The Monday following the 2019 Clarkson Cup final, Jessica Rochwerg was filled with unrelenting exhaustion and the adrenaline of success. Since joining the CWHL as its communications supervisor in August, she had guided the league through its season kickoff, a demanding all-star weekend and had just finished a stretch of near-endless workdays to ensure Clarkson Cup weekend went off without a hitch. And it did. The Calgary Inferno defeated Les Canadiennes de Montreal in a contest featuring more than a dozen Olympians. With 175,000 people tuning in, it was the most-watched game in CWHL history.
Rochwerg relished in that success over the next few days while beginning off-season planning. She left the office on Thursday and worked from home on Friday. But that night she began to suspect something was brewing.
In a one-woman communications department, late-day requests weren’t uncommon. But unusual was the email Rochwerg received Friday evening requesting her presence on a Sunday conference call along with the board of directors, interim commissioner Jayna Hefford, league GMs and members of the CWHL Players’ Association. On Saturday, she was informed of another conference call to follow the first, this one with all players. Rochwerg’s mind raced. Her first thought? “We’re merging. It’s totally a merge. It’s either a merge or the NHL is coming in or Jayna’s leaving or something.”
Rochwerg asked if she needed to prepare a press release, but she was told everything was under control. “Then I guess at 10 a.m., it might have been 9:30 a.m., that was the first call we had,” she said. “There were maybe 20 of us on the call between the six teams, the GMs, the four of us on staff at that point and the PA reps. That’s when we found out.”
After 12 years, the CWHL was ceasing operations.
• • •
When the original National Women’s League crumbled following the 2006-07 season, players found out via email. The league’s closure wasn’t explicitly stated, of course. It was couched as owners wanting time to take a step back to determine the best way forward. But the players understood. The franchises were bleeding money, and the owners couldn’t figure out how to make women’s hockey profitable.
With no one willing to do the heavy lifting for them, the players took matters into their own hands. Over the next few months, several key figures, including three-time Olympic gold medallist Jennifer Botterill, longtime CWHL goaltender and later GM of the Toronto Furies Sami Jo Small and defenseman Allyson Fox, laid the foundation for the NWHL’s successor. By September 2007, the newly formed not-for-profit Canadian Women’s League had a board of directors, a business model that provided equitable support to each of its teams and modest funding. That first season, the CWHL had a budget of little more than $300,000.
But the league still needed someone to steer the ship, not to mention pick up the slack where the players couldn’t or were unable. Thus began the search for its first commissioner, with a stack of candidates later whittled down to one: Brenda Andress.
When Andress came aboard ahead of the 2008-09 season, she was thrown into the fire. Tough decisions needed to be made, especially during the early seasons. The Mississauga Chiefs, Ottawa Senators and Vaughan Flames were among the teams that ceased operations, as the nine-team league became a seven-team league and later a five-team league. “That was all about building sustainability and making sure (the league) succeeded,” Andress said. “We put a lot of things in place. People said, ‘Oh, put a team here. Let’s do that thing here.’ And we didn’t. And people said, ‘Pay the players.’ We couldn’t because we knew it would fail. Bottom line was we couldn’t pay them.”
Not only could the league not afford to pay the players, goalie Liz Knox, co-chair of the CWHL Players’ Association at the time of the league’s closure, said players had to pay to play, and many had to find their own sponsorship to cover that cost and beyond. “My first year, we paid $1,500 to play,” said Knox, who joined the Brampton Thunder in 2011-12. “We were responsible for getting our own sponsorship. And of course, at the time, we were fresh out of college. You can’t just go to your hairdresser anymore and ask them to put their name on your jersey.”
