SPORTS

Minnesota Whitecaps cry foul on exclusion from Canadian Women's Hockey League

11/18/2011 04:36 EST | Updated 01/18/2012 05:12 EST
The vision for one women's hockey league in North America remains a distant one.

The Canadian Women's Hockey League announced earlier this year that the four-team Western Women's Hockey League was dissolving and would eventually be absorbed by the five-team CWHL to create one, unified league.

That didn't happen.

Not only are two WWHL teams still operating in Minnesota and Manitoba, the WWHL wants to put a team right on the CWHL's doorstep in Toronto.

The Ontario Women's Hockey Association has denied the WWHL's application for a team in Toronto, according to Val Burrell who is part of the group wanting to run a team there.

The CWHL, with teams in Toronto, Burlington, Brampton, Montreal and Boston, added a sixth team this season by expanding into Alberta. Two former WWHL clubs in Edmonton and Strathmore combined to form one team and join the CWHL.

Whether the WWHL ever voted to dissolve or not is in dispute. Both sides saying they have e-mails and paperwork to prove their beliefs.

But two women's leagues at loggerheads has ramifications for the Clarkson Cup, which former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson donated to be awarded the women's league champion Stanley-Cup style.

The relationship between the CWHL and the WWHL's Minnesota Whitecaps is tense.

The business manager of Whitecaps, who won the Clarkson Cup in 2010, accuses the CWHL of deliberately shutting Minnesota out of the championship tournament.

"To me, I guess the word 'collusion' comes in my mind," Kristie Minkoff said from Minneapolis. "They don't want the Whitecaps to go for the Clarkson Cup."

CWHL president Brenda Andress denies it. The league's plan is to add one "central" team next season made up of players from both Minnesota and Manitoba, she said, in similar fashion to the new Alberta entry.

"Our plan was to bring them in next year," she said from Toronto. "I think Minnesota is logical, but it has to be a sound business decision and that's all we've ever said to them.

"The key thing for us is to strategically put them in with money. We don't want to fail."

The CWHL's model is similar to Major League Soccer, meaning the league owns the teams, hires general managers and pays expenses. There are no individual owners of teams.

The Whitecaps, owned by Jack Brodt, say they were told if they wanted into the CWHL this season, they had to come up with $200,000.

"The CWHL was asking for $200,000 to take over management and ownership," WWHL president Peg Thomas said.

"When I hear the CWHL is wanting $200,000 for a team to be admitted, that is about 10 years of yearly budgets for most of our teams right now."

With the addition of Alberta, the CWHL's transportation costs rise. One trip to Toronto costs about $20,000 for flights, hotels and buses, Andress said.

"We don't say 'you need $200,000 to get in,'" she countered. "What we say is 'it takes this much to run it'. We have to put things in place to pay for those expenses. We can't just bankrupt the league."

The Whitecaps also balk at the idea of diluting an established, successful franchise to join with Manitoba Maple Leafs and create one team.

"Why would anybody come up with $200,000 and not keep the name that's been branded for eight years?" Minkoff asked. "This is the eighth year the Whitecaps have been around. People around the country know who the Whitecaps are."

There's a philosophical issue also dividing the two sides, which is should the women's hockey league be exclusive or inclusive?

The CWHL wants elite players, meaning those who play on national teams in world championships and Olympics.

That product is intended to attract major sponsors, who would eventually provide enough revenue to pay the players. They aren't paid now, although their travel costs and ice time are covered.

"We're creating a professional league with elite players and in doing so, we're creating the best of the best across North America and hopefully Europe," Andress said. "Those players are few and far between. We're short players right now trying to look for the calibre we are."

The WWHL, meanwhile, wants to keep players coming out of universities and colleges in the game. Burrell says there is demand for another team in the Toronto market and the WWHL can fill that need.

"There are many players and limited opportunities in the CW for players of high calibre to participate in that league because there's only a certain number of teams and spaces," Burrell explained.

"When you look at the number of players each year that graduate from Canadian universities that are playing high-level hockey or even down in the States with the NCAA, Division 1 or 3, you have some high-calibre players who have no where to play."

What this means for the Clarkson Cup is murky. When the CWHL launched its ticket-sales campaign for the 2012 Clarkson Cup in Niagara Falls, Ont., only the six CWHL teams were promoted.

Hockey Canada owns the rights to the Clarkson Cup. When asked if the WWHL would apply to the governing body for the right to play for the Clarkson Cup, Thomas replied "absolutely."

Andress says she'll deal with that scenario if it happens.

"They can apply," she said. "It would be sad if a fight were to occur over something we've taken so long to build and that they could be a part of. They've just got to be a part of it like everybody else. It's called working together, not working apart."

The NHL went through its own growing pains with the World Hockey Association (WHA) challenging the NHL's supremacy as the top men's pro league from 1972 to 1979.

But the lack of a unified front hurts marketability, according to Brampton forward and four-time Olympian Jayna Hefford.

"I think it's frustrating to see people clashing continually when there is a common goal where we do need one league," Hefford said recently.

"There can't be confusion when you're going to sponsors and the corporate world. That unity is huge. We have to have that common goal and when there are two groups working against one another, it definitely slows the process down."

But Minnesota feels burned by the departures of Edmonton and Strathmore and by the CWHL's treatment of the Whitecaps.

"There's a lot of things that happened that were wrong," Minkoff said. "They didn't follow the Western Women's Hockey League policies and guidelines.

"We asked (the CWHL) 'how can you take one team and not everybody else?' They said 'We only want to take one team this year and we'll take the Alberta team.' You have to understand If a team stops for one year, you can't get that team going again."

This doesn't bode well for future talks between the CWHL and the Whitecaps.

"We will always look for teams who can come into our league who can enhance it, provide the goals we're looking for, but in doing so, we're not creating a team unless we have the finances in place to make sure it continues to be more successful," Andress stated.

"Minnesota has never been taken off the table. We just haven't heard from them. They've not come back to us."

MORE:cpSports