Last weekend, Toronto Furies GM Sami Jo Small found herself in a room with the rest of her CWHL counterparts for the annual GM meeting. It was standard fare, Small said, as she and her fellow GMs discussed improvements that could be made in the off-season, what they would like to see happen in upcoming campaigns and touched on best practices moving forward.
However, despite members of the league office being present, what was never broached was the possibility that the 2019 Clarkson Cup would be the last, that the league was on the brink of shutting its doors or that the entire operation was mere days away from being deemed “economically unsustainable,” as the CWHL put it Sunday when it announced that the league will be ceasing operation on May 1.
“It never came up,” Small said. “This was never part of the conversation.”
Suffice it to say, Small was blindsided Sunday morning when she was informed on a conference call that the plug was about to be pulled on the CWHL. She wasn’t alone. No one had any inkling this was coming; not the players, not the coaches, not the management. Speaking on behalf of the players during the conference call, Markham Thunder goaltender and CWHL Players Association co-chair Liz Knox expressed incredible disappointment, not just at the closure, but at the fact the players hadn’t been informed sooner or told that the league was in danger.
“I think that’s something that we reiterate on a team level,” Small added. “Had we known this was coming down the pipeline, we could have been part of the solution and maybe tried to help along the way. I feel like a lot of this has happened without us knowing.”
But now it’s too late. The time has passed for the players, the GMs, the coaches or even the fans to step up and save the CWHL from its demise. All that’s left are questions. Of those, the million-dollar question is what’s next? Small said that the league “sounded optimistic” that something else was coming, but nothing was specified. There has been talk of the shutdown being the impetus for one league. Others yet have posited that the NWHL might be able to put down roots in Toronto or Montreal. But the reality is that no one knows.
What we do know, though, is that the players aren’t accepting the loss of the league lying down. Said Dakota Woodworth, a CWHL Players Association representative who just finished her second season with the Clarkson Cup-winning Calgary Inferno, the heartbreak hasn’t entirely subsided. The shock and devastation still remains. “But what came after that was this really, pretty incredible uniting of players and staff all across the league,” Woodworth said. “That was really inspiring to see, that in the face of this horrible thing that we had just found out hours earlier, we’re already immediately working on a plan and working on what we can do to solve this problem.”
With that has come a sense of hope and optimism, the beginning of which could be felt not long after the CWHL’s announcement when Small pointed to the fall of the original NWHL in 2007. At the time, without a place to play, Small and several others, including Jennifer Botterill, Lisa-Marie Breton and Kathleen Kauth, banded together to help form the CWHL. That wasn’t lost on Small. “Twelve years ago this happened to us and we were able to create this amazing league,” she said. “So maybe this is just another chapter and another big stepping stone towards bigger and greater things.”
It’s with the help of people such as Small that the current players can figure out their future. Woodworth called her an incredible resource, noting that others such as Inferno GM Kristen Hagg, who just beginning her professional career when the CWHL was formed, can likewise provide invaluable counsel, guidance and support as the players spearhead an effort to find their next place to play.
The reasons for optimism go beyond the support system in place and the attitude of those involved, though. One of the most significant, Woodworth said, is the momentum behind the game. Throughout North America, professional women’s hockey has gathered steam over the past few years, and the CWHL and current iteration of the NWHL had great successes this season. The Clarkson Cup drew record viewership. The expansion Minnesota Whitecaps, who won the NWHL’s Isobel Cup, sold out their building and turned a profit this season. The iron is hot, and this could be as good a chance as any to strike. “It’s a good time to capitalize on the exposure we’re getting, the exposure that we’ve had all year,” Woodworth said. “Well, there’s no good time, but it’s definitely a better time. People are more ready and willing to step up and help now than maybe they were 10 years ago.”
That’s why Woodworth and her fellow players are choosing to have faith that something good can from this. As Woodworth put it, there is a hunger for the women’s professional hockey in Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, a passion for it across Canada and too many good people involved in the game for the CWHL’s closure to be where this story ends. And when she speaks about what comes next, it’s with positivity.
“This opportunity that we have now is really unique,” Woodworth said. “But we want to make sure that we’re together going forward. We want to take a step forward and not fall into the same situation that we were in before. We think we can create really big change now, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”