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Despite interest, women’s hockey might be better off without the NHL

The NHL has expressed interest in putting money and support behind a women's league. But even if the CWHL and NWHL found a way to combine efforts and join forces, would NHL involvement be what's best for women's hockey?

It was a dream scenario that could have easily morphed into a nightmare. So everyone associated with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League should probably thank Laura Stacey for scoring in overtime and saving women’s hockey in Canada from an embarrassing moment. Because had Stacey not scored and another 2:11 had been played without a goal, the Canadian women’s version of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final would have gone to a shootout.

All this because they were running up against an American League game at the home of the Toronto Marlies. The Marlies, who promoted the afternoon as a women’s hockey day and charged an extra five bucks to see both the Clarkson Cup final and the Marlies game, would have been content to send the adults and all those girls in their minor hockey sweaters home from the CWHL championship game having it decided by a shootout. Not a good look all around. A game of that importance should be played 5-on-5 until someone scores. Full stop.

The potential for that kind of situation will likely do nothing to quell the growing number of voices who believe that somehow the CWHL and the National Women’s Hockey League, which also held its championship game Sunday, must somehow find common ground and form one league, at which point the NHL would be willing to put its marketing muscle and money behind it. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has made it publicly clear that the league is prepared to get involved with women’s hockey at the highest level, but not as long as there are two rival leagues. Former women’s hockey legend Cassie Campbell believes it’s a no-brainer and has urged the commissioners of both leagues to lock themselves in a room and come out marching in lockstep straight to the NHL’s Manhattan headquarters.

Many in the women’s hockey world agree, believing that having the NHL behind such a venture would turn women’s hockey from a mom-and-pop venture in professional sports to an important player. Perhaps they’re right. But maybe, just maybe, they should be careful for what they wish.

Remember, this is the NHL we’re talking about here, a league whose business plan includes regularly shutting down when it can’t come to an agreement with its players, that believes a solid global strategy includes keeping its players out of the Olympics and off the world’s biggest stage, one that fills its player safety department with former goons, one that alters its rules with changing wind directions, one that abjectly and continually fails to protect and market its star players and a league that was the first to come up with the ridiculous notion that even teams that lose games deserve a point sometimes.

The NHL survives and thrives in spite of, not because of, those who run it. And that’s because hockey has the most patient, most loyal and most forgiving fans in the history of professional sports. Does women’s hockey really want to get into a business relationship with an entity whose primary strategy is to simply open the doors and put the most talented players in the world on display?

First of all, to do so would be a slight to all of those people, most of them women, who have worked so hard to forge the path for the women’s game over the past couple of decades. It’s almost as though the NHL would be saying, “Thanks for all your work there, Toots, but you should probably just let the rich old white guys take over from here.” And does anyone else find the NHL’s sudden interest in women's hockey just a little dubious? Bettman has claimed the league wants to be involved in a one-league entity, but ignores the fact that the CWHL was the only league in women’s hockey until four years ago. And where was the NHL’s interest then?

If women’s hockey were to forge an alliance with the NHL, the best piece of advice they could receive would be to immediately form a players’ association and enshrine Olympic participation in perpetuity in any collective bargaining agreement. Because this particular league has already proved its shortsightedness and greed by keeping its players out of the Games. If Bettman and the owners were willing to do it with the men, what would stop them from leveraging women’s participation against the IOC? If breaking up the season for the NHL isn’t seen as a productive endeavor, why would it be any different for an NHL-run league for women?

And, finally, what will women’s hockey do when the NHL decides that propping up a women’s league costs too much or is too disruptive or simply is a duty they no longer want to carry out? There’s a good chance women’s hockey at the elite level could be left with nothing and have to start all over again, which would take them a couple hundred steps backward from where it is now.

Perhaps women’s hockey is the damsel in distress who actually needs to be saved from the valiant knight. Forming one league might help women’s hockey. Then again, it might not make a difference. Are the crowds going to be any bigger in Markham or Calgary or Connecticut if there’s one league instead of two? Perhaps women’s hockey might be better off making its gains incrementally, and resist the temptation to be something it’s not, rather than deciding to hit a home run with the NHL.

Whatever happens, it likely won’t happen anytime soon. CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress, who steadfastly refused to respond to Cassie Campbell’s comments, said her league plans to go ahead with the same format next season, one that features four Canadian teams along with one from Boston and two from China. The NWHL absorbed a number of player defections this season, but there’s every reason to think the league intends to continue. So it’s likely the NHL won’t get a chance to fulfill its mission anytime soon. And that’s not necessarily a terrible thing for women’s hockey.

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