Women's Hockey Needs NHL's Help

By Wiecek, Paul | Winnipeg Free Press, March 24, 2018 | Go to article overview

Women's Hockey Needs NHL's Help


Wiecek, Paul, Winnipeg Free Press


Women’s hockey finally had its long-awaited coming out party last month in Pyeongchang. Unfortunately, the party ended as soon as the Olympic torch was extinguished.

But could the party now get restarted? And is Gary Bettman, of all people, the DJ this bash has been waiting for?

More on that unlikely image in a moment. First, here’s some background.

While the women’s game has been a full medal sport at the Winter Olympics since 1998, it had the misfortune of making its Olympic debut in the same year the NHL began sending its players to compete.

The result: women’s hockey had a platform like never before, but it was still dwarfed every four years by the presence at the Olympics of the game’s biggest male stars, from Wayne Gretzky to Sidney Crosby.

With the NHL sitting out the 2018 Winter Olympics, it was women’s hockey, not men’s hockey, that was the signature event of this year’s Games.

I was in Korea and I can tell you it was women’s hockey that consistently attracted the biggest crowds. Women’s hockey, particularly any time Canada or the United States were on the ice, drew the biggest media scrums, and it was that insane, six-round shootout the Americans won over Canada in the gold-medal final that will remain for many people the singular indelible memory from this year’s Olympics.

How big was women’s hockey for two weeks in Korea? Well, a defenceman from Ste. Anne that even most Manitobans would have been hard-pressed to name — Jocelyne Larocque — made headlines from Binscarth to Beijing when she removed her silver medal moments after it had been placed around her neck during the medal ceremony.

Columnists and pontificators who’d never seen a women’s hockey game weighed in on the episode from the four corners of the globe, giving Larocque 15 minutes of fame she would have just as soon avoided.

Yet for all the unprecedented exposure women’s hockey received and for all the talk of these Olympics being the long-awaited breakthrough for a women’s game still played at an elite level in only two countries, the only sound you’re hearing from women’s hockey just four weeks after those Games wrapped up has been crickets.

A sport that was centre stage for two weeks in Korea has become largely invisible once again. Did you know the Clarkson Cup, the championship of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, is this weekend? Me neither.

If history is any guide, women’s hockey will remain in obscurity for the next four years until they light the torch in Beijing in February 2022 for the start of the next Winter Games.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, as Bettman told the world this month.

Speaking on a Calgary radio station, Bettman said the NHL is interested in starting a professional women’s hockey league that sounds like it would look a lot like the Women’s National Basketball Association, but has thus far refrained from doing so because two struggling women’s leagues — the Canadian Women’s Hockey Leaguue and the National Women’s Hockey League — already exist.

“Having two leagues makes it more difficult for us to get involved,” Bettman said. “If there were no leagues, we’d probably start one under the NHL umbrella, and I’ve told both leagues that. But I have no interest in competing with the existing leagues. I think that would be counterproductive.”

Bettman made similar comments to reporters in Vancouver this month, making it clear for a second time the only thing standing in the way of the NHL setting up a women’s professional league on this continent is the two financially strapped women’s leagues that already exist.

Put another way, what Bettman seems to be saying is that if they can just get out of their own way, the NHL would be happy to give women’s hockey players their biggest breakthrough since Nagano in 1998.

Now, the only logical response to a stunning overture like that from the commissioner of a multibillion-dollar enterprise like the NHL should be: “Our two leagues just folded. …

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