Calgary

Calgary Inferno left shocked by Canadian women's league shutdown

An abrupt announcement has left players and hockey team staff without a gig for next season, and fans wondering where they'll watch their favourite athletes in the future.

Forward Dakota Woodworth says players are determined to keep sport alive

Calgary Inferno's Zoe Hickel, left, and Tori Hickel celebrate with the trophy after beating Les Canadiennes de Montreal 5-2 to win the 2019 Clarkson Cup game in Toronto on March 24. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Dakota Woodworth dreamed of winning the Clarkson Cup but never thought the championship game would be her last time on the ice with her team.

Woodworth, a forward with Calgary Inferno, is one of many left wondering about the future of women's hockey. 

The Canadian Women's Hockey League announced plans Sunday to cease operations, effective May 1.

The abrupt announcement has left players and hockey team staff without a gig for next season, and fans wondering where they'll watch their favourite athletes in the future.

Despite a recent surge of popularity, the league said its business model was "economically unsustainable" and wouldn't last for a 13th season. The league owns the teams, and only started paying players in 2017-18, from a total budget of $3.7 million.

"We had our most successful year to date, really," Woodworth, 25, said. "This is obviously really surprising and a huge bummer, but at the end of the day, you need capital."

Woodworth found out on a league-wide call with players and staff Sunday morning. Some of her teammates listened in from Finland, where they're preparing for the 2019 IIHF Women's World Championship.

Only a week ago, the Calgary Inferno won the Clarkson Cup, the league championship, in a 5-2 win over Les Canadiennes de Montréal.

"It was incredible, and that's the hardest part about it," Woodworth said.

Calgary Inferno's Zoe Hickel (bottom left) celebrates after scoring her team's opening goal against Les Canadiennes Montreal during the first period of the 2019 Clarkson Cup game in Toronto, on Sunday, March 24, 2019. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Next steps have yet to be determined. The team was caught off guard and will be meeting in the coming days, general manager Kristen Hagg said.

She'd been involved with the team for five years, first as a player and then as the manager. 

"It's been a bit of a whirlwind morning here, trying to collect my thoughts," Hagg said by phone from her post-season vacation in the U.S. "My phone has been ringing and getting texts nonstop."

The 12-year-old CWHL had teams in North America and China this past season, but struggled financially. 

Popularity had been increasing over the years, with the recent championship game in Toronto drawing a record-setting 175,000 viewers.

Difficulties growing fan base

But it was well-known that recent wins on the ice hadn't been enough to turn into financial success, Hagg said.

"We've had a difficult time getting a foot-hold with the hockey community, the hockey fans in Calgary," she said. "We have a lot of amazing fans but our fan base just hasn't grown at the level you would need it to, to operate a team here."

Many of those fans took to social media Sunday, worrying they won't be able to watch Canada's elite women hockey players next season. Players chimed in with the hashtag, #NoLeague.

The CWHL had four teams in Canada: the Infernos, Markham Thunder, Toronto Furies and Les Canadiennes de Montréal. There was also a team, Worchester Blades, in Massachusetts and Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays in China.

"I think everybody's just concerned about the athletes themselves," said Jody Forbes, president of Girls Hockey Calgary. "And about the program and what the future holds for female hockey and our daughters."

'Huge role models'

Girls Hockey Calgary has a licensing agreement with CWHL to use the Inferno logo and colours on jerseys — spending "tens of thousands" on new gear — for 43 branded "Junior Inferno" teams, from Timbits to midget level.

Many of the girls have attended Inferno games and met the Inferno, and Canadian Olympics team, players at different training programs. 

Enrolment nearly tripled to more than 800 girls playing hockey since the partnership began, Forbes said.

"They're huge role models to our girls. They're like the Calgary Flames to our girls," she said. "We'll still wear our Inferno with pride, and we'll always be part of the Inferno family."

Woodworth said her thoughts turned to the girls when she heard news of the league ending on-ice operations. She and others hope they can find a way to keep teams playing, and representing their communities.

"We're still here, we're still going to be here. We still want to be role models for the youth of the sport," Woodworth said. "We're going to find a way to continue to do that, no matter what."

About the Author

Rachel Ward

Journalist

Rachel Ward is a journalist with CBC Calgary. You can reach her with questions or story ideas at rachel.ward@cbc.ca.

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