What do you do when 1/5 or more of your rostered players leave for a season?
This is the dilemma the CWHL is about to face for the third time in its history as national teams begin preparations for the 2018 Olympics.
This afternoon Hockey Canada will announce the list of players who will centralize in Calgary to begin training for the Olympics. USA Hockey named 23 players in their announcement on Friday. Historically, most other national teams don’t centralize for quite so long, but demands on their players will rise and most of them will need to stick close to home.
Hockey Canada submitted a 33 player entry list for the 2017 Women’s World Championships. It’s likely that most of those players will be centralized. 22 of them are CWHL players and a number of the others are draft-eligible for the 2017-18 season. And that’s only one country. Last season there were three players from Team Japan and one from Team Russia playing in the league.
It would be easy enough, logistically speaking, to count those players out for the year. GMs would simply fill the teams from the draft and their reserve lists. But not everyone who centralizes will end up going to the Olympics: the roster limit for the Olympic games is 18 skaters and 3 goalies. Plus, the Olympics are held in February, and the CWHL season goes until March. If Marie-Philip Poulin wants to come back and play some games for Montréal, are they really going to say no?
A team roster in the CWHL is 25 players. Due to the fact that most if not all of the players in the league have outside commitments, whether to their full-time job, graduate school or national team duties, it’s not unusual for a team to carry a short bench for some games, especially away games.
Each team also has a reserve list, which is not always publicly available. The reserves usually consist of players who were drafted but didn’t make the team, or players who have left the league but might be available for a few games. Some of them will join practices, and once in a while when a team is temporarily short of players for whatever reason, someone from the reserve list steps in.
The CWHL may be going into its eleventh season, but it’s still evolving. Still, a look back at the 2013-14 can give us some ideas. (I only started following the league two seasons ago, so this article is the result of research into archival information on the CWHL and Hockey Canada websites.)
In the 2013-14 season, all five teams kept roster spots open for at least some of their players from 2012-13 who had been centralized. Here’s what that looked like.
The Toronto Furies left all of their centralized players on both their regular season and playoff rosters. Tessa Bonhomme was cut from the national team in early November and returned to play eleven regular season games. Natalie Spooner came back after the Olympics to play two games in the regular season. Spots were held for Jennifer Wakefield and Rebecca Johnston all through the playoffs, but both women had played their last games for Toronto. (Johnston moved to the Inferno the next season and Wakefield left the league to go to Sweden.)
In addition to the players from the previous season, Toronto acquired Jenelle Kohanchuk in January of 2014. Kohanchuk — who was centralized but cut at the same time as Bonhomme — was eligible for the 2013 draft but didn’t register. Toronto traded rookie Sasha Nanji to Brampton the day before Kohanchuk’s first game, possibly to make room on the roster.
In total, Toronto had 26 players who played at least one game, and 13 skaters (10F, 3 D) who played 20 or more. This was also the season that Toronto won their first Clarkson Cup.
The Calgary Inferno included all three of their centralized players on their regular season roster, however none of those players returned to the league until the 2014-15 season. Calgary took only 20 players (18 skaters and 2 goalies) into the Clarkson Cup playoffs. Interestingly, Calgary acquired several Olympians from other CWHL teams the next season.
The Inferno had one other curious move that season - they acquired Olympian Shannon Szabados outside of the draft and listed her as their third goalie during the regular season. To date, Szabados has never played a CWHL game.
Calgary had 20 players who played at least one game, including 15 skaters (11F 4D) who played 20 or more.
It’s not a huge assumption to say that the Brampton Thunder were probably most affected by centralization. Not only did the Thunder lose starting goalie Florence Schelling to Team Switzerland (Schelling didn’t return to the CWHL after Sochi), but they kept spots open for five skaters and none of them came back to play that season. This includes both Courtney Birchard and Vicki Bendus, who were cut from the national team in late December, still halfway through the season. At the time Brampton were the perpetual fifth-place team, but the loss of six elite-level players can’t have helped.
Brampton had 21 players who played at least one game, including 12 skaters (6F, 6D) who played 20 or more. They missed the playoffs again that season.
The team with the fewest Canadian national team players, but most Olympians, was of course the one American team: the Boston Blades. Eight players from the 2012-13 Blades roster played in Sochi, including their starting goalie Geneviève Lacasse. The Blades left US Olympians Gigi Marvin, Molly Schaus and Anne Schleper off their 2013-14 roster completely. The other five players all came back to play at least one regular season game and all of the playoffs.
Boston had 27 players who played at least one game and 12 skaters (8F 4D) who played 20 or more.
Montréal’s team (at the time, the Stars) also left a few Olympians off their roster. While they could lay claim to six players from the previous season who played in Sochi, space was only left for the two players (Caroline Ouellette and Julie Chu) who came back to play games that season. Even starting goalie Charline Labonte, who plays the lion’s share of games for Montréal in most seasons, was left off the 2013-14 roster completely.
Montréal was also the only team to draft a centralized player in the 2013 draft. Lauriane Rougeau was selected by Montréal, but again was never listed on the roster for that season. She made her CWHL debut in the 2014-15 season.
Montréal had 25 players who played at least one game, and 12 skaters (8F 4 D) who played 20 or more.
We’re clearly not going to see these exact scenarios play out again. For one thing, Calgary can’t possibly reserve roster spots for every single potential Olympian from last year’s roster - they’d barely ice a team. They may look to Montréal’s Sochi strategy instead. With Tara Watchorn left off this year’s Worlds roster, Boston doesn’t look to be facing this particular challenge at all.
The rosters from the 2013-14 season demonstrate that there’s still room for general managers to get a bit creative when facing the challenges of an Olympic season. Of course, the most exciting question of all becomes - what new stars will shine?