In the fall of 2007, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League was born. The goal was simple: provide a future for women to play professional hockey.
At the time, there were few stable options for women to play highly competitive hockey after college. There were the national teams, of course. But those teams only competed a couple times a year in international tournaments and once every four years in the Olympics.
Touted as a “professionally-run” league, the CWHL does not pay their players a salary in the typical sense of the word. League commissioner Brenda Andress said in an interview with CTV News that players are compensated in other ways. However, that does not stop them from attracting some of the top talent in North America, for reasons that may be changing as the league grows.
Les Canadennes de Montreal forward Julie Chu began her post-college career with the Minnesota Whitecaps in the WWHL in 2007. At the time, WWHL teams competed against CWHL teams for the Clarkson Cup. In 2010, she joined the CWHL to pursue the highest level of women’s hockey possible.
“Especially before 2010 and the CWHL came along, once you graduate from college you were really piecing things together to try tcompete, try to play … It was challenging to try to be an elite hockey player when you don’t have games, you don’t have a league, you don’t have practices,” Chu said to the media following the 2015 CWHL All-Star Game. She continued on to credit her time with the CWHL as a reason for her making the 2010 and 2014 Team USA Olympic teams.
While the league is an opportunity for national team players to play and train year-round, it also is providing non-national team players the opportunity to play. As a veteran of both the league and Team Canada, Calgary Inferno forward Hayley Wickenheiser recognizes that.
“This league is interesting in the sense that you’ve got players who are sort of pro players like some of the other national team players, and then you’ve got women who are working 9-5 jobs. They come to the rink at night and practice,” she said on her team after winning the Clarkson Cup in Ottawa. “For those girls to win a championship, you know the team, it means a lot to them. That’s why this league matters.”
Even for Wickenheiser herself, the league has changed roles in her own life. “It’s the best possible scenario for me and my life and my family,” the 37-year-old said. “To be playing in this league in Calgary where we’ve got 10 national team players in our group, we can train every day and be on the ice. Its just the perfect environment really to be as close to a pro player as you possibly can.”
For players like Calgary Inferno goaltender Delayne Brian, the CWHL and the Clarkson Cup is the end-all, be-all. Brian won silver with Team Canada in the 2008 U18 World Championship but has not played for her country since then, something she has accepted.
“I know that this [the CWHL] is as high as I’ll go, and I’m appreciating every moment of,” Brian said after stopping 38 shots to lead her team to their first Clarkson Cup win. She was the first star of the championship game and the MVP.
As players place more and more importance in winning the league, professional women’s hockey is finding a more meaningful place in the conversation of women’s hockey.
It is not just non-national team players who are shifting towards the CWHL and the Clarkson Cup being the pinnacle of their career. Frequently, we hear about leagues being a place for national players to compete and practice in during the regular season, with international play and the Olympics being the end game.
But for Les Canadennes goaltender Charline Labonte, a longtime member of Team Canada, winning the CWHL is the top prize, slightly shockingly deflecting attention away from the upcoming World Championship to instead talk about how badly she wanted the Clarkson Cup with her team.
“Team Canada is like a bonus at the end of the year. This is what I want the most- the Clarkson Cup.”
The Clarkson Cup is the top prize in the professional women’s sports, and hearing national and non-national players talk about how meaningful it was is a reminder of what the CWHL is to them – a true professional league where they can achieve the pinnacle of their sport.
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