Members of Canada’s national women’s hockey team believe the answer is clear. So do their rivals on the United States roster.A stable of Olympic gold medalists and the National Hockey League agree too: it is time to seriously explore a unification of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and National Women’s Hockey League, which is based in the United States.
“We always talk about it — the best in the world have to merge,” Laura Fortino of Canada said last week before playing the United States in an exhibition game here. “We hope the commissioners of both sides come to that reality, that in order for women’s hockey to get to the peak where we want it to be, we all have to be playing with the best.”
The C.W.H.L. opened its 11th season on Oct. 14, with its players earning a salary from the league for the first time and with two expansion teams in China. The N.W.H.L began its third season Saturday with the Metropolitan Riveters hosting a game at the Prudential Center in Newark, home of the N.H.L.’s Devils, who recently became part-owners of the Riveters.
The C.W.H.L. continues to grow its network of sponsors, and select N.W.H.L. games will be streamed on Twitter beginning this season. But for many of women’s hockey’s influential voices, that these milestones are being reached along separate paths delays the sport’s reaching its potential.
Cassie Campbell, a three-time Olympic medalist for Canada, is a renowned ambassador for women’s hockey and a broadcaster for Sportsnet. After the Devils’ deal with the Riveters was announced in early October, she praised it, but also tweeted that two leagues were not “helping us get to where we want to go.” Her viewpoint was supported by Angela Ruggiero, a four-time Olympic medalist for the United States, and Hilary Knight, a current member of the national team.
“The questions should be asked to the Commissioners, who both know that two leagues do not help us in our long term goal of eventually having a WNHL,” Campbell, who is also a member of the C.W.H.L.’s board of governors, wrote in an email. “It has been clearly communicated to them at various meetings and discussions. However, the legal issues and personality conflicts that exist make it difficult for a merger, but not impossible.”Dani Rylan, the commissioner of the N.W.H.L., said she had approached the C.W.H.L. about staging a game between the league’s champions.
“We’ve had conversations with the C.W.H.L. about the potential of playing maybe one game as a start to see what working together could look like, and there wasn’t much interest on that,” Rylan said. “We’re going to keep asking. I think that would be an amazing event for women’s hockey, and I think getting that one in the books would definitely make it easier to have a bigger conversation.”
Brenda Andress, the C.W.H.L. commissioner, was not made available to comment, but a league spokeswoman said: “The C.W.H.L. has always believed that one league is essential for a sustainable, strategic plan for a professional women’s hockey league. It is for this reason that the C.W.H.L. Board and office worked with Ms. Rylan closely three years ago; however, she chose to start her own league,” referring to Rylan’s interest in bringing a New York-area expansion franchise to the C.W.H.L. in 2014.AJ Mleczko Griswold, who was a member of the American team that won in the first Olympic women’s hockey tournament in 1998, said the onus was on the leaders of the rival leagues to come together for the betterment of the game.
Mleczko Griswold added that support from the N.H.L. was critical to developing the sport because the league’s avenues of exposure could increase the audience for women’s hockey.In statements since the creation of the N.W.H.L., officials from the N.H.L. have repeatedly questioned the viability of having two North American women’s professional hockey leagues.Olympians from the United States and Canada will not play in either league this season until at least after the Pyeongchang Games in February, but a majority of those players, the game’s top stars, have said they would like to come back to one league.
“What that one single league could be is amazing hockey,” said Jocelyne Larocque, who has played in the C.W.H.L. since 2012. “It’s hockey people would come and watch, people would pay to watch. It would be a true national women’s hockey league. Right now, neither of them are.”
The leagues have had an icy relationship since Rylan formed the N.W.H.L. in 2015 and several players from the C.W.H.L.’s Boston franchise, including American Olympians, jumped to the new league, which was the first to offer salaries. The N.W.H.L. created its own team in Boston, and as a result, the C.W.H.L.’s Boston club has experienced a dramatic drop in attendance.
The two leagues briefly joined forces two years ago to play an outdoor exhibition game as part of the N.H.L.’s Winter Classic festivities at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., but that event was almost scrapped as the sides argued over arrangements.
In an interview in March, Hayley Wickenheiser, who played in the C.W.H.L. and is one of the sport’s greatest players, said: “We can’t have two pro leagues trying to exist. That’s not a USA Hockey or Hockey Canada problem. That’s the two leagues’ issue. If they could sit down and come to a dialogue, we’d see professional women’s hockey come quickly. I see elite amateur hockey because the best in world don’t play in one league.”
Any merger could not occur overnight, as a litany of business, financial and legal issues would have to be sorted out. The C.W.H.L. is centrally funded, while the N.W.H.L. has individual team owners.The N.W.H.L. has four teams in the northeast United States, while the C.W.H.L. now has seven franchises — four in Canada, one in Boston and two in China. Logistically, some teams might need to be contracted, while other markets, like Minnesota, could be attractive options for expansion.
Players understand there are obstacles, but none seem insurmountable. The United States-Canada game here was played before a capacity crowd, and fans wearing merchandise from both leagues were almost as prevalent as those wearing national team colors.