Player Perspective: The CWHL disaster just keeps getting worse

It’s been almost one month since I joined a league-wide conference call expecting to hear news of an expansion team or the promotion of our interim commissioner.

Imagine my surprise, frustration and heartbreak when I found out the professional hockey league I proudly called home was ceasing operations indefinitely. Now imagine that feeling echoed through hundreds of players, coaches, general managers, volunteers, fans, families and the next generation of players.

When the CWHL announced they would discontinue operations in late March, it was a result of their business model becoming economically unsustainable. As players, we believed we had a successful league and that the future was brighter than ever for women’s hockey. We had fans at every game, we had our highest broadcast numbers to date and we were trending up on every social platform. All of this didn’t change the fact that in the end, the league had no money left to sustain another season.

I immediately thought of the young hockey players I met this year during my rookie season. Every single game we fist bumped between periods, autographed jerseys and hockey cards after the game and shared our hockey stories. It was my favourite part of being a professional hockey player.

Every weekend I met young girls who would excitedly say, “I want to play in the CWHL one day,” and I would confidently respond, “You will.” Not too long ago I was one of these young girls, chasing down my idols in rink lobbies across Canada. Having role models like Jayna Hefford, Jennifer Botterill and Caroline Ouellette playing in my backyard inspired me to chase my own dreams of playing hockey at the highest level. I owe much of my success to those players that allowed little girls to dream big when they built the CWHL from the ground up 12 years ago.

After the news broke, I was left with so many questions. Could this have been prevented if the CWHL disclosed their financial state earlier? How would the national team players prepare for the Olympics with no league to play in? What do we tell the next generation that wanted to follow in our footsteps? Is this an April Fool’s joke?

Sadly, almost a month later, I still have these questions and more. Many players, including myself, are still owed bonuses. The CWHL financial records are private, so we are left with no clarity on what went wrong. The biggest question is how will the CWHL pay what seems to be a massive debt owed to many?

We knew there was a bigger crisis at hand when the NHL stepped in and gave the CWHL $100,000 to help pay the players what we were owed. The NHL has been adamant about not supporting either the CWHL or the NWHL when both leagues existed, only providing $50,000 to each yearly. To double that amount as a bailout just validated our worst fears.

The way things unfolded with the CWHL has left a bitter taste in the mouths of the players, including former Markham Thunder forward Ailish Forfar. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
The way things unfolded with the CWHL has left a bitter taste in the mouths of the players, including former Markham Thunder forward Ailish Forfar. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

When the CWHL teams announced they would auction game-worn jerseys to the public, we thought this money would go directly to the players. I was able to keep one of my jerseys and had no problem with my other jersey, which was signed and bid upon, finding a new home with a fan who could own a piece of the CWHL forever. It is now understood the money raised from selling players’ jerseys will go back to the league to pay all creditors owing, a list of unknown length that includes player bonuses. Most CWHL teams have created individual auction pages to sell jerseys and merchandise, each close to their own fundraising goals of $10,000-$15,000.

Tally up the $100,000 from the NHL, plus $40,000-$60,000 in team auctions and it equals not enough.

So cue the latest and most lethal dagger to the heart. The CWHL took to Twitter on Friday to thank their fans for 12 years of support, and to share the opportunity to own a piece of history by auctioning off some of their prized memorabilia.

In this collection were jerseys, plaques, hockey sticks, photos and oh... eight of the leagues trophies. The actual trophies!

The Jayna Hefford Trophy, which is awarded to the league’s most outstanding player, had a starting bid of $15,000. The Angela James Bowl, for the league’s top point scorer, was originally listed for $15,000 but was removed from the auction after the CWHL realized the trophy is owned independently. The league posted a $35,000 goal on their auction, which was originally listed at $50,000 before they realized they can’t actually sell the glorious AJ Bowl.

It’s thoughtful of the league to generously allow their fans to purchase a piece of women’s hockey history for a casual $15,000 and also at the same time, help bail them out of their own mistakes. It’s a win-win! I considered bidding on the Rookie of the Year Trophy (that I surprisingly didn’t win with four points this season), which is a steal at $1,600.

Asset liquidation is part of the CWHL’s legal obligations as they phase out of operations on May 1. What is unacceptable, and frankly disturbing, is how bad the financial picture must be to sell off priceless trophies. These trophies need to be preserved in the Hockey Hall of Fame, not in the highest bidder’s basement. Fortunately it appears that’s where things are heading after the league back-tracked on Tuesday.

May 1 will be a bittersweet day for many. The league I grew up loving, idolizing and eventually representing will no longer be. For 12 years it was home to the greatest players in women’s hockey history. It shaped the futures of many young athletes that could watch their Olympic heroes more than once every four years, keeping dreams in view and attainable. For many like myself, it was the highest level of hockey I could reach and a platform towards growing the game for the future generation.

Right now, it’s hard to talk about this league without feeling bitter. We know very little about the issues that transpired under the surface, and the collapse is shrouded in confusion, anger and sadness. But after the dust has settled on such a disaster, the only place to go is up, right?

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