Susan Cohig on NHL supporting women’s hockey, outdoor game issues (Q&A)

Puck Daddy
Courtesy of the NHL
Courtesy of the NHL

Susan Cohig has worked for the National Hockey League for almost 20 years, and is the senior vice president of business affairs for the League. Her hands on dozens of NHL initiatives, from marketing and sales to business operations to internal policy matters.

“We’re a very collaborative and transparent organization and small enough that we kind of work in groups on a lot of things. So the way we’re set up it’s nice we get to work on a lot of things,” she told me in an interview at the NHL offices in Manhattan last week.

Among her special projects is the growth of women’s hockey, and how the NHL can support it. I spoke to her about that initiative, the challenges facing women’s hockey and whether the League does enough to support the women’s game.

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Q. In one of the bios I read on you, it said are spearheading the NHL’s involvement in women’s hockey. What does that entail?

COHIG: Well, it’s really working with a team of people under the direction of [Commissioner Gary Bettman] to make sure we’re finding ways to support the women’s game – at all levels, across all of our areas of business. It’s grassroots and youth hockey development all the way up to what we do to support professional women’s hockey to elite players when they’re competing in international competition, like Olympics and others. It’s really trying to use the business we have as a platform to really expose the women’s game.

Q. You mentioned the grassroots effort. A while back, the Commissioner said the grassroots effort wasn’t necessarily there yet for the NHL to really get involved in the game. I believe he said this in the last Olympics. Has that position changed at all from the NHL’s perspective?

I think we’ve always been involved to support the women’s game. For us, and I think for anybody, when you talk about the growth of hockey, whether it’s men or women, it’s making sure you have more people playing at the youth hockey level, certainly here in the United States. The growth of the men’s game over the last 10 or 20 years feeds the pipeline. We would look to do the same with girls playing hockey.

Q. Does the NHL do enough?

COHIG: For critics that might say, “Why isn’t the NHL doing anything to support the women’s game?” I want to dispute that through a variety of things.

We have a significant relationship with USA Hockey and Hockey Canada to help grow and support the growth of grassroots hockey across North America and that is specifically to get more kids playing hockey. Get more girls playing hockey.

But we have was is called the “Industry Growth Fund” that was negotiated into the last CBA – with the NHLPA – and it’s basically a fund that is administered between us and the PA to help support grassroots level in all of our markets. Teams apply for grants and it might be for rink development, it might be supporting youth hockey programs, across a variety of things, but the opportunity to grow girls and women playing hockey is a part of the effort is a part of the effort of the Industry Growth Fund. So that’s one component of it.

That gets to really, I think, what the Commissioner’s priority is: You have to have a strong foundation before everything gets built on it. How do we grow that foundation in a significant way?

And when we talk about the growth of the women’s game, honestly, we’re not talking about what happens in 2018. We’re not even probably talking about 2022. It’s really 2026. When is that meaningful time where competition at the elite level is really robust enough that its not just U.S. and Canada but there’s international growth as well, but the pipeline is growing so you have more kids playing at the club leagues growing up. More high school kids playing. More colleges; we have significant, great college programs in the United States, but they’re really bunched around the north east. If you look at the other sports, there needs to be growth kind of along that pyramid to make sure you have a stronger top of that pyramid. So we look to do that.

And at the same time we understand how important it can be for the visibility of the women’s game. So we do things like [when] we brought international, elite players, Olympic players to our All-Star Game in Ottawa. At that point, we didn’t have a game, but they went to our Fan Fair. They signed autographs. They did media. They were everywhere and they were probably the most popular attractions.

We did the same thing at the last Olympics when the Canadian gold medal team finished the tournament. It was at our Heritage Classic, eight or nine days later, we turned on a dime. Actually, Hockey Canada was tremendous and we brought the gold medal team to the Heritage Classic in Canada to be a part of our opening. To go to our spec plaza and sign autographs. And I will tell you, it was an amazing experience. They were mobbed everywhere they went.

Actually, in order to get them out of the building, the game had just ended. They were so mobbed, and Gary [Bettman] was great. He said, like, “Take my security,” in order to get them out of BC Place and back to their hotels so they could make flights out.

It’s creating those opportunities; coverage on NHL.com for various tournaments and things that are taking place, interviews on NHL Network. It’s a variety of different things we do that isn’t us putting ourselves front and center with it. We’re doing probably the most important spadework that is growing the game at the grass roots level and investing significant dollars to do that.

Our owners are behind it. The commissioner is behind it. All of our senior management is behind it. And PA is behind it. So, when people say the NHL isn’t doing anything to support the women’s game, we’re supporting a long game; we’re not supporting short-term.