But it was those sacrifices by players that allowed the league to grow, and it was in the midst of the CWHL’s formative years that an opportunity arose to combine with the Western Women’s League, against whom the CWHL competed for the Clarkson Cup in the National Canadian Women’s Championship. That moment, Andress said, was a game-changer. The merger resulted in the birth of Team Alberta, which later became the Calgary Inferno. By the beginning of 2012-13, the league had its five cornerstones: the Inferno, Furies, Les Canadiennes, Brampton Thunder (who later moved to Markham) and the Boston Blades. “What people don’t understand is how great that was and the opportunity that existed for both boards to look at that and go, ‘Wow, that was a great merger,’ ” Andress said. “Because it brought us to one league, not two.”
The CWHL experienced steady growth in the wake of the merger, with an on-ice product that was better than ever. Off the ice, recognition was increasing, branding was transforming and the CWHL was attempting to transition the fan base from league supporters to fans of individual teams. The league achieved a major milestone when it held its first official All-Star Game in December 2014 at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, now known as Scotiabank Arena. The showcase put the league’s best and brightest on its biggest stage yet.
But then the two-league problem surfaced once again.
In early 2014, Dani Rylan approached the CWHL with a proposition: expansion to the United States, including a team in New York. After careful consideration, the board passed a motion and began working toward putting a new franchise south of the border. “But before we could get to that next step, Dani decided to go out on her own and chose the path that she chose,” Andress said.
What followed was the formation of the four-team National Women’s League in March 2015, including a team in Boston, which sapped the CWHL’s Blades of its top talents, notably star players Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker. Looking back, Andress doesn’t blame Rylan for her decision, but the former commissioner does wish she and the league as a whole would have “been more aggressive in ensuring there was one league and not two leagues because two leagues did hurt women’s hockey.”
It didn’t stop the CWHL’s growth, however, and for as much clout as the All-Star Game brought to the CWHL – Andress referred to it as “Step 1” in the league’s pursuit of that big-league feel – nothing brought the league widespread legitimacy quite like the leap it took ahead of the 2017-18 campaign.
Over a five-month period, Andress and the CWHL negotiated with Chinese-based KHL outfit Kunlun Red Star and struck a five-year deal to expand to China. Not only would it help the country develop its own athletes ahead of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, but it brought an injection of revenue to the CWHL. The contract paid $1.7 million per season. “That was an instrumental deal for both the CWHL and China,” Andress said. “It was a win-win situation in my opinion in the fact that it was an influx of dollars.”
The increased revenue resulted in a $100,000 salary cap for each team, with player salaries ranging from $2,000 to $10,000. For the first time ever, the league was finally able to pay the players. But the deal presented some complications.
Knox said that expansion to China came as a shock to the players, and there were implications beyond the on-ice aspects, too. It wasn’t as simple as travelling to China to play a three-game set. Those with jobs had to request time off to make the trip. For Knox, the expansion and the way in which the news was delivered to players was the impetus for joining the CWHLPA. She said the situation required some smoothing over. That’s not to say there weren’t positives. “That expansion…helped take us to that next step where we were able to gain the resources as teams that made us feel more professional, made us appear more professional,” Knox said.
The Chinese expansion turned out to be one of the league’s last major milestones with Andress at the helm. Mere months after the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, she announced she was stepping down effective July 31, 2018. The day after the news came out, the CWHL announced Hefford as her interim replacement. “When I left, I felt very secure about the CWHL going forward,” Andress said. “We had things in place, we had great teams, great players, board members. And Jayna coming in as the interim commissioner? Wow. That’s a great individual who had massive connections and hockey pedigree, so I felt very comfortable where I left the CWHL.”
• • •
The combined duration of the two conference calls on Sunday, March 31, 2019, was little more than an hour. According to sources who were on both calls, board of directors chair Laurel Walzak delivered what sounded like a prepared statement. The information given in the first call was repeated in the second. Some listened in stunned silence. Others asked questions, few of which were met with clear answers. Several players, including a few who were days away from participating in the Women’s World Championship in Finland, were incensed. A message of hopefulness was expressed, though for what exactly was never made clear. The call ended and the league released a statement to the public: the CWHL was to shut its doors on May 1, 2019. “Our players, we were all devastated that day,” Knox said. “It was so hard to process in that moment, and then the flood of media afterward, I really had a hard time processing it myself.”
