Women's Hockey Notebook: Q & A with CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress

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Clarkson Cup champion Boston Blades take the trophy for a spin around Boston. Stanley Cup of Chowder recaps the stops of the week.

The National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) has garnered a lot of attention in the recent months as the started their public relations blitz. Somewhat lost in the hustle is the Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL).

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The CWHL is the OG of the current women's hockey landscape. The league is led by commissioner Brenda Andress. She took time out of her day to chat with me about her league, expansion, pay for players and more.

PUCK DADDY: Tell our readers about how you go to this point in your life where you’re the commissioner of the CWHL?

BRENDA ANDRESS: [Laughs] That’s a great question. I got here because one day I realized that you had to be who you were born to be and not what everybody else said you should be. I knew from a very young age that what I loved to do and what I loved to be involved in was sports and hockey was a passion of mine. I think all of our lives, we try to do what everyone says we’re good at, or where we belong. I think for myself, I went on a path of being who I was born to be.

Q. In brief, how did the CWHL come to fruition?

The CWHL came to fruition after the NHWL, which is the former name of our league, went down because the owners went on strike and the league was taken down. We formed a new league and decided to create a professional league that would provide opportunities for women to earn a living at and to provide leadership roles for women in nontraditional jobs, as commissioners, GMs, coaches, and operations. Affordability was at the top of our list for young families.

Q. Three of your teams have partnerships with NHL franchises [Toronto, Calgary and Montreal]. Are these partnerships key to the long-term survival of the CWHL?

No, I don’t think it’s dependent on survival. I think it’s a key in growing the game in a different way; I think that’s what is more important. The NHL teams we are partnered with and still looking to partner our other two teams with the NHL teams, they’re important because they’ve ‘been there, done it,’ they’re a big machine, and the can certainly help us. But more importantly, they believe in the same type of vision and mission as us, and that is that young girls should have the opportunity to play. They’re growing grass roots with this and they’re growing the community with this. I think it’s essential in a great partnership but it’s not essential as in the CWHL would not survive. I think the CWHL is healthier, stronger, and are much wiser with the benefit of the knowledge of these teams.

Q. Why you think the NHL teams are likely to partner with the CWHL instead of the NHL investing in the CWHL as whole?

I wouldn’t know the answer to that, why one would be over the other. I think that the importance is that our strategic plan specifically states to partner with the NHL team in that community; prime example, Les Canadiennes. The Montreal Canadiens, the female version of that name, the logo is similar, and growing that fanbase, there isn’t anybody in Montreal that isn’t born a Montreal Canadian fan. Now that partnership is awesome because they can be a Les Canadiennes fan - boy and girl - in the entire North America have the opportunity to grow up and play on a team that is associated with a pro league like the men and women are. So, I don’t think it’s one or the other. Toronto and Calgary have been, again you talk about growing the base, and I think going to them and them supporting that is essential in their own community.

Q. For the other two teams, like Brampton, have you reached out to the Toronto Maple Leafs to partner with them, too, or even an AHL or ECHL team?

Yeah, we’ve looked at various ones. The Toronto Maple Leafs partner with the Toronto Furies, and for Brampton we’ve looked at various different ways to try to put them together. We’ve reached out to Boston and are working with them. There’s a strategic plan. We’ve got a great board [of directors]. The board is phenomenal in putting everything in place with the right key individuals on our board with different skill sets that will provide a very sustainable business plan so that we’ll be here.

We’re the second longest [women’s] league to be up and running; the WNBA is ahead of us and then there is us in our eighth year. We’re very proud that we’re still here. We’re very strong. We’re following our plan immensely with such a great community base and ready to take the next steps.

Q. We have to get to the two big elephants in the room. We’ll start with the pay for players. You’ve expressed a desire to eventually get women paid in the CWHL. What is preventing you from doing that at the moment?

There’s nothing really preventing us from doing it. It’s the logical step in our plan, that when we pay our women a salary, it’s a salary that will continue to grow over the years. If you look at any strong business plan, or you look at even your NHL teams, if you don’t have a fanbase or a community built around it, paying the players doesn’t grow the game. Growing the game, building the community pays the players. That was our whole strategic plan: build a very strong base and diversify our revenues so that they come in under many different umbrellas, not just sponsorship, but sponsorship, attendance, merchandising, fundraising. Diversifying the revenue income ensures that it’s a stable league so that when you start to pay your players, it only increases every year and it doesn’t fail.

In women’s sports, research has shown over and over again, short-term glory, not long-term. For us it was creating that long-term that 20 years from now, we’re still here. It’s a very strong league, phenomenal community base, fans are coming out to the games, and players are now earning a complete living.

