Thursday, 22 December 2011

Failure not fatal for Canadian women's team

On the surface, the year 2011 may seem like a failure to the Canadian women’s team. Despite some great performances (Kelly Babstock being named ECAC Player of the Year, Meghan Agosta becoming the NCAA leading scorer, and Hillary Pattenden becoming the NCAA all-time wins leader), there were some heartbreaking events. It began with the United States usurping Canada (the defending champs) at the IIHF Under 18 worlds. Despite a gold medal for Canada at the MLP Cup, silver seemed to be the defining colour of the year.
In April, the United States bested Canada at the IIHF World Championships. This event was preceeded by another painful loss. In selecting the 2011 Patty Kazmaier Award (given to the top NCAA female player), American Meghan Duggan beat out Meghan Agosta to claim the prize.
Several months later, another  setback was endured. August 2011 marked the first IIHF 8 Nations (also promoted as 12 Nations) Tournament. In the round robin, Canada suffered its second ever loss at the hands of Sweden. Despite Meghan Agosta having a strong showing at the tourney, Canada showed they were not invincible. The year concluded with a difficult overtime loss in the gold medal game of the 2010 4 Nations Cup.
Looking at the year deeper, it was definitely a year of transition. For the first time in many years, there were numerous vacancies on the roster. At the beginning of the year, Becky Kellar, Gina Kingsbury, Carla MacLeod and Colleen Sostorics announced their retirements. No team, no matter how good can replace so many top notch athletes (especially with over 40 seasons of combined experience), especially on defense.  The effect to the team was compounded by the retirement of Jennifer Botterill (four time Winter Games medallist), and the personal leave of absence of goaltender Kim St. Pierre (statistically, the greatest female goaltender in IIHF history).
Despite the deficiencies on defense, there were several highlights during the year. Natalie Spooner has emerged as an impact player who can pick up where Jennifer Botterill left off. The national team sees a reunion of sorts as former Mercyhurst player Meghan Agosta was reunited with Mercyhurst graduates Vicki Bendus (the 2010 Patty Kazmaier Award winner), and Jesse Scanzano. If the three can recapture their glories from Mercyhurst, there will be many golden moments for Canada in the near future. In addition, many prominent superstars from the Cornell Big Red women’s program (such as Brianne Jenner and Lauriane Rougeau) are getting the opportunity to show their skills with the national team.
Although Canada’s performance at the Eight (or Twelve) Nations Tournament was not the desired result, the disappointment can be set aside by the fact that Canada gave three young, promising goaltenders (CIS legend Liz Knox, Harvard graduate Christine Kessler, and Providence Friars superstar Genevieve Lacassse) the opportunity to don the Canadian jersey. By being given the keys to occupy the crease for Canada, those keys may open the door to potential roster spots at the 2014 or 2018 Winter Games.
The new faces and the transitions involved put the Canadian team at a tremendous disadvantage. In observing the year, there were some key findings. The opportunities given to these young players to compete at a higher level were irreplaceable. In witnessing past glories, these young players understand that what was accomplished was easier than it looked. Now they understand that they cannot take wearing the red and white for granted. This is the wakeup call for any player hoping for a future with the national team to pick up their game and rise to the occasion.
The disappointments of 2011 may lead to the glories of tomorrow. Should greater success emanate in the future, Canada’s women will look at the growing pains of 2011, and learn that failure is not fatal.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Magazine article step in the right direction for the CWHL

