest time in a passing drill, while the NHL went all George Costanza and gave $25,000 to charity in the name of each of the four stars of the sport it brought to one of the biggest events of its season.
If the NHL isn’t going to be of any real help, waiting for the NWHL to fail so that it can jump in and save the day, then all the NWHL can do is make the best of what it has: an excellent product with world-class athletes who play an exciting game in a fan-friendly environment. It’s not going to be easy, but there is interest, as shown by the 175,000 people who watched the CWHL’s championship game on television. The NHL is always going to be about itself first, just as the NBA – for as much good as it’s done – has shown with the WNBA. It’s worth doing, and it’s worth doing right. The biggest question ahead is whether the NWHL itself is up to the task.