Q. In building that strong fanbase, the league has been publicly discussing expansion into the midwestern United States. Why is expansion considered ahead of finding a strong enough business model to pay the players and then expand?

That’s a great question. The entire expansion plan, first of all, you would assume that we know there’s five strong teams in North America and that’s based on massive research. Mr. Bettman has said many times, that the grassroots program isn’t there, it’s not strong enough. He said it after the Olympics, you can look up his quote, and it’s great because what he’s saying is actually true. That the grassroots programs in the amount of teams you could have needs to grow quite a bit in the way of 165,000 girls playing hockey doesn’t equate to 10 teams, it equates to five teams. You have to take a look at where is the best places to put those teams for growth and fanbases.

So, yes, we were looking at expanding, but we were also looking at maintaining the five teams. That’s really what’s truly the strength of the league based on who is involved, what recreational thing is. We looked at providing a service because our mandate was to provide that for females. The reason why we put a team in Boston was because five years ago there was no league in Boston. We wanted the national players, and all those great players, to have a place in the league to play in and so we put a team there. It’s the same thing when we looked at expansion this year, we looked at the same things as what you’re saying is that our opportunity to grow the game was based on if we move into the States in Minnesota, Chicago, or different areas we looked at to expand on, we’re looking at expanding in a way that would bring in a different type of sponsorship that would start to pay our players and put a very strong unit in place. It was all based strategically on increasing revenues to pay the players.

Q. How do you expect to grow your footprint in the United States outside of expansion?

We’ve worked a lot with our social media. We’ve worked a lot last year with our Sportsnet broadcasting deal and last year NHL carried and broadcasted our games. We were seen across North America and our streamed games were picked up in Boston and different areas in North America. That’s how you start to build your fanbase. It’s not an easy job to build it outside of where you have a community; you build a team first. We look at doing some exhibition games, some tours, different ways that we could put things together for sure.

Q. Do you feel pressure by the emergence of the NWHL to act sooner on compensating players or are you still okay with just following the strategic plan?

That’s what I love about our league and about our board, we’re very dedicated to that strategic plan because in seven years we’re still here. Every single thing that this league has promised its players, its sponsors, our staff, we’ve been able to accomplish. The women who have worked side by each over the last couple of decades as volunteers and then coming to our league to be, we’re paying our GMs, we’re paying our game-day staff, we’re paying our website person, we’re paying our social media because those key individuals and positions build your community.

The players are treated exactly as they are. They are rockstars to us. We have the All-Star Game, the Clarkson Cup, the Awards Night, which we call ‘the Oscars on the ice,’ and truly when they walk out it’s great to see the players faces. It’s a five-star event. We give them the opportunities and I think this is the key to our strategic plan. It’s not just about giving them the opportunity to play the game, it’s about giving them the opportunity to do something after the game. We connect them with our golf tournament, with these big events we do, with key vice presidents, presidents, commissioners, corporate CEOs; women who are in finance, merchandising and industrial sales, and our women getting to meet these women and getting the opportunity to create connections and partnerships.

For us, it’s not just about the game. It’s about creating these wonderful places for women to grow. We’re showcasing them. When we do these golf tournaments, we do these events, we pair them up and you’re meeting the CEO of Sears or you’re meeting the vice president of Scotiabank. You have an opportunity to have that conversation. They usually come out with a gig for speaking and then while they’re speaking they get internships and they end up with full time jobs because hockey - no matter what anybody says - is always short-term. You’re talking five, six years at the most, for most individuals.

For us it’s not just about this short-term, pay them some money, and do everything, ours is a very long-term goal of saying, “you know what, we want to partner with you, we want to showcase you, we want young girls to grow up and be like you.” There is a whole strategic plan behind what we’re doing. So, no, we’re not pressured in any way. We totally believe in what we do and we keep doing it.

Q. Are you concerned about the viability of two Boston franchises with the NWHL now down there and having a lot of the Blades move leagues?

With the Boston players that moved leagues, one of the things we’ve always said is, we go back to what our league stands for. We believe every woman has the right to choose a career, or choose a path, that they want to go in life. It’s no different than when people say to me, “How happy are you that one of your women left to go play in a men’s league?” and I’ll go, “Well, that’s their decision.” That’s what we all stand by, the right to make your own decision. So, we’re not concerned. We’ve got two teams there, yep, you know what? Well, there’s two teams in a lot of different places. New York has the Mets and Yankees, the Islanders and the Rangers. So we’ve got our two leagues together and that’s just kind of life.

Q. Would you be open to the idea of creating an ultimate women’s championship series with the CWHL champion versus the NWHL champion?

