Les Canadiennes de Montreal vs. Toronto Furies. (Photo by Courtney Szto)

On March 31, 2019 the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) announced it would officially cease operations on May 1, 2019. Here’s what you need to know.

The CWHL began in 2007 and, up until 2015, was the only professional women’s hockey league for players who wanted to compete in North America. In 2015, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) began operating as a rival league in the United States (more on that later). The CWHL did not pay its players because it was not financially able to do so; therefore, the vast majority of its players played for the love of the game. Most CWHL players worked full-time jobs or were graduate students (or both) and gave up their weeknights to practice and their weekends for games and travel. The 2017-18 season saw the CWHL expand to China with the addition of two teams, the Kunlun Red Star and the Vanke Rays. Chinese investment enabled the league to pay players modest stipends for the first time ranging between $2,000-$10,000 CAD. When the league announced its closure it was a six-team league with clubs in Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, Markham (Ontario), Boston, and Shenzhen (China – the Vanke Rays and Kunlun Red Stars merged to form the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays after the 2017-18 season).

The CWHL announced its closure via a press release stating, “The Board of Directors of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) has made the decision to discontinue operations effective May 1, 2019. Unfortunately, while the on-ice hockey is exceptional, the business model has proven to be economically unsustainable.” The Board has been extremely quiet beyond this original statement, drawing criticism from fans and players alike about the lack of transparency. Players were informed on Fri., March 29 that a conference call would take place on Sun., March 31, with no idea what the conference was about. The general managers and player representatives joined the conference call an hour before all the players were to call in. It was at this time they were informed that the league would cease operations. The announcement also came right before the start of the IIHF Women’s World Championships taking place in Espoo, Finland. No one appeared to have any idea that ceasing operations was even a remote possibility for the league. Regarding the league’s claim that it was operating under an unsustainable business model, The Victory Press, explained that the CWHL was created with registered Canadian amateur athletic association (RCAAA) status, meaning it was a non-profit designed to promote amateur athletics in Canada “nation-wide as [their] exclusive purpose and exclusive function.” This RCAAA status limited the ability of the league to pay its players beyond anything considered a stipend. The business model, however, does not explain why the decision to cease operations was made without consulting team general managers or players.

Following the CWHL announcement, Carlee Campbell of the Toronto Furies posted this poem to future generations of women’s hockey players.

On April 2, 2019, the NWHL announced that it had board approval to invest in the creation of teams in Toronto and Montreal. This announcement came as a shock to the CWHL, which was not consulted in the decision. The option of playing in the NWHL for Canadian players is also a contentious issue for both political and logistical reasons. Many of the top American national team players, such as Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, and Kacey Bellamy, had jumped ship from the NWHL to the CWHL because of the way the NWHL had treated them. Most notably, the NWHL burst onto the scene announcing that it would pay players between $10,000-$20,000. Yet, less than 18 months after its opening day, the league announced that it would have to slash player salaries in order to continue operations. Logistically, it is difficult for Canadian players to play in the United States because of visa issues. Neither the P1A Athlete visa and/or the O1A Extraordinary Ability visa allow players to work an additional job, and if a spouse/partner were to join them they would also be barred from working on those specific visas. Thus, any Canadians looking to play in the United States would have to be able to financially sustain themselves on their NWHL pay and sponsorships alone. Furthermore, Hockey Canada was recently exposed for strong-arming the national team players into staying with the CWHL. Evidently, they were told if they played for the NWHL their spot on the national team could not be guaranteed. Below is a video of Hilary Knight talking about why she “crossed enemy lines” to play in the CHWL and some of the difficulties she encountered in the NWHL.

The National Hockey League (NHL), had been contributing $50,000 each year to each of the two women’s professional leagues. Once the CWHL announced its closure, the NHL allocated all of those funds to the NWHL. The NHL has been reticent to create a women’s league (similar to the NBA-WNBA model) while there were two competing leagues. However, even though the NWHL is the only women’s league standing, the NHL remains reluctant to get involved in women’s professional hockey.

Teams began liquidating their jerseys and other merchandise as part of the league’s legal obligations and as a way to help finance outstanding debts. On April 27, the CWHL added its nine league trophies to the auction block, which raised concerns about public memory and how the league’s achievements could be archived appropriately if they were sold to the highest bidder. In an act of solidarity, fans put together a GoFundMe campaign and coordinated with other buyers to ensure that as many trophies as possible would be donated to a public archive or kept for the sake of future professional women’s hockey in Canada. Unfortunately, a last minute bidding war took place for a significant number of items and the GoFundMe was unable to secure the MVP trophy as planned. We will have to wait and see where those trophies end up.

Liz Knox, one of the CWHL Player Representatives, shares her feelings about the trophy auction via Twitter.

Despite the NWHL’s opportunistic announcement to create teams in Toronto and Montreal, players are not confident that there will be professional women’s hockey in Canada in the fall. In fact, there are rumours of a potential boycott of women’s hockey across the board in order to secure a unified future. The players are taking a measured approach to ensure that whatever comes next is better than what they just lost. They appear to have learned a valuable lesson about taking nothing for granted and the limits of being grateful for the crumbs they have historically been given, but their next move will be telling. The closure of the CWHL is a setback for women’s sports, but it also provides us with a teaching moment. Equality is not guaranteed. Progress is not linear. And, individual empowerment won’t solve this collective problem.

To learn more about the closure of the CWHL, check out the following links:

  • The Last Stretch Podcast – learn how the players reacted to the news.
  • CBC’s The Current – Panel discussion with Liz Knox (CWHLPA representative), Courtney Szto, and Kirsten Whalen (Victory Press).
  • The Ice Garden – learn what the Hockey Hall of Fame has to say about the CWHL trophies.
  • Yahoo Sports – former player, Ailish Forfar, of the Markham Thunder penned a piece from her own perspective on the last day of the CWHL’s existence.

Courtney Szto is an Assistant Professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.  Her doctoral research explored the intersections of race, hockey, and citizenship in Canada.  She is the Assistant Editor of Hockey in Society and writes for her own blog The Rabbit Hole. Learn more about Courtney here and follow her on Twitter @courtneyszto.