When I left, I felt very secure about the CWHL going forward
– Brenda Andress
What the league had said was that the CWHL’s business model was “economically unsustainable,” a sentiment which was difficult to comprehend for some of those who had been and were involved with the league at the time of its demise. “When people say, ‘the wrong business plan,’ well, the CWHL’s business plan and strategy for running the league when I was there was the right plan, because it worked,” Andress said. “I don’t know what the new strategy was, and perhaps the new strategy wouldn’t work because of whatever they were trying to do. That’s what I say to people. You can’t say after 12 years, ‘Hey guys, this strategy didn’t work.’ It worked for 12 years.”
Making the economic argument all the more puzzling is that it appears as though the league had been stable one season prior. A financial document from November 2018, obtained by The Hockey News, indicates the league had an excess of funds in fiscal 2018 (Aug. 1, 2017 to July 31, 2018, which encompasses the 2017-18 season) following the Chinese expansion, with the CWHL increasing its revenue to $3.449 million with expenses totalling $3.244 million. The surplus was upwards of $205,000. However, in a communique released on July 2, 2019, more than three months after the impending shutdown had been announced, Walzak, on behalf of the Board, stated that the league’s expenses totalled $4.2 million during the 2017-18 season, $1 million more than what appeared on the November document. Revenue was not disclosed, nor were financial figures for the 2018-19 campaign. Also shared in the letter was “the sequence of events that led to the difficult decision to winding (sic) down operations,” and that the CWHL was in “severe financial distress” and “forecasting a significant deficit.”
The Hockey News attempted to contact Walzak and several other board members on multiple occasions, but no requests for comments were returned.
So, what had changed? Before and following Andress’ departure, there had been significant behind-the-scenes reshaping in the CWHL. Over the prior year, nearly a dozen governors and members of the board of directors resigned, including Cassie Campbell-Pascall, longtime NHL executive Brian Burke, businesswoman and TV personality Arlene Dickinson and philanthropist Sandi Treliving. W. Graeme Roustan was the lone remaining CWHL governor at the time Andress left her post. It wasn’t long, however, before Roustan departed as well and the board was overhauled. (Full disclosure: Roustan, who declined comment for this story, is the owner of Roustan Media Ltd., which publishes The Hockey News.)
On the eve of the league’s annual general meeting in November 2018, Roustan issued a press release stating, “For the refusal to provide details on any money or benefits that Directors personally may have received, I will no longer financially support the CWHL and hereby resign as a Member of the CWHL.”
Four days later, the CWHL shot back: “Roustan’s departure will not impede or hinder the future of the CWHL or the growth of women’s hockey…While the inaccurate statements and assumptions published give an impression that the CWHL may have difficulties in meeting its mandate in the future, nothing could be farther from the truth. The strength of the CWHL leadership is self-evident, and we have every confidence in the success of the CWHL in all future endeavours.”
The new board, announced in late November, was made up of Walzak, Fox, Stephanie Bowman, Kevin Gilmore, Jeff Haltrecht, Julia Holland, Karen Rubin, Kim Smither, Vicky Sunohara and Richard Venn. Art Mannarn was elected vice-chair.
Change was also occurring to the league structure. In August, it was announced the CWHL’s Chinese teams, Kunlun Red Star and Shenzhen Vanke Rays, were amalgamating for the 2018-19 season to form the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays. The CWHL said the decision was the result of a “gruelling” travel schedule and the challenge the time difference posed to the athletes. Players and GMs were not aware of discussions about combining the two Chinese teams even though, per the CWHL’s July release and confirmed by multiple sources, it resulted in reduced revenue.