Cheers to Sportsnet Magazine for its article on the Canadian Women's Hockey League. Said article helps bring awareness to a league that desperately requires one. The imbalances that exist are eye opening. The concept of a world class athlete like Jayna Hefford (competing for the Brampton Thunder) having to work three part time jobs, while a fourth line forward in professional men's hockey can earn $500,000 reflects a great disparity. Although it is true that Hefford will one day be in the Hockey Hall of Fame, the road to get there will have been a hard one.
Based on past failures in the United States of professional women's soccer, and the struggles of some franchises in the Women's National Basketball Association, attracting a potential investor will be an arduous task. It would be easy to say that professional men's hockey has a moral obligation to subsidize the league. As the CWHL is a not for profit organization, a strong selling point would be the idea of a contribution as a potential tax deduction. With the wealthiest men's team based in Toronto, and three of the CWHL franchises competing in the Greater Toronto Area, it would seem possible that they could be approached for a contribution.
The painful reality is that although hockey is a sport and a strong symbol of national pride in many nations, it is also a business. Regrettably, many businesses will only invest in smaller enterprises if there is a potential for profit. If the CWHL can prove that it has the ability to generate revenues, and finance itself without worry, its potential could reach fruition.
A big step towards tapping into that potential would be television coverage. With so many sports networks struggling for content (while airing poker, fishing and horse racing in the early hours) , the CWHL could offer the networks their programming for free. Whatever revenues are raised could be shared equally between the two. There are local cable channels throughout the country that feature minor hockey on their cable access programs. There is no reason why the CWHL could not be part of a local cable programming schedule. While it may not generate revenue for the teams or the league, it would create exposure. If these are not viable options, a YouTube channel with weekly highlights should be feasible.
Part of being a sports fan is the connection to a team. A strong element of any connection to a team emanates from merchandising. If the CWHL teams were to auction game used jerseys or game pucks online (preferably signed), many sports memorabilia collectors might see it as a more cost-efficient way to build their collections. A hockey card license with a company such as In the Game (which has produced women's ice hockey cards in sets such as O Canada and Between the Pipes) could stimulate interest in the league. (Some of the first year players or bigger name stars could easily be included in ITG's Heroes and Prospects annual card set). Another effort at merchandising is a calendar featuring player autographs and a certificate of authenticity to appease collectors (in addition, half of the proceeds could go to cancer research).
At this point, seeking support from professional men's hockey may be aiming too high. The Ontario Hockey League offers many opportunities, considering it has five franchises in the Greater Toronto Area (Barrie, Brampton, Mississauga, Niagara, Oshawa). Perhaps the CWHL teams from the GTA could entertain a joint venture with these franchises.
The benefit is that the franchises, (and the league in general) already has an audience. Any partnership would create exposure, with the hope of rapidly increasing interest. Many patrons of the OHL are families, so the CWHL could captivate the interest of younger fans. Doubleheader games with the OHL and CWHL (where the CWHL could play after the OHL game has finished) would bring value to the sports fans dollar.
The plight of these players borders on tragic, as it is reminiscent of many sports leagues during the Great Depression, where athletes participated for love, rather than money. In addition, the idea that many of these players obtain celebrity status when participating for their countries in the Winter Games every four years, while returning to obscurity afterwards could make any player feel dejected. The concept of women participating in sports traditionally played by men is still a nascent concept for many sports fans. Until this concept is firmly established in the hearts and minds of sports fans, the league will have to find innovative ways to grow and expand their product. If the league is unable to find and develop these ways, the league will not only struggle to obtain growth, but will run the risk of eventually being undermined by someone who not only knows how to capitalize on those ways, but will have deep enough pockets to make it a reality.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Pattenden another in long line of Mercyhurst players making NCAA history

Despite making women's ice hockey history on December 14, 2011, there are still many more milestones to accomplish for Mercyhurst Lakers goaltender Hillary Pattenden. In breaking Jessie Vetter's all-time wins mark of 91, Pattenden has staked her claim as one of the greatest goalies to ever play in the NCAA. Career win 100 is still within reach, and if she can reach that milestone, she will always hold the claim of being the first to hit the century mark. (Pattenden was also the first freshman goaltender to have at least 20 victories in one season).
The other milestone that has eldued Pattenden is an NCAA Frozen Four championship. As a freshman, Pattenden participated in the championship game of the 2009 NCAA Frozen Four. In an ironic passing of the torch, the opposing goaltender in that game was Jessie Vetter of Wisconsin. Despite a strong showing by Mercyhurst, Vetter ended her NCAA career as a champion. Heartbreak ensued in 2011 as Mercyhurst (with Winter Games gold medallist Meghan Agosta in her senior season) hosted the Frozen Four but were unable to qualify. Once again, Wisconsin emerged as champions, with freshman goaltender Alex Rigsby between the pipes.
With only one loss in that championship season, Rigsby could be the next in line to one day overtake Pattenden in the all-time wins column.  Although records were made to be broken, Pattenden has proven her worth as an elite goalkeeper during the 2011-12 season. With the departure of seniors Meghan Agosta, Vicki Bendus and Jesse Scanzano in spring 2011, to call the 2011-12 season a year of transition is an understatement.
Having faced early competition from a vastly improved Robert Morris Colonials squad, changes to the coaching roster, along with an influx of many new faces, it would have been easy for Mercyhurst to have a rebuilding year. Complemented by a career year from Bailey Bram, and strong leadership from captain Pamela Zgoda, Pattenden has risen to the occasion and kept the Lakers in serious contention for another NCAA Frozen Four. Of note, this is not the first season in which Pattenden was faced with obstacles. The 2009-10 season showcased Pattenden’s skills. With the loss of Meghan Agosta (competing in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games), Pattenden posted an impressive record of 29 wins, compared to only 3 losses and 3 ties, as she helped the Lakers win another conference championship.
She follows in the footsteps of other Mercyhurst players that have contributed to NCAA women’s ice hockey history. Forward Vicki Bendus was recognized as the Patty Kazmaier Award winner after the 2009-10 season. Winter games gold medallist Meghan Agosta broke the NCAA points record during the 2010-11 campaign.
There are many goaltending legends in NCAA women’s ice hockey (Ali Boe, Molly Schaus, Florence Schelling, Jackee Snikeris) that never won a Frozen Four title. It has not diminished their contributions to the game. Whether Pattenden gets the opportunity to end her career on a championship note, her legacy as one of the game’s greatest is firmly established.