Women's hockey league turns to NHL for support

The Canadian Women's Hockey League is hoping to stir up a partnership with the NHL in order to grow the game, and keep their sport in the Olympic program.

On the eve of the Clarkson Cup, former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, who donated the trophy, says she'd like to meet personally with the head of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, to speak to him about women's hockey.

At last month's Olympics, Rogge said women's hockey had to do more to be competitive internationally.  And he hinted that if the sport didn't improve down the road, its Olympic future might be in jeopardy.

In early March, Clarkson wrote Rogge an open letter expressing her dismay.

"Oh I was enraged when I saw Dr. Rogge's comments," Clarkson said in an interview with CBC Sports.

"We've been playing hockey since the late 19th century.  Women were playing it with long skirts.  Surely we don't have to prove anymore that we can play hockey."

Encourage development

Rogge made his comments after some lopsided scores at the Olympics showed the distance between the top teams, such as Canada and the United States, and most other countries.

But Clarkson says threatening the sport's Olympic future isn't the way to help it develop.

"That's the way you do it by encouraging it.  Not by saying, gee I think maybe some of you aren't good enough and so we'll close it off.  People feel they can do that to women sometimes.  And I think it's kind of brute force being used against women which I kind of resent and I think most women too."

Clarkson will be on hand Sunday in Richmond Hill, Ont., to hand out the trophy. 

Trophy on the line

Four teams are vying for the top prize, including the defending champions from Montreal.  In all, eight Olympians who starred for the U.S. and Canada will be competing.

Sami Jo Small is the goaltender for the Mississauga Chiefs and she understands the pressure of playing for your country.  Not only is she a three-time Olympian who has won two Olympic gold medals, she is also a key official behind the Canadian Women's Hockey League.  She's in charge of sponsorship.

"Women's hockey is not going to go away," she says. "There's enough support for female hockey in this country not only from females but from males alike including someone like Bob Nicholson (the head of Hockey Canada) that they wouldn't allow that to happen."

Small is looking to another powerful group of men for support - the ones who run the National Hockey League.

Searching for partners

At the beginning of January she travelled to New York to meet with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and asked the NHL to become a partner.

She wants the NHL to offer the women either direct financial support or help it get sponsors.

"In order to be successful you have to go to people that have made it work before and that's why we went to the NHL and that's why they were first choice and we really believe they're the future of the game."

Small believes if the women's game is going to develop, her league needs to become professional and a destination for the world's best.

The league has developed a business plan, modest by NHL standards, and presented it to Bettman.

The league would like to start paying coaches and general managers and has earmarked $35,000 for every player.

There would be six teams all within driving distance between Montreal, Toronto and maybe a couple in the U.S.

A league of their own?

Ashley Stephenson is a defenceman on the Mississauga Chiefs and a high school phys-ed teacher in Burlington, Ont., during the day.

She has paid to play her whole life and says without some support from the NHL, the sport is not going to grow around the world like it should.

"A pro league would help so much," she says. "Better players would come from all over.

"If you look at men's hockey when it first started at Olympics, Canada dominated it too.  The NHL has brought players from all over the world and they play now and get better. Look at men's competition [in Vancouver], it was fantastic."

Stephenson says it may take 100 years for the women's game to develop like the men's game did. And she hopes people are as patient as they've learned to be.

Adrienne Clarkson is still waiting for a response from Jacques Rogge, just like Sami Jo Small is waiting to hear back from the NHL.