Given revenue was set to decrease, though, why not trim the budget? Why not reduce the schedule to ease the financial burden? Or, as difficult as it may have been, why not ask the players – whose combined stipends added some $600,000 to league expenses – if they would accept pay cuts or a complete freeze? According to multiple sources, neither topic was broached with players or GMs. “Something should have been done,” said Markham Thunder GM Chelsea Purcell. “If they knew the (revenue) was cut, I guess they were hoping that a lot more revenue was going to come in, but to increase revenue by that much when it’s never really increased that much over the years, I think we should have looked at reducing some budgets. That’s easy to say, but it’s all budgeting in the end. If you know revenue has reduced and expenses are staying the same or increasing, you need to find other ways to increase revenue or reduce the expenses.”
Our players, we were all devastated that day. It was so hard to process in that moment
– Liz Knox
It’s likely there was more at play than the loss of revenue from the combination of the Chinese teams, however, and Furies assistant GM Katrina Galas questioned sponsorship dollars and whether there was a major sponsorship departure on the horizon. But Purcell, who had joined the league as director of strategic partnerships in January, was privy to sponsorship information in her newfound role and said only one had an expiring contract. She said she was working on renewing the deal, too, but that losing it wouldn’t have been a “huge hit.” The need for new sponsors and the dollars associated with such additions was a clear issue. In the release, the board said it was its view that the CWHL required “a minimum of $5 million to $6 million to run the league adequately” and nearly double to run the league “professionally.” According to CWHL financial statements obtained by The Hockey News, CWHL operating expenses never exceded $2.6 million prior to 2018.
But we’ll never know if Purcell could have found a way to pull together the necessary sponsorships, which the league suggested would have been difficult due to the fragmentation caused by the separation of the CWHL and NWHL and delayed investments as a result of conjecture about the formation of ‘One League.’ Purcell wishes she would have been given the opportunity to see if she could have made it work, though. She had meetings scheduled with potential sponsors when the decision to pull the plug on the CWHL was made. “It’s dependent on how much money they needed,” Purcell said. “We don’t know that number. If they were needing $500,000, that might have been tough, but it also might have been doable when we’re looking at bringing in, say, three to four $100,000-plus sponsors. It’s possible. But it’s hard to know.”
Purcell said a meeting that occurred the Monday following Clarkson Cup weekend led to board members making pleas for cash to keep the league afloat. When the money didn’t come by Friday, the board voted to shutter the league. Galas agreed, adding that there was “no mention of any financial issues” during GM meetings that took place during Clarkson Cup weekend. “There was no indication, and that’s when you have all the GMs there live. That was very strange and shows that definitely no one knew,” she said. “But who’s monitoring it all season?”
Once the league had decided to cease operations, it was presented with two formal offers to purchase its assets: one from an unknown party and the other from Roustan, who made public through a press release that he had offered to assume control of the league. “I would like to immediately move forward with replacing all of you as Directors/Members and bring in my own team of Directors/Members with the intent of carrying on the CWHL next season and beyond,” Roustan wrote to the board, requesting an answer by April 5. He didn’t receive a response from Walzak or Mannarn. The CWHL’s letter stated that “neither offer included the assumption of liabilities (i.e. to players, vendors, etc.),” and that they “were not in the best interest of players, contractors and creditors.”
Unfortunately, as players and fans were slowly starting to come to terms with the closure, one final blow came. Little less than a month after its sudden and abrupt announcement, the league initiated an auction, as part of the required liquidation of assets, which included a number of game-worn jerseys and other trinkets from the CWHL’s history. “The day that I saw all of our jerseys go up for auction, and I still get emotional thinking about it, was kind of when I was like, ‘Yeah, this is really happening,’ ” said Knox, her voice catching.
But what stunned players and fans alike was the inclusion of league trophies. Awards up for auction included the top goaltender, top defenseman and coach-of-the-year honors, as well as the Jayna Hefford Trophy, which is awarded to the league MVP.