Even with the NWHL and CWHL, they’re operating their own businesses. It’s not for us to tell them what to do. And many people are saying, “Why doesn’t the NHL tell them to merge?” We couldn’t do that any more than we could go across the street and tell the NBA to do something. They have their operations. When we create an opportunity, where we can elevate their players, absolutely we’ll do that.

And honestly, I love the Winter Classic. It’s a great event. I cannot wait until we drop the puck on this women’s game. It’s going to be really great.

Q. Will the NHL be offering any streaming resources for the women’s game?

COHIG: We’re not because with this particular game … it’s the first time we’ve actually had a game, a women’s game, on the ice. We have a really tight window, and for us, we want to do it right. It would be tremendous if we could add that component, but quite honestly, I just want to make sure we do it right. We do it well and because we have such a tight window because ice quality when you do an outside game is so tricky I wouldn’t want to do anything that would create an issue for the ice for the Alumni game that takes place two hours later and more importantly, the Winter Classic.

And the other part of it is, for what we need to do to put together the streaming, if we have to call an audible at 2:01 and say, “We’re sorry, we can’t have the game because the ice is too soft” … one of challenges is the way the rink is at 2 p.m. If the ice soft and [NHL ice guru Dan Craig] says, “In order to make sure it doesn’t jeopardize the quality of it we have to cover the ice,” then both teams will jump up. We’ll have tables set on the concourse and they’ll sign autographs.

We have a lot of opportunity for them, not just with the game itself on the 31st, they’ll all be doing appearances at spectator plaza the morning of the first. It’s not just the game. It’s looking at other opportunities for them as well to interact with our fans. And then because they’re all giving up their holiday time, we’ve invited them to be our guests at Winter Classic. They’re going to our private New Years’ Eve party. All of that is for fun and they’re not doing those in an official capacity. But we also want them to feel what it’s like being part of a big game and having all of that experience, too.

For us, all the other, “Why doesn’t the NHL do this? What’s going on between the NWHL and CWHL?” For me, that’s background noise. It’s not about any of us. It’s not about our business. It’s about these tremendous athletes and when the take the ice.

What we’re doing first, before they drop the puck and before they do warmups, we’re going to do team photos on the ice so each one of them will have it. I just want to see that. I want to see the looks on their faces because I can’t imagine. I’m not a hockey player. I know what it’s like to skate on an NHL rink but to be at the top of your game and be able to be on that ice, part of a team photo, I hope it’s great for them. And we want to be able to create those memories and experiences.

And if this one works well, then we’ve kind of created the roadmap for us for other events down the road. Maybe other outdoor games. For us it’s how do we find those points of connection and then create the opportunity for exposure and experience. 

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As a post-script to the interview, a few thoughts.

I understand that what Susan is saying isn't what proponents of women's hockey want to hear, and will no doubt be controversial. Putting on my business hat, I get where the NHL is coming from.

Do I like it? As a fan, no, but I understand it. 

The big machine that is the NHL is first and foremost, a business. A business does not have emotions or a sense of what is fair and right like people do. In order for the NHL to last, they have to make sure their needs to operate are met first.

As far as the game and the controversy surrounding the stream. I wrote about 'visuals' earlier and empty seats. There is an ardent and passionate fanbase within women's hockey who will tune in no matter what; the NHL knows that. Beyond that point, where are the eyeballs coming from?

Think of it this way: How many of you are clamoring to watch a Florida Panthers game? (Sorry Panthers fans.) The Cats are in first place in their division. There is a reason the Panthers aren't on national broadcasts often, if at all, despite having some of the most dynamic, young talent in the NHL. It looks bad to new fans to see empty seats.

For the most part, the league office is filled with savvy business professionals who are acutely aware of the place hockey holds in major North American sports. After turning the league around AGAIN after another lockout, they continue to be image conscious in regard to involving themselves in women's hockey.

Essentially, it's a no-win situation at the moment for the NHL. If they take over and the women's league fails, it's their fault. If this game on Thursday is a disaster, it's their fault.

By no means should the NHL be receive the benefit of the doubt either. 

They screwed themselves over by doing this at the last minute. If they could have publicized this from the beginning and used whatever market power the NWHL and CWHL have to sell tickets, it could have been something greater. 

For now, women's hockey fans have to do what is continuously asked of them - show up. Cover the game. Periscope from Foxborough. Make this test event successful so there can be more in the future.

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Jen Neale is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow her on Twitter! Follow @MsJenNeale_PD.

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