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How the CWHL’s closure impacts the next generation of women’s hockey stars

With their college careers completed, plenty of talented players were prepared to make the leap to the professional ranks next season. The closure of the CWHL makes for an uncertain future, though.

Allie Munroe had heard from a friend that members of the CWHL, including those involved with the Players’ Association, were set to have a conference call Sunday to discuss a pressing matter. But as Munroe sat on her couch that morning, interest piqued and scrolling through Twitter, the last thing she expected to read was that the CWHL would be shutting its doors, that after more than a decade as one of the premier destinations in women’s hockey, the league would cease operations in May.

“It’s extremely devastating,” said Munroe, a senior with the Syracuse Orange. “That was the next step. Playing my last game for Syracuse was obviously really upsetting, but I knew that hockey wasn’t over, I was getting to go play with some of the best players in the world and I was really excited for that opportunity.”

So much so that Munroe, 22, had already begun testing the waters. She had reached out to teams, to coaches, to players in the CWHL throughout the season. She was in the process of making her decision about where to play next season, something she would have had to determine in the coming months leading up to draft registration. She had no doubt, though, that she was CWHL bound, adding that she had planned to “uproot (her) life” and put down stakes in a CWHL city next season. Now, she doesn't quite know what comes next. And she’s not alone.

For Merrimack College standout Katelyn Rae, 21, after the shock came the one question on everyone’s mind: what now? Drafted 12th overall by the NWHL’s Connecticut Whale in 2018, Rae was keeping her options open, and like Munroe, whose hometown is Yarmouth, N.S., Rae had considered choosing the CWHL over the NWHL next season in part because it would have brought her back to familiar territory. “Being down in the States for four years, you don’t really get to go home a lot with the schedule we have,” said Rae, a native of Courtice, Ont. “So being able to play closer to home and have family come to see you was definitely an intriguing factor to the CWHL. That was one of the main reasons (for her interest in the league).”

And while her draft position might make it easy to assume Rae will now simply shift her focus solely to the NWHL, that’s not as simple as it sounds for a litany of reasons. As Munroe pointed out, playing in the United States as a Canadian player has its challenges. There’s financial concerns, housing concerns and the all-important matter of finding work, as professional women’s players often work full-time jobs to make ends meet. “A lot of the players have obviously played in the US in college, but it’s a completely different thing,” she said. “You come to college, you have your apartment set up, you have a routine already, they give you your documentation. It’s a lot more difficult, I think, than people understand.”

But there’s also now the matter of battling for a spot on a professional team, which became all the more difficult in the wake of Sunday’s announcement. Prior to the CWHL’s closure, there were 11 professional women’s teams across the two North American leagues, 10 of which are located in Canada or the United States. (The CWHL’s Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays were based in China.) In an instant, when the Calgary Inferno, Markham Thunder, Toronto Furies, Les Canadiennes de Montreal and Worcester Blades were left without a league, the roster spots in a professional league in North America were cut in half. The landscape has changed significantly.

“You have probably 150-plus hockey players who are now in scramble mode,” said Kassidy Sauve, 22, who recently completed her senior season at Clarkson. “When you have such a big portion of female hockey taken out of play, it definitely makes it harder for a Canadian or anyone who wants to play in the CWHL to find that new home.”

That’s worrisome enough for the Munroes and Raes, who were set to be drafted or enter the professional ranks as rookies this year and could now be forced to battle it with veteran talents or senior national team members for roster spots throughout North America, but it’s arguable that it has put Sauve, a goaltender, in an even greater bind. Already only two dozen or so crease jobs with Canadian or American CWHL or NWHL teams, that number has decreased drastically. And even when you have a resume like Sauve's – who posted a sub-2.00 goals-against average and .937 save percentage across 68 games in the past two seasons – it doesn't make finding a spot a guarantee. “There are so many talented goalies out there, recent graduates like (Lovisa) Selander, and there’s so many different talented goalies and eliminating six teams just makes it harder for a goalie especially to pursue their dream,” Sauve said.

That can have a ripple effect on development for players such as Sauve and Munroe, who were invitees to the Canadian national team fall festival but might not have a proper place next season. The same goes for Rae, who attended Team Canada’s U18 camp prior to her college career. The CWHL, as well as the NWHL, has been able to provide a route to national team selection for players such as Ann-Sophie Bettez and Hayley Scamurra, who weren’t on the radar prior to their success in the professional game. One of those routes has now disappeared with no replacement yet in place.

Still, like many of the now-former CWHL players who’ve taken to social media with messages of support and hope and optimism, Sauve, Rae and Munroe are trying to look for the light at the end of the tunnel, hoping that something will come from the shutdown and that they will be able to begin their professional careers next season, just as they had hoped.

“Seeing all the support on Twitter, I really do think that there’s something coming out of this,” Munroe said. “But it’s disappointing, for sure. I was excited, obviously. (Playing in the CWHL) was something I was looking forward to for next year, I had plans, and those blew up.”

(Ed. Note: The NWHL announced Tuesday afternoon that the Board has approved two Canadian teams for the 2018-19 season.)

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