All of a sudden, we’re out of money. How does that happen? We just got a huge influx of money
– Chelsea Purcell, GM of the Markham Thunder
At first, Purcell was in charge of the auctions, but when the hardware came into the equation, she asked if there wasn’t another way the league could raise the money. She was told the trophies had to be auctioned. “They just said, ‘We have to. If anybody comes back after us and says that we owe them money and they say you could have sold these because they have value to them and (you) didn’t sell them,’ they could get into trouble,” Purcell said. She ceased her participation in the auctions. “They wanted me to put it up and I said, ‘No, sorry, I will have no part in this. There’s no way.’ ”
Since announcing its closure, the league stated it has also received “large and critical” donations from the NHL, Hockey Canada, the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association, Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames, an anonymous corporation and two private citizens, one of whom was brought to the league by former Canadian Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, after whom the championship trophy was named. Seven of the 10 trophies were snapped up by donors who have since presented them to the Hockey Hall of Fame. The auctions ended April 30. Including individual team sales, $93,000 was raised. The league officially closed the following day.
• • •
It began with one tweet. Then came another. And another. And another still. One day after the CWHL ceased operations for good, women’s players across the globe began uniting under the #ForTheGame banner. In a statement, shared by roughly 200 athletes, players expressed that they wouldn’t play in any professional league in North America. “We may have represented different teams, leagues, and countries – but this sport is one family,” the statement read. “And the time is now for this family to unite. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for – our moment to come together and say we deserve more.”
What followed in the weeks after the #ForTheGame statement – which itself came after the NWHL’s announcement of since-shelved plans for expansion to Toronto and Montreal in time for 2019-20 – was the formation of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association. According to a release, the PWHPA serves “as a vehicle dedicated to promoting and supporting the creation of a single, viable women’s professional league in North America.”
Knox said it’s the responsibility of those within the PWHPA to keep the game moving forward, to ensure women’s hockey lives on in Canada and North America through the creation of a new league with a foundation that’s even more solid than the one that came before it. “We have to learn from our mistakes, and the whole definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting a different result,” Knox said. “Yeah, it’s going to be hard, it’s going to take us more time, and there’s going to be more than one obstacle that makes us feel like, ‘Oh man, did we do the right thing here?’ That’s normal. That’s how change happens. It’s supposed to be difficult, because if it wasn’t it would have happened by now.”
But what that looks like, what comes next, is unknown. There’s been the talk of skills sessions and practices, exhibitions and inter-squad games, and mini-tournaments. Meanwhile, the now five-team NWHL is primed to play its 2019-20 campaign. Many former NWHL players joined the #ForTheGame movement, but the league has continued to sign players throughout the summer in preparation for the season ahead, while those who were anticipating another CWHL season will be left instead with a void.
Given the way the CWHL ended, maybe all that remains is a question of its legacy. “If we were to officially close the chapter, what is the wonderful, great celebration story of the CWHL and its place in history?” Galas said. “The growing viewership, growing fan base, increasing ticket sales, increasing dedicated volunteers, getting very talented staff members on each team, attracting top players, top coaches from different places around the world. There are so many elements that I think would go into a wonderful summary of this phase of women’s hockey.”
Purcell recognized, too, the incredible steps taken. She, like Knox, came into the league at a time when players were still finding their own sponsorship. When Purcell’s CWHL career began in Alberta, the league could barely afford travel costs. The team was playing three games in a weekend with each game worth four points. In recent years, what was happening off the ice is what stuck with her the most. “Just the backing that we had,” Purcell said. “The support, and more recently the exposure that women’s hockey is getting.”
For her part, Andress believes the story of the CWHL won’t be its collapse. It will instead be of a league that provided an opportunity for women and young girls to build the game and achieve their dreams of becoming professional hockey players or GMs or, yes, commissioners. It will be a story of effort from the fans, players, staff and volunteers, all of whom had a hand in the CWHL’s growth the past dozen years. “That legacy, what they all put in to making differences in people’s lives,” Andress said. “I consider that a success.”