Women's hockey leagues in tense tug-of-war over star players

Puck Daddy

The National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), a rival of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), completed its first free agency period last Monday. As the first league in the modern era to pay women for playing hockey professionally, the NWHL easily filled all 72 spots available.

Yet, when the clock struck midnight on the east coast, only 61 players had officially been announced as joining the league.

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The league quickly released a statement to clarify the variance:

“Out of respect for the players, the NWHL has agreed to not announce the remaining players' intent to play in the league until they receive official releases from other leagues ... The NWHL still plans to announce the final team rosters and contract details as soon as the players are ready.”

According to multiple sources, the remaining 11 "mystery" women are players who participated in the CWHL this past year. The players are unable to officially sign contracts with the NWHL because they have not been granted a termination of their player agreement by the CWHL -- despite following the steps laid out by the league to earn their release, and in some cases having asked for one as far back as May.

According to sources, CWHL participants were made to sign a player agreement after the beginning of the 2014-2015 season. The Boston Blades actually forfeited two games in their season because of their reluctance to sign a contract when it was placed before them. They objected to the length of the contract - then three years, now it’s two - and the lack of detailed opt-out information.

In that uniform agreement obtained by Puck Daddy, language regarding termination of the contract was vague:

Article 13 – Termination of the Agreement

13.1 This Agreement shall automatically terminate on the Termination Date.

13.2 This Agreement shall terminate prior to the Termination Date, upon the execution of a written agreement of the parties.

13.3. This agreements shall terminate prior to the Termination Date, upon the execution of a player no longer being on a CWHL member club roster.

The women agreed to sign the deal just to get back on the ice playing, as long as the league would provide a letter of understanding detailing the termination policy and procedure.

Here is the addendum, added after the players signed off on the deal:  

In a situation where a player is currently under contract with the CWHL, but wishes to play in another league, the CWHL will not hinder or prohibit her from doing so, as long as she (1) provides the league with written notice and (2) she follows the requirements outlined in the Player Movement policy.

The IIHF has established several rules surrounding the interleague transfer of players. The Policies of the CWHL comply with these rules and strive to allow the players the opportunity to control where they play while protecting the member clubs of the league. There are several ways that a player in the CWHL can transfer to another league, according to the IIHF and the CWHL Player Movement Policy

1) The CWHL Club may release a player (a club initiated release). In this case the player is a free agent is allowed to sign with any CWHL Club or a club in any other league.

2) A player may request a release from her contract (player initiated release) – the release may or may not be granted by the member Club.

a. If the release is granted, the player is free to join a club in another league. However, the player may not be contacted or retained by any of the CWHL Clubs for a period of one year.

b. If the club does not grant a release, the player may become a free agent at the end of the season and may be:

i. Signed to the official roster of the club;

ii. Traded to another team in the CWHL for consideration.

iii. Eligible to play in a league other than the CWHL for the balance of the season; however she is ineligible to play for any CWHL team other than the team that holds her rights.

The player may also refuse to be named to the official roster of the club and will be placed on the inactive (reserve roster). A player on the reserve roster is eligible to play in a league other than the CWHL for the balance of the season; however, she is ineligible to play for any CWHL team other than the team that holds her rights. (This is in compliance with IIHF rule 5.6 “A player may be transferred during the term of her contract, for a limited period of time, provided that an agreement is reached between all three parties concerned (the releasing club, the player and the receiving club). During the period of such limited transfer, the player will be under the jurisdiction of the new member national association.

After termination of the limited transfer, the player shall continue her contractual obligations to her former club.

Perhaps anticipating the emergence of a competing women's hockey league, the CWHL spelled out what happens if a player is headhunted:

By way of example, if a player, who signs with a CWHL Club and is included on the roster, is approached by league X to play for the current season – and the player wishes to play for the league X club. There are a few options open to the player.

1) Request a release from her contract with the CWHL Club. If this release is granted, the player will be free to join league X – but will be prohibited from returning to the CWHL for a period of 1 year.

