Not any more

Fighting for a future

In Canada on August 19, 2010 at 22:23

Financially, it’s a cap-in-hand plea to the likes of Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby, members of the NHL family who have female relatives playing hockey.

Emotionally, it hits home, because their daughters and sisters are serious players without an NHL to aspire to, and with fading Olympic dreams.

The future of women’s hockey will be an urgent topic Aug. 23 to 26 at the world hockey summit in Toronto.

In February, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge issued a stern warning at the Vancouver Winter Games, suggesting the sport risked expulsion if Canada and the United States continue to outclass European nations. In response, summit panelists are expected to discuss approaching current and former NHL players – a list that includes the Pittsburgh Penguins duo of Lemieux and Crosby – to back a best-in-class professional league and throw their immense clout behind the women’s game.

“Girls are now growing up around hockey kitchen tables,” said panelist Peter Elander, the former head coach of Sweden’s national team. “The difference, compared to 10 years ago, is the best players are the daughters and sisters of NHLers.”

Stephanie Lemieux, whose father once starred for and now owns the Penguins, is a high-scoring forward who has already taken her under-12 team to the U.S. national championship, and become the youngest member of the U.S. national under-16 squad. The 15-year-old attends Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the famed hockey school in Faribault, Minn., that produced Amanda Kessel, the 18-year-old sister of Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel.

Former NHL players Pierre Turgeon and Bobby Carpenter both have daughters who have played for U.S. national teams, and Atlanta Thrashers defenceman Tobias Enstrom’s 19-year-old sister, Tina, is a pillar on the Swedish team. Meanwhile, in Cole Harbour, N.S., teenaged goaltender Taylor Crosby has said she wants to follow in her brother’s Olympic footsteps.

“I’d like to see the faces of those high-calibre NHL players saying: ‘Women’s hockey is a great thing,’ ” said Arto Sieppi, Finland’s director of women’s hockey. “We need the first worldwide role model.”

Almost all agree that stable financing for a women’s professional league in North America – where international-level players can earn a living between Olympics, and compete after their postsecondary careers are finished – is key to developing the sport.

But Hayley Wickenheiser, the legendary Canadian player, argues seed money and infrastructure should come from the International Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL, two constituencies primed to help. Wickenheiser, who will make a presentation at the world hockey summit, said proven business cases would eventually lure NHL star profile, a phenomenon seen in football, where former players began investing in Arena League clubs after they became sustainable.

“I’ve certainly had lots of [NHL] players ask questions about our game,” Wickenheiser said. “But I think it’s a little premature. The NHL corporate route is better, build it with an entity that already exists. If it’s solid, they may see business opportunities.”

Most envision a pro women’s circuit of five to seven clubs based at intimate arenas, charging fan-friendly prices, and operating on annual budgets of up to $1-million (U.S.), roughly the equivalent of what American college programs spend. Preferably, the teams are clustered together geographically to ease travel costs, and rosters are open to the best internationals.

Many in North America feel the sport is established enough that a small commercial audience can be achieved with the right model and the right promotion.

The restructured Canadian Women’s Hockey League is scheduled to begin play in October, but there is much work to do. Executive director Brenda Andress said she is trying to raise $1.7-million to distribute evenly among five teams. Four are based in Canada (Toronto, Montreal, Burlington, Ont., and Brampton, Ont.) and are limited to two international players on the roster. (A team in Boston rounds out the league.)

The IIHF, hopping to Rogge’s warning, organized meetings in Germany and Finland this spring, and was told by members it needs to create a new position – director of women’s hockey – and encourage European federations to invest. Because without grassroots development, a pro league can only go so far.

The sport “should not be a sub-folder that [the IIHF] gets to when they have time,” former Canadian women’s head coach Melody Davidson said. “We don’t want to decrease [spending on] our product. We want to get in people’s faces to increase their product.”

Canada spent $2.8-million on the women’s national team in the fiscal Olympic year, while countries such as Finland spent less than $800,000. Some minnows spent just a five-figure amount. The North Americans centralized for months, played ambitious pre-Olympic schedules, and beat podium contenders by 10-goal margins, widening competitive imbalance.

“My boss told me: ‘It can’t go on like this,’ ” Sieppi said.

The twin Goliaths of women’s hockey can offer assistance, wherever possible, to all the Davids and theoretically help grow the sport around the world. Women’s hockey has never been healthier in North America: the player pool is deeper, the skill level is higher and growth continues unabated.

“This summer, I’ve been out to all the under-18 camps and the kids born in 1995 seem to be a very strong group in terms of talent,” Davidson said. “Why that is, who knows? But if you look at when they were three, it was the 1998 Olympics. When they were five, we had the 2000 worlds in Canada. Then, there were the Olympics in 2002.

“So by the time they were seven, their parents were exposed to three major events in women’s hockey. I don’t know if there’s a correlation or not, but that would have been the first group that grew up in the Olympic era.”

Proponents in Europe argue a North American league with economic incentives – a smaller-scale NHL – would increase grassroots participation, and ultimately create a more competitive Olympic field. It may deepen the North American talent pools, too, but the Europeans are not too concerned if the league ultimately produces 20 competitive players per country.

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