Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Upcoming women's hockey season a crossroads for future of Boston

Although it is very hard to gauge the relationship between the established CWHL and the upstart NWHL, one key point of observation that shall occur during the 2015-16 women’s ice hockey season shall be the viability of Boston as a market for pro hockey. While there is enough talent in women’s ice hockey to have two leagues, such leagues must learn to co-exist or the result shall become one in which there is no true winner, just one standing among the ruins.

Over the last three seasons, the Boston Blades established themselves as a CWHL powerhouse, appearing in three straight Clarkson Cup title games, capturing two. Fast forward to the summer of 2015, and a mass exodus of talent from the Blades to the NWHL’s Boston Pride has altered the women’s hockey landscape.
Compounded by the loss of Hilary Knight (the first American-born player to win the CWHL MVP award) to the Pride, any postseason aspirations for the Blades may have vanished. Despite the presence of Sochi gold medalists Genevieve Lacasse and Tara Watchorn, the Blades sixth season may turn out to be the losingest in franchise history. Taking into account that Blades head coach Digit Murphy and general manager Aronda Brown did not have their contracts renewed, the future of the Blades is very much in doubt, as the biggest victory for this patchwork roster may be sticking it out amidst such turbulence.

Of note, the Boston Pride cannot approach such a situation with arrogance, as it may cause its own downfall. During their heyday, the Blades struggled to attract more than 500 fans to home games. While the NWHL has proven to be more aggressive with its marketing, it should not be surprised if the Pride attracts similar attendance figures. Despite the cost of women’s hockey tickets being so much more economical than men’s major league sports, the biggest competitive factor for women’s sport is not defined by economics but the history of men’s leagues and the powerful grip it holds in popular culture.
With due deference to the CWHL, their commitment to ice hockey in the United States is admirable, but it may have reached its expiry. Should the NWHL manage to build on its success, plans to expand to the Midwest are imminent. Another factor that did not help the CWHL was the fact that it never supplied the Blades with an American rival. Over the years, the league could have welcomed the Minnesota Whitecaps into its ranks and failed to do so.

Despite its plans at rebranding and changing its name and logo, perhaps the best approach for the CWHL is to truly be a Canadian league and relocate the Blades to Winnipeg or another Prairie market, providing the Calgary Inferno with a sorely needed rival. Considering the rising prominence of Manitoba as a hub for developing talent for Canada’s national team, a team in Winnipeg would prevent players from relocating to Calgary. Taking into account that the Manitoba Maple Leafs had begun to establish roots until the WWHL folded, they could have also been absorbed into the CWHL.
For now, the matter at hand is the potential fallout from Boston becoming the first major American market to have two women’s professional hockey teams. For several decades, Boston had two major league baseball franchises, the Braves and the Red Sox. After years of losing money and enduring a smaller fan base, the Braves had no alternative but to relocate to Milwaukee.
Such a scenario is a likely outcome between the Blades and the Pride. It may be fact that the Blades were the first team in the market this century, but the reality is that they may have been usurped. The CWHL may wish to be stoic and ride the storm as there is no guarantee regarding the future success of the NWHL, but a strong opening day indicates that such future need not be in doubt.

Unfortunately, the establishment of two women’s hockey teams in Boston may have generated some tension. From roster turnovers to coaching changes, Boston becomes part of a controversial chapter in women’s ice hockey as the city becomes a battle ground for 2015-16. Although men’s hockey endured its own battles over numerous markets in generations past, the handling of Boston will certainly determine the short term future of professional women’s hockey. 

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