The fight to Sell Women’s Hockey:Can the CWHL become the WNBA?
People close to Julie Chu consider her superhuman. But you’d have to forgive her if you spotted bags under her eyes in winter 2013. It was a non-Olympic year, so Chu, one of Team USA’s most decorated forwards ever, worked as an assistant coach with Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., as a day job. She gave instruction wearing full equipment so she could squeeze daily workouts in simultaneously. She stayed with the team from Monday to Saturday, including game nights, which were typically Friday and Saturday. Her rest and recreation after a game consisted of hopping in her car and driving to Montreal (215 miles), Toronto (367 miles) or Boston (186 miles), depending on where her Canadian Women’s League team competed that weekend. She’d arrive to join it late – often at 2 a.m. or so. She’d get what sleep she could and play in the Montreal Stars’ game the next day. After that? Back in the car. Back to Eastern New York to get ready for work Monday. Rinse, repeat.
It’s not quite the glamorous life you’d picture for a Harvard graduate who finished her amateur career as the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer, was her country’s flag bearer at the end of the 2014 Sochi Games and donates oodles of money to buy hockey equipment for children of military members. Yet Chu’s story paints an accurate picture of everyday life for elite female hockey players – and she’s one of the lucky ones. She’s been fortunate enough to find work in the sport when she’s not competing. Still, she can’t get paid to play the game professionally. No CWHL players can. They’re forced to work other jobs, yet they’re expected to perform at the peak of their abilities on game day. They’re attempting to attract interest, sponsors and enthusiasm while playing the sport with one hand tied behind their collective back.
It doesn’t feel that way to outsiders during an Olympic year. Those are the times when international eyes fawn over women’s hockey, at least for Canada and the U.S., and the individual sponsorships pour in.
The 2014 Games were extra special for the Canadian and American teams, as they played one of the most memorable international contests, male or female, in the history of the sport in the final, with Canada rallying from a 2-0 deficit late in the third period to win in overtime. Players from both teams felt like they were put on the map at that moment.
“The outpouring of support from everyone across the U.S., to my knowledge, was unbelievable,” said Team USA captain Meghan Duggan. “People were coming from everywhere, and if you look at social media, everyone’s followers went up. People were contacting us, emailing us, writing us. And even coming home, and bumping into people in airports, or in the mall…things like that. The exposure was fantastic.”
Canadian legend Jayna Hefford, a four-time Olympic gold medallist, said 2014 had a positive lingering effect because that final game was so exciting. At her subsequent speaking engagements and at her hockey school, people wanted to talk about Sochi. They wanted to touch her medal. But, soon enough, the Winter Games disappear in the rearview mirror and they’re suddenly forgotten by mainstream fans. Players experience an adrenaline dump.
“Some people say, ‘Post-Olympic Depression,’ ” Duggan said. “There is all this buildup, all this excitement, all this media attention…and then the Olympics come, and then they end after two weeks, and then it all just goes away. ”
After the Olympics comes life uncertainty. Do these players return to school? Search for a job?
“We’re not just robots who play hockey,” said Canadian blueliner Tara Watchorn, a 2014 gold medallist. “We like to have family and significant others, so it’s hard balancing everything in non-Olympic years.”
Most of them spend their non-Olympic years in the CWHL. Now in its eighth season, it’s considered a professional circuit and has by far the best collection of worldwide female hockey talent. It’s the closest thing to a women’s NHL. The CWHL consists of five franchises: the Boston Blades, Brampton Thunder, Calgary Inferno, Montreal Stars and Toronto Furies. The league’s funding is centralized, meaning all revenue and expenses are shared equally between teams.
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