On Sunday, March 24, CWHL Players Association co-chair Liz Knox sat in the stands of Coca-Cola Coliseum watching the Calgary Inferno defeat Les Canadiennes de Montreal for the 2019 Clarkson Cup.
As she watched the Inferno celebrate, perhaps Knox was thinking about hoisting Clarkson Cup the year prior with the Markham Thunder. Perhaps she was thinking about exactly when and how she would announce she’d played her last CWHL season. But what she couldn’t have known is that a mere seven days later, she’d be using every spare moment to fulfill interview requests from outlets across North America in the wake of the CWHL announcing it was folding come May 1.
Anya Battaglino, formerly of the CWHL’s Boston Blades and most recently a member of the NWHL’s Connecticut Whale, expressed confusion and sadness upon hearing the news of the league’s demise, though her feelings were infused with a sense of hope. “On one side, I'm heartbroken because I love the CWHL. I have no negative feelings towards the CWHL,” Battaglino told The Hockey News. “On the other side, I'm like, we really have the ability to make some momentous change right now. And what are we going to do with it?”
Within 24 hours of hearing the news, Knox, along with CWHL co-chair Alexis Miller, had a conversation with Battaglino, director of the NWHLPA. Discussed was if and how the NWHLPA could offer support to their CWHL counterparts, while Battaglino mentioned in passing the American-based league might look to expand to Canada next season. Days later, the NWHL formally announced its plans to expand into Toronto and Montreal. Knox’s reaction? “I think it’s a little bit knee-jerk,” she told The Hockey News.
Knox was hesitant call it insensitive for fear of attaching too much emotion, but in the context of that with which she, Miller and other former CWHL players and staff were dealing, it brought more confusion to an already disorienting situation. Additionally, Knox and Battaglino were in a situation where players they represent, as well as some designated team representatives, were essentially unavailable. Between the two leagues, more than 40 players are participating in the IIHF Women’s World Championship in Finland, 38 of whom are from the United States or Canada.
While they wait for those players to return to North America, both PA leaders are confident a clear and growing line of communication exists among those from both leagues. “We're on the same page in that we realize this is a big shift for both leagues and for both groups of players. We're still navigating the waters in terms of what that means for us in the future,” said Knox.
Battaglino agreed. “First and foremost, I think there's unity,” she said. “I don't think that in any way, shape or form, any conversations we’ve had have been polarizing, which I love…We plan to have a joint call once the players get back from their respective national teams. And then we’ll have good, open dialogue about what feels like the right step.”
There are unique circumstances facing each set of players, however. To begin, the NWHL players have a league. As of May 1, the CWHL players do not, and there is no guarantee the now-former CWHL players will compete professionally next season. While the NWHL provides an option for some players with its Canadian expansion, more than half of the women who played in the CWHL last season would still be without a place to play. And when asked about the possibility of CWHL players eschewing the NWHL, Knox paused briefly before saying that it’s “very hard to comment because without conversing with our girls at the worlds right now…But if the NWHL doesn't offer us exactly what we want in terms of the goals that we set out to be determined, then, yeah, I do see that.”
In such a scenario, would that mean there will be no place for those CWHL players now without a team? “I'm very realistic, honestly, about next season,” Knox said. “I don't see us starting something in September. I truly don't. It's too quick of a turnaround. And if we rush it again, I'm worried that we're going to make the same mistakes over again that we've seen in the past. So as keen as our girls are to get back to the ice, I see a lot of work in my future.”
As for Battaglino, whether or not displaced CWHL players join the NWHL, there are broader topics of focus. Since last season, the NWHLPA has worked to improve player contracts. The changes the association hoped would be in place before last season fell through and resulted in a change of course this off-season. “We're going to come up with a contract that's good for the players, and then present it to the league,” Battaglino said. “We're going to start behaving and acting as a unit that thinks first about what our players need to be successful, what they need to be healthy, and what they need to be happy and treated like respected, young professionals.”
It is unclear if the NWHLPA will be successful in drafting new contracts by the start of NWHL free agency, which opens May 15. It is also unclear if any conversations Knox and other former CWHL players have moving forward will make them more comfortable with joining the NWHL.
What both women shared repeatedly, however, is that women’s hockey has the potential to be strengthened moving forward. Knox and Battaglino believe the market exists for women’s hockey in North America and both are committed to finding the right partners to prove it. Could that include the NHL? Perhaps, but neither Battaglino or Knox seemed to believe it was necessary the NHL would or should be involved in the future of women’s hockey. Both are committed to growing the game in a way that gets players closer to a living wage and taps into the growth potential of the sport like never seen before.
And with the 2019 Women's World Championship concluding Sunday, these conversations about the future of women’s hockey will commence as early as Monday.