Eleven days after the announcement of the folding of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, there are still far more questions than answers; several of which are being pondered by Jayna Hefford herself.
Hefford, who was named interim commissioner of the CWHL on July 19 of last year, of course had the unceremonious duty of pulling the plug on the league that employed many of the world’s best female hockey players; a circuit that she dominated during her playing career, so much so that three years after her retirement, a trophy bearing her name was created to award season MVP voted by the players.
As told to BNN, and as elegantly summarized in articles on The Victory Press and Pension Plan Puppets, Hefford has cited the CWHL’s status as a Registered Canadian Amateur Athletic Association (RCAAA) as a prevailing factor in the league’s shutdown.
“Under the RCAAA status which is what we are as an amateur athletic association, we would never be able to pay players more than just a stipend of a few thousand dollars,” Hefford said in an interview with TMLfans.ca. CWHL players had been earning salaries in the range of $2,000-$10,000 per season since the league started paying its players in 2017-18.
Yet as much as the league appeared to be making strides, in terms of being able to pay its players, and also increasing its visibility – the Clarkson Cup championship game was aired on SportsNet, TVA and NHL Network – the gap between revenues and expenses was still too large of a chasm for sustainability.
Attendance in rinks such as MasterCard Centre in Toronto, Complexe Sportif Bell near Montreal, and WinSport Arena in Calgary was lukewarm at best – filled with passionate fans, particularly scores of minor hockey girls’ teams and their families – but a mere fraction of the crowds at their respective NHL arenas.
Indeed Hefford also referenced a sense of an appetite among the fan bases for a league that mirrors hockey’s best professional circuit. “We were getting messages in the marketplace that people are very much waiting for an NHL to start. That’s what they wanted to support.” she said.
“The combination of the two: the economic model not working, and the challenges in the marketplace to get people to step up and support the game in meaningful ways, got us to this conclusion that we feel like there’s got to be better options out there. And this particular way that we were operating just wasn’t going to be the way to advance the game. “
Hefford, like former CWHLPA director Liz Knox and 2017 All-Star Game captain Carlee Campbell – the latter two of whom spoke at a Puck Talks event in Toronto this past weekend – opines that a strong infrastructure is the basis of what would be a successful professional women’s league.
“You don’t want to be in a position where we rely on simply ticket sales and donations and corporate partnerships. We found ourselves in a very unsustainable position based on those things,” Hefford said. “Also moving forward, there’s a number of organizations that continue to publicly support women’s hockey and their desire to see it grow. We need those people to really step up. It’s hard to support a professional women’s hockey league if you have attendances of a few hundred people.”
While the timing of the March 31 announcement of the league’s decision to cease operations was dubious, given the proximity to the start of the IIHF Women’s World Championship, Hefford provided ample justification.
“There was a board meeting on Friday March 29 and it was voted by the board that we would discontinue operations,” she said. “The more people that would have been aware of our decision, there’s a good chance they would have heard it from somewhere else. At the end of the day we believed that it was our responsibility to tell (the players) when the decision was made.”
Hefford remains undecided about her immediate future and was non-committal on whether she’d play any advisory role in helping the now-former CWHL players find a new home.
As a player, her Hall of Fame legacy is cemented. As an executive, she hopes she is remembered for what was an exciting 2018-19 season, despite the devastating news that was delivered a week after its conclusion.
“My role in these eight months, I think was successful in what I was trying to achieve,” she said. “Obviously this is a disappointing conclusion to it. People will have their thoughts and opinions, but I feel like I’ve learned so much this year, especially about the economics of the game, and about the levels of support that are really there.
It’s a pivotal time for the game, it’s a time of change, it’s a fork in the road and I have extreme optimism for where the game is going to get to. But sometimes you have to go through these difficult times and difficult decisions to really make a positive difference.”
In 2019, Rob co-wrote with Evan Gubernick “Hockey Addict’s Guide: Toronto”, now available at Chapters and Indigo stores everywhere.