Women's hockey on NHL's radar

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:00 AM ET

They've lived next door for decades, yet rarely exchange more than a quick hello.

But the National Hockey League and the leaders of women's hockey in North America have a neighbourhood improvement plan.

Culminating months of informal meetings since the Vancouver Olympics, a group of influential people on both sides huddled prior to the start of the Molson Canadian Hockey Summit. The league heard a long-awaited framework for a business plan for a high profile women's professional league that it will assist.

"We talked about what we can do to facilitate their efforts," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Thursday. "We talked in general concepts."

Both sides agree an NHL version of the WNBA is a stretch at this point. But with part of Thursday's summit keying on lack of opportunity for women to play after college, little growth in Europe and so few role models, there must be a step up. Locally, the five-team Canadian Women's Hockey League now operating in the GTA, Montreal and Boston is the only option.

"They (NHL) won't jump into anything that is not a viable business opportunity," said Team Canada captain Hayley Wickenheiser, who was at the meeting. "But I said look at it more from the sponsorship and investment view for the first few years. There's a responsibility to grow the game so that it ultimately helps (the NHL). I think they see the women's side as something they want to invest in.

"We could see something for this year in terms of an investment. Is (a league) viable right now? No. But it can be, and now is the time to try."

In a separate initiative, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. is promising to give GTA women's hockey more assistance.

"No sport in the world has improved more in the past dozen years," said Leafs president Brian Burke. "We have to have gender equality. I had an e-mail from (MLSEL president and CEO) Richard Peddie this morning asking how we could support this and put our resources behind it. It could be money, it could be ice time at the MasterCard Centre, we'll see."

Throughout North America, thousands of girls and women play hockey, a tremendous opportunity for the right marketing approach. There is also glamour aspect at present with Team USA's Angela Ruggiero, author and recent contestant on the TV show The Apprentice.

"I've gained a ton of exposure through the Apprentice, through Twitter, anyway you can reach your fans," she said.

"I think it's a great sport for social change. It can start with as little as a poster of a player at the rink. It's an opportunity for women to have more personal freedoms."

But most of the summit participants say it's a ways to go to change misconceptions on the calibre of the women's game. Team Canada coach Mel Davidson was at a recent social function where an over-served male fan berated her that women should stay on the other side of the plexiglass.

"Women's hockey is pure hockey and as physical as you could get without laying someone's head on the ice," said Davidson. "I talk to the old NHLers and they love it because the girls are playing for the passion, not million-dollar contracts. I look around on the bench our crowds and I see mothers, fathers, grandpas, grandmas...and it's an affordable product."

Players and coaches on Thursday bristled at a comparison of their game to male Midget triple-A level, claiming Major Junior is a more accurate measurement.

"I can physically play with a lot of the guys, but not every women can," Ruggiero said. "Our average is probably 5-foot-6, 150 pounds, in the NHL it's 190 and 6-1. That's not to say that the level itself can't improve. If we had 82 games as they do, of course we'd get better."

A better women's league here might attract the best players in Europe, thus bringing up the world standard at a time when lopsided scores and Canadian-American gold medal finals are becoming too common, endangering the women's Olympic status after 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

Our product has to be better in Sochi and after Sochi," Davidson said. "We have to have the (registration) numbers.

A women's league will help our top numbers and our top numbers will provide our role models for younger players. We have to get in the trenches."


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