Women relaunch league

Jennifer Botterill is one of the pioneers of the newly formed Canadian Women's Hockey League. (Sun...

Jennifer Botterill is one of the pioneers of the newly formed Canadian Women's Hockey League. (Sun File/Marcel Cretain)

ALISON KORN -- For Sun Media

, Last Updated: 1:55 PM ET

The top female hockey players in Eastern Canada have a league to play in this year with the formation of the seven-team Canadian Women's Hockey League -- thanks to the efforts of several star players.

Led by Olympic gold medallists Sami Jo Small and Jennifer Botterill, along with a group of players and volunteers, the new league replaces the Eastern division of the National Women's Hockey League, which suspended play in May. Owners cited a lack of a fan base, financial woes and free agency disputes as reasons for the league's collapse.

LACK OF STRUCTURE

"The owners sort of got together and decided they were going to cancel the coming season," Botterill said. "There was a lack of structure and organization. At this point, the previous owners are not in the picture."

All seven teams now have new names, new uniforms, and in two cases, new locations: Vaughan and Burlington replace teams from Etobicoke and Oakville.

The new league's seven teams include four in the Greater Toronto Area, one in Ottawa and two in Montreal. The GTA teams are the Brampton Canadette-Thunder, Mississauga Chiefs, Burlington Barracudas and the Vaughan Flames. The rest of the league is comprised of the Ottawa Capital-Canucks, Montreal Stars and Quebec Phoenix.

"At this point what we're trying to create is a league that is sustainable for the future," said Botterill, who will play for Mississauga along with Small. "We felt like a fresh start would be a good way to go."

Other Olympians also are playing in the league. Brampton has Jayna Hefford, Vicky Sunohara and Gillian Apps. Becky Kellar is on Burlington, Katie Weatherston is in Ottawa and Kim St-Pierre is in Montreal.

"What's different about this league," Small explained, "is that many of the teams will be supported by minor hockey associations in the communities where the teams are located."

For example, Vaughan and Burlington minor girls' hockey now can provide feeder systems as well as supportive fans.

Another difference is that team funds now come from the league itself, rather than individual owners, ensuring that every player who makes a team will play for free, unlike the previous setup where some teams charged annual fees to players and others didn't.

"We are very excited about this season," said Botterill, noting the league already has netted some supporters, with more deals in the works. "There's no question that along with increased awareness of our league, there's also great potential for growing the game of women's hockey."

The idea of creating a draft is something organizers want to address in the future.

A criticism of the previous league was that all players became free agents at the end of every season, disrupting the league's competitive balance.

NO PAY

But when the athletes aren't being paid to play, it's important for them to place themselves in locations that allow them to work.

"At this point we didn't feel we had the power to tell players where to go," Botterill said. "It's definitely a topic that's on our minds to figure out for seasons ahead."

The teams will play a full 40-game schedule culminating with the top two teams attending the 2008 Esso Women's National Championships in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, to play for the national championship against the top two teams from the Western Women's Hockey League.

"I love playing in the GTA and wanted to stay," Botterill said. "That motivation inspired a lot of us to be proactive and see what we could get done."

A website is in the works that will list the league schedule. This Sunday, Burlington plays Brampton at 4:15 p.m. at Burlington's South Fletcher's Sportsplex.

ROCKING OLYMPIC SPORT

Olympic buffs should be sure to check out the inspiring new Olympic video, Believe, online at www.bell.ca/believe.

The four-minute feature is a one-of-a-kind music video and audio track that could become the anthem for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games.

It's free to view online, and costs 99 cents to download, with proceeds going to the Own The Podium program supporting winter sports.

The video and behind-the-scenes footage feature athletes Steve Omischl (freestyle sking), Joannie Rochette (figure skating) and Clara Hughes (speed skating), along with singer Suzie McNeil and Canada's 61-piece National Arts Centre Orchestra, conducted by Dave Pierce.

RAISING CASH

On Sunday, Sept. 30, the second annual "Share the Road" ride will take place in Halton Region, in memory of Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Greg Stobbart. The avid cyclist and triathlete was hit and killed by a dump truck during a training ride on June 6, 2006. The event starts at 10 a.m. at the Milton GO station and raises money for the Share the Road Foundation, which encourages motorists to share the roads with cyclists. This year's ride features a hilly, 60-kilometre route, along with a 20-kilometre Fun Ride on flatter terrain. Register at www.racersportif.com.


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