2) Request a release from her contract with the CWHL Club. If the release is not granted, the player may refuse a position on the official roster and will be placed on the reserve roster. In this situation the player will be allowed to join League X but will be prohibited from joining the CWHL team’s official roster for one year, unless she returns to the CWHL prior to the October 4 Official roster deadline.

3) Formally resign from the CWHL. The player may formally resign from the CWHL and join League X - But the player will be prohibited from returning to any CWHL Club for a period of one year.

Regardless of the option chosen by the player, the player will be able to join league X, but will be prohibited from joining the active roster of a CWHL Club for a period of one year.

To summarize all the legalese: The CWHL can release a player if she requests to be released.

Yet, as sources indicated, the NWHL’ers-in-waiting have submitted their termination requests in writing and have not been granted a release. For some players, they’ve been waiting since May - after the NWHL Foundation announced their camps - to receive their release, and were unable to participate in any non-Foundation related NWHL events for fear of legal retribution.

When contacted for comment on the alleged withheld releases, Jennifer Smith, director of marketing and communications for the CWHL, replied with this statement:

“The CWHL continues to follow its written policies pertaining to player movement and is reviewing release requests as they are received. Any player who has requested a release has heard back from the league within a reasonable business time frame. The CWHL has provided US based players with the opportunity to play the highest level of hockey in the world, against the best competition, in the world’s best league, for the past five years at home in Boston. We are understandably disappointed when a player requests to leave the league, but at the same time we respect a player’s right to make such a request. On Sunday August 23 the CWHL is set to welcome its 2015 draft class to the league – a class that features the player who has scored the gold medal game winning goal in each of the past two Olympic Winter Games – a feat never before accomplished and likely never to be repeated. Marie-Philip Poulin joins Hayley Wickenheiser, Brianne Jenner and other Olympic and World Champions who have chosen the CWHL for their professional careers. The draft can be followed online at CWHL.ca and through social media at @cwhl_insider (Twitter and Instagram).”

According to the CWHL, anyone who has received a reply from the league but not a release. If that’s the case, why haven’t these players been announced?

Something isn’t lining up.

When asked for clarification as to the players’ status, Dani Rylan, commissioner of the NWHL, told Puck Daddy via email:

“The long-and-short term goal of the NWHL is to promote the growth of women's hockey.

"It is our understanding the players who have requested releases from the CWHL are still awaiting approval.

"Since our free agency ended on August 17th, the timing of these player releases is critical to the NWHL's success.  However, until the CWHL releases the players we feel it is important to respect the player's situation.”

Rylan wouldn’t comment as to the players in question, or when they submitted their releases to the CWHL.

Just because the women aren’t paid in the CWHL doesn’t mean they can up and leave. They’re still under contract. Playing for the NWHL without going through the termination channels they agreed to, by signing the CWHL player agreement (pre-addendum), makes them vulnerable to contract violation lawsuits with monetary damages related to business losses attached and other legal perils.

Playing Devil’s Advocate, it’s not difficult to see why the CWHL wouldn’t want to let go of any of their established players. As much as everyone wants to share in the sunshine and rainbows vision of growing women’s hockey, the reality is the CWHL is a business, and the NWHL is competition, pure and simple.

In all likelihood, most of the women asking for release from the CWHL are bigger (probably American) names in the sport. Losing them to an upstart is a big blow to marketing and expansion power, especially in the United States. Why not hold on to the superstar power missing from the NWHL’s lineups? It’s called competitive advantage; doesn’t mean it’s right.

Both leagues have reached a critical impasse.

The NWHL’s success in Year 1 hinges on recruiting relatively well-known women’s hockey players to buy-in to their league. The focus of recent rumors surround Team USA's Hilary Knight. She captained the CWHL's Clarkson Cup winning Boston Blades, but has not made public any intentions to either switch leagues or stay where she's at. (All parties involved with Knight are mum on her status.) Keep in mind, Knight, like all CWHL players, falls under the termination restrictions in the player agreement. 

The CWHL has the decision to play by the rules they set or lose face in the marketplace; diminishing the attractiveness of their product not just to the public, but to future professional women’s hockey players when making their decision which league to join.

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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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