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Interim, former CWHL heads Hefford, Andress on why ‘one league’ is easier said than done

Talk continues of what it would take for the CWHL and NWHL to broker a deal that would result in one professional women’s league, but interim commissioner Jayna Hefford and former commissioner Brenda Andress help explain why ‘One League’ isn’t as easy as it seems.

Jayna Hefford hardly had a moment to bask in the excitement of her new post as interim CWHL commissioner before the questions started rolling in, and it could safely be said that the question she was asked most in taking over from erstwhile commissioner Brenda Andress was the status of the women’s professional hockey being pared down to one league.

“It’s a big question,” Hefford said. “There’s a lot of misconception around what ‘one league’ means. Does that mean an NHL? Does that mean a merger of the two professional leagues? Does that mean a partnership with an NHL? But, to me, the goal is to have all the best players in one league. That’s step one, to try to attract all the best players to what we believe is the best league.”

Ask about anyone involved in either the CWHL or NWHL, most certainly the players, and the response will be much the same. The "one league" concept, and the push for such a reality, has been a near constant since the upstart NWHL came about ahead of the 2015-16 season, with persistent calls for the two leagues to join forces almost as soon as the league’s inaugural season came about. No one knows more about that, either, than Andress.

Now on the outside looking in after more than a decade at the helm of the CWHL, Andress said that the CWHL wanted the leagues to join forces from the outset, that it was best the two sides didn’t divide themselves and, in doing so, divide the players, sponsors and partners who had been supportive of the women’s game. Now that the two leagues have co-existed for the past three seasons, though, finding a way to bring them together has become increasingly difficult.

“You’ve got a not-for-profit and a profit,” Andress said. “So, (the CWHL) is a not-for-profit with every single dime going to the players. (The NWHL) is a profit league, which is not unlike other sports organizations where the profit goes to the investors, the owners. So, it’s not the same process. And that’s a big hurdle, going from not-for-profit to profit.”

The belief from the CWHL perspective is that the not-for-profit structure maintains a level of parity that could potentially disappear in a profit league, and parity has long been seen by Andress, and those who founded the CWHL, as something that would give the league the best chance at growth. Differing business models are far from the only hurdle, mind you. Even if the two sides could come to an agreement on how to navigate those waters, bringing the whole of one existing league into the other would come with its own problems. Andress, who has had a long time to think about one league over the past few seasons, said that could result in a diluted talent pool.

“You can’t grow the game faster than what’s out there,” Andress said. “That’s the thing that people don’t understand. You can’t just say, ‘We’ve got six teams, you’ve got six teams, let’s make 12 teams,’ because if you do that you’ve watered the league down. Doesn’t matter, you’ve just watered the league down. But could you probably go with six or seven teams? Would the games be absolutely sit in your seat and hold on? It would be like that every time.”

Striking that balance is be easier said than done, though. If the two leagues were join forces, which teams continue to exist and which teams are dissolved as part of a potential merger? That’s a question without an easy answer, particularly in a market such as Boston, where the NWHL’s Pride and CWHL’s Blades, who announced their relocation to nearby Worcester, Mass., on Monday, have competed for the same dollar in recent years.

But what if the CWHL and NWHL ceased to exist and came together a new banner, with a new structure supported by the sport’s most influential league? The belief of some outside the women’s game is that the best way forward is for the two leagues to merge and operate with the support of the NHL.

That’s something the CWHL tried to accomplish early in Andress’ tenure, as the league approached the NHL with designs on a model similar to the WNBA, which had teams owned by the NBA until the early 2000s, at which point they were either sold to local NBA franchises or third-party groups. Such a model never came to pass. However, connections between the Toronto Furies and Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens and Les Canadiennes de Montreal have been forged over the past few seasons. The NWHL, too, has created links within the NHL, as Buffalo Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula own the Buffalo Beauts, while the New Jersey Devils and Minnesota Wild have partnerships with the Metropolitan Riveters and soon-to-debut Minnesota Whitecaps, respectively.

Despite the current connections between the NHL, CWHL and NWHL teams, though, Hefford wasn’t prepared to comment on the NHL helping with the amalgamation or creation of one top-tier women’s league given she has yet to meet with the NHL. Hefford is of the mind, though, that help from the NHL would benefit all involved.

“I believe that NHL involvement would be a real positive part of a professional women’s league,” Hefford said. “We’ll see where we can go from there. (One league) is certainly not an easy process, it’s not a short process, but it’s something that I’m willing to work on. It’s trying to create the best league for the players, the best league for the fans and, in my mind, that has to be the best players all in one area.”

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