Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman pushed women’s hockey into the national spotlight again on Hockey Night in Canada this past Saturday night when he reported that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is aware that “if something changes, he has to have a plan.” While Friedman confirmed that Bettman still will not comment on the issue, he said “there is word that the NHL is working on a women’s league if it ever becomes necessary and it is, I think, six teams, maybe two in Canada.” He continued “It sure sounds like there is a plan being worked on and put in place in case the NHL needs to step in.”
For people who have been following women’s hockey closely, and more so since the CWHL announced on March 31 that it would close its doors, this isn’t exactly news. It’s long been known that the NHL holds the rights to the name “WNHL” and has for years. Former CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress said at one time that she’d seen NHL plans for a league, but it was all tentative. “Six teams with at least two in Canada” is not an original concept, in fact PWHPA spokesperson and former Canadienne Karell Émard was talking about a six team league, playing 20 or 30 games in the 2020-21 season as an obtainable goal just this past week as the PWHPA Montréal chapter prepared to take on Team South Korea. The CBC article went as far as to say that according to their sources, there were already 8 to 10 cities who had shown an interest in joining the new league. Émard didn’t make reference to NHL support, but most PWHPA players will tell you that they want the NHL involved in a new league in some capacity.
When on record, most players haven’t gone as far as saying the NHL is the end-all and be-all—some have said that if the NHL isn’t willing to step up, they’ll find another way, and some would prefer NHL involvement over outright control. On the other hand we have Noora Räty in the Finnish press, Natalie Spooner just yesterday on Sportsnet’s Ice Surfing and last week John Langel, an attorney at Ballard Spahr who has been working with the PWHPA, directly and publicly calling the NHL out with phrasing like “We think the one viable option is the WNHL. And that’s what we’re moving towards.” As an organization of 170-plus players, the PWHPA is naturally representing players with different ideas of what the best case scenario looks like and they will have to decide for themselves what compromises they are willing to make to get a real world solution. But there’s a definite theme that whoever partners with them in a new league, there’s a preference for people who have “already been there” and know how to do it right. Theoretically, the NHL fits that bill.
Whether the PWHPA has been in definite talks with the NHL or has simply been knocking on the door is unclear. They have plenty of NHL-related support, though. The NHLPA is a backer, and the moves from the New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres to cut ties with the NWHL as the #ForTheGame movement got off the ground were not exactly subtle, whatever the public reasoning was. As well, the Toronto Maple Leafs were a sponsor of the Unifor Showcase in September, the San Jose Sharks have hosted a game between PWHPA players and their alumni, and PWHPA player Amanda Kessel was on the ice playing with the New York Rangers alumni in a game against the Bruins alumni just this past weekend. (This isn’t even all of the NHL support we’ve seen, it’s just the stuff I can remember offhand.) It’s not unlikely that there’s also still support within the Calgary Flames and Montréal Canadiens organizations, both strong supporters of their local CWHL teams. So it’s no surprise that someone has been in Bettman’s ear long enough to get him to dust off those old WNHL plans.
The biggest surprise is that someone is telling Elliotte Friedman, one of the most well-known NHL insiders, that he should say something about this during what is traditionally the most watched hockey broadcast in Canada. That suggests that there’s more going on than just contingency plans in case of emergency.
The wording of Friedman’s quote is also ambiguous. “If something changes”, “if it ever becomes necessary”, and “if the NHL needs to step in” never directly defines what the “something” is. Has pressure from the PWHPA and their supporters been enough to move the goalposts from Gary’s April quote of “if there’s no opportunity for women to play professional hockey, then we would explore what would make sense” to another “if” scenario? (Did Noora Räty’s much-maligned tweet about the dictionary definition of “professional” make an impact?)
A timeframe that was mentioned in September at the Toronto showcase as when the PWHPA had to really “get serious” and start working on plans for 2020 involved January. So maybe we’ll see something then. The NHL All-Star Weekend takes place January 24-26 in St Louis. Just saying.
"What we want is a sustainable league and I think the @NHL is the right way to go."@natspooner5 joined Sportsnet #IceSurfing to discuss @FriedgeHNIC report about the @NHL getting more involved in women's hockey. pic.twitter.com/RzJnrQRB2f— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 30, 2019
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