The thing that we’re for, and again I go back to it, we’re open to always sitting at the table. We’re open to always listening. For us, we’ve got a mandate, we’ve got a mission, we’re very firm on our strategic plan, but from the beginning, we’ve said, we know there is a new league. We wish the new league well in the adventure that they’re off on. Would it have been better if we had a talk and continued on the path that we first started down, absolutely, to have one league. But again, people make choices. Those choices we honor. Those choices, we say, you know what, people are talking about the game, people are listening to women. That’s not a bad thing.

Q. And the decision you’re talking about is when [NWHL commissioner] Dani Rylan was initially discussing bringing a team to New York, correct?

That’s correct.

Q. Last question for you: give our readers a quick commercial about the CWHL and why fans should follow it?

The quick thing for us is that the Canadian Women’s Hockey League stands for some many values. We say, “Building dreams and building leaders,” we actually stand behind it. You get to come to a game. You get to engage with our women. You get autographs. You get them to speak. You get them to come out and coach your girls. You get to be hands on with us and I think for us it’s about, as a fan, you want to create something that continues to rumble on down to many, many generations.

Everybody has a daughter. Everybody has a sister or an aunt or a grandma or a mom who plays a sport, and not just hockey but any sport, you as a fan has to buy in to supporting women in sporting events and the CWHL is a great way to do that because it’s the only league in Canada and it’s the only women’s hockey league, until this year, in North America. It’s an opportunity for everybody to come out and watch a non-violent, affordable game and to be centered around family and to be centered around the greatest women who have such great stories to tell about their journey and how they put aside things and how they’re pioneers at building something for which they probably won’t benefit from.

There’s nothing better than to watch people play a sport with passion and not about money.

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News and Notes Dossier:

The CWHL plans to pay players by 2017-18. Eyes on the Prize has confirmed this plan is in place through an unnamed source.

Analytics for the CWHL and NWHL. Fancy stats. Can’t escape ‘em.

Are the Connecticut Whale unstoppable? The Boston Pride might have something to say about that. The two teams will meet for the first time on November 29.

Fresh off her CPS night shift, Warren helps Calgary Inferno complete sweep of Boston. Think the NHL guys are bad ass? Louise Warren is a member of the Calgary Police Service and plays hockey in the CWHL.

What happened to the original New York Riveters Head Coach Alana Blahoski? Blahoski was originally signed on to coach the Riveters but the team ended up going with Chad Wiseman.

Olympian enjoying challenge sticking with Boston Blades. Tara Watchorn could have left for the NWHL with many of her now-former Blades teammates. Instead she’s staying and relishing the challenge of creating a winner with a new squad.

Hidden behind the firepower: Calgary Inferno’s dark horses. The Inferno are the only team in the CWHL not to have a Clarkson Cup in the trophy cabinet. Could this be their year?

Koizumi and Fratkin first to captain Connecticut Whale. Get to know the new leadership duo of Captain Jessica Koizumi and Assistant Captain Kaleigh Fratkin.

Steve Dangle Q&A with Canadian Olympic gold medalist Natalie Spooner. Luckily for Spooner, forward for the Toronto Furies, Hat Guy is nowhere in sight.  

With modest early goals and big plans, NWHL has reason for hope. Goaltender Chelsea Laden thought her hockey career was done after she graduated from Quinnipiac. The NWHL provides an option for players like her to earn money and pursue a career on and off the ice.

Wickenheiser logs first career CWHL points as Inferno sweep defending Clarkson Cup champs. The Canadian hockey legend begins her first year with the CWHL on a high note. The 36-year-old player remains elite even against players nearly half her age.

Bid on game-worn pink NWHL jersey signed by the player who wore it. Proceeds go to Strides For The Cure.

Hot Seat - Jen Scrivens. New York Riveters backup goaltender, and wife of ‘The Professor’ Ben, joins The 4th Line podcast.

New York Riveters earn spot in The Jersey Issue from Hockey News. THN shows some love to the Rosie The Riveters inspired jerseys.

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If you watch only one video this weekend…

Let it be this be this adorable one. Riveters player Taylor Holze gets video of a young Riveters fan receiving her jersey.

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Weekend Hockey Agenda:

No NWHL games on the schedule. The league has elected to take the next two weeks off as a handful of players don their nation’s colors in Sweden for the 4 Nations Cup.

The CWHL will forge ahead without national team members and play this weekend. Like the NWHL, they'll be off next weekend, too.

Saturday

CWHL

Montreal Les Canadiennes @ Toronto Furies 7:30pm ET (stream $$)

Calgary Inferno @ Boston Blades 8:00pm ET

Sunday

CWHL

Calgary Inferno @ Boston Blades 10:30am ET (stream $$)

Montreal Les Canadiennes @ Toronto Furies 12:15pm ET

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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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