NHL's minimal financial support of women's pro hockey reportedly won't change

·Editor

The shocking news dropping over the weekend of the CWHL’s plans to abruptly cease operations has left a tonne of questions surrounding the future of women’s professional hockey.

The public reaction to the league’s move to fold yielded a mix of surprise, anger, confusion and sadness, but essentially everyone was left wondering how or if the National Hockey League and the NWHL — North America’s other premier women’s pro league — would step up to the plate and support the teams and players cast off by the decision.

Though there’s still so much to be sorted as the dust settles on this monumental shift in the women’s hockey landscape, on Tuesday we were given just a little bit of clarity on what those two aforementioned leagues plan to do, at least going into next season.

One will step up, while the other will continue to do the bare minimum for the women’s game. You can probably guess which is which.

According to ESPN’s Emily Kaplan, the NWHL plans to have teams in at least two of the six markets that formerly occupied the CWHL. Kaplan spoke to NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan, who said the league will add teams in Toronto and Montreal for the 2019-20 season.

"Obviously coming off the news of the CWHL ceasing operations for this upcoming season, it was a shock to us, but also an immediate reaction was needed from us to do what we can to provide an opportunity for those players to have a place to play next year," Rylan told Kaplan.

TORONTO, ON- JANUARY 21  - Toronto Furies Jess Vella waits to take to the ice before a game against the Calgary Inferno at the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence. The Toronto Furies are one of five teams in the Canadian Women's Hockey League. The CWHL is the highest level of hockey for women. The League strives to become a professional league where the players earn a pay cheque to play.  in Toronto. January 21, 2017.  Steve Russell/Toronto Star        (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
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The commissioner added that the NWHL’s plan is to include seven teams next season after adding the Toronto and Montreal franchises to its existing clubs in Boston, New Jersey, Minnesota, Buffalo and Connecticut.

The futures of the CWHL’s other former franchises — including Calgary, Worcester, Markham and Shenzhen (China) — are very much in limbo, but there’s at least a speck of hope.

"... that is just where we are comfortable today. That doesn't mean we aren't going to pursue additional business opportunities in additional markets, in both the United States and Canada,” Rylan said.

The league is expected to raise it’s average salary, too, according to Rylan, who also spoke to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and said the NHL has agreed to up its financial contribution to the NWHL “significantly,” making it one of the NWHL's biggest financial backers.

That increase in support, according the The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, will put the NHL’s investment somewhere in the $100K range for next season.

So, not very significant at all.

At first glance, yes, cool, the National Hockey League is doubling its contribution to the NWHL. Sweet. The NWHL will bring in twice as much cash via the NHL this upcoming season as it did the past one, but the most lucrative hockey entity in the world is not increasing its financial contributions to women’s hockey in anyway — just shifting it.

The NHL donated $100K to women’s professional hockey before the news of the CWHL’s collapse, and it will donate $100K after its demise. For a league projected to pull more than $4.5 billion in revenue during the 2018-19 campaign, that is a very, very minor contribution to growing the sport it hauls immense profits from.

To put that in perspective, the NHL just announced that its “Stanley Cup Playoff Bracket Challenge” will offer a grand prize of, you guessed it: $100K. I would assume a well-structured and strong women’s league would generate more money for the NHL than a free fantasy game played by people who already watch the league, but here we are.

Considering NHL players, who make millions, regularly contribute tens of thousands of dollars to charities and causes of their own, you’d think an entity that brings in billions and is comprised of billionaire owners would see it in their best interests to contribute more than peanut particles to growing the women’s game — something that clearly benefits the NHL in the long run.

I’m not saying the NHL needs to step up and donate millions of dollars out of the kindness of their heart, I realize that’s an asinine and unviable thought and doesn’t make sense financially at all. Nor does a league like the NWHL, which has a tough time drawing fans to its games and struggles to generate basically any television revenue, necessarily deserve a hand-out without having its own house in order.

But it should be very clear to those with a scarce financial acumen that the stronger the women’s game is from the top down, the better it is for the sport of hockey. A cash-backed, well-supported women’s league obviously generates more interest for the game at the grassroots level, which in turn causes more young girls to register for hockey and their parents to contribute to the sport’s economy via ticket, event and merchandise purchases.

The more interest and participation in the game across all levels, ages and genders, the better for the NHL. It’s actually quite simple.

Plus, considering the billions of dollars of taxpayer money and tax exemptions these teams have raked in for arena projects and the like, maybe they could throw more than a fifth-grader’s allowance to the women’s game which has had to scrape and claw for every penny it’s ever earned — even if the NHL didn’t benefit directly from a financial-sound NWHL (which it does).

The fastest-growing segment of minor hockey is currently girls and women's leagues, so (assuming the reports from LeBrun and others hold true) the fact that the NHL is not putting the peddle to the floor and going full steam ahead toward that emerging market is pretty mind-boggling.

Actually, considering it’s the NHL we’re talking about here, it’s not that mind-boggling at all, unfortunately.

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