Whether she was calling penalties, working tirelessly to put together sponsorship deals or gaining a foothold for her league in China, Brenda Andress has always had the interests of the best women hockey players in the world at heart. And now that she has left the Canadian Women’s Hockey League as commissioner after 11 years at the helm, Andress wants to focus on the positives.
“When people have asked me what my legacy would be with the CWHL, I’ve always said my legacy would be that it would continue if I wasn’t here,” Andress said in an interview with thehockeynews.com. “If it continued when I wasn’t here, my legacy would be fulfilled. I leave the league, in my opinion, viable and operationally strong. This league is operationally strong and it’s an exciting time.”
Eleven years ago, Andress was a driving force behind the CWHL rising from the ashes of the defunct National Women’s Hockey League and the Western Women’s Hockey League. Andress, who had refereed in the defunct NWHL, was brought in by the players, who were running the league at the time, to provide a vision for success and make it viable from a business standpoint. And Andress has done that, taking the CWHL from a mom-and-pop kitchen table operation to a league that, as of last season, began paying its players.
Since taking over the league, Andress has guided it through all kinds of smooth and choppy waters, bringing in heavy hitters such as NHL exec Brian Burke and businesswoman Arlene Dickinson, adding a team in the United States, branding the Clarkson Cup, dressing up the awards gala, forging partnerships with NHL teams and bringing the league’s all-star game to NHL venues. This past season, the league added the Kunlun Red Star and Vanke Rays from China, with Kunlun duplicating the Vegas Golden Knights success by advancing to the Clarkson Cup championship game. The league announced earlier this week that Vanke will be contracted next season, leaving the league with one China-based team and a total of six teams. Andress has also navigated the league through the emergence of a rival league, the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League.
Like many in women’s hockey, Andress believes the future of the women’s game lies in having one strong professional league with strong ties to the NHL. Andress was taken to task by former league governor Cassie Campbell-Pascall just before the latter resigned, saying it was up to both Andress and NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan to “get into a room 24-7,” to merge the leagues after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the NHL would likely start its own women’s league in conjunction with its existing clubs if the CWHL and NWHL did not exist.
“I stay true to what I’ve stated from Day 1, that North America, and the world as far as I’m concerned, needs one league,” Andress said. “Two leagues are not good for the future of women’s hockey. One league is what I’ve stated and one league is what I believe in. I hope that it eventually finds a way to become one league and I think that it will down the road. I don’t know how, but I think it will.”
For now, Andress plans to take some time off, but said she will always be involved in women’s hockey. In fact, last May she founded a non-profit called SheIs, which brings together the commissioners of all the professional women’s sports leagues to support women’s participation in all sports from grassroots to the professional ranks.
“I wanted to look at the next journey in my life and SheIs is a new not-for-profit company that I’ve just started up,” Andress, who will officially leave her post on July 31, said. “I also think that there’s opportunity out there for new blood. I’ve been doing this for (almost) 12 years and a business grows when new ideas and new vision comes in. The CWHL is in a really good place right now, it’s so exciting to see where it is, and I think this is a good time to leave. Not leaving the game, just leaving the league.”
Andress’ departure is the latest in a procession of high-profile members of the league in the last year. Andress joins Campbell-Pascall, Burke, Dickinson, executive director of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Foundation Michael Bartlett and philanthropist Sandi Treliving, all of whom have resigned as league governors in the past 11 months. In addition, businessman Mike McCarron resigned as a league director and prominent Toronto lawyer Jill McCutcheon left when her term expired. And director Peter Zukow, a prominent Toronto businessman, has informed the league that he will not be seeking a new term when his term ends next month. (Full disclosure: W. Graeme Roustan, owner of The Hockey News, remains as the sole governor of the CWHL. Roustan declined comment for this story.)
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