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Players demand say in women’s hockey future after CWHL folds

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Hilary Knight put aside the jet lag and fresh memories of helping the United States win its latest world hockey championship to begin looking ahead to next season.

Yes, the star forward intends on playing professionally in October. The only question Knight can’t answer is where.

”Yeah, exactly,” she told The Associated Press by phone this week, shortly after returning home to Idaho after a 2-1 shootout victory over host Finland in the gold-medal game Sunday.

With a laugh, she added: ”My mom would love to know that, too.”

Knight is suddenly one of some 100 players without a place to play after the six-team Canadian Women’s Hockey League last month abruptly announced it was ceasing operations as of May 1. Knight had just completed her first full season playing for the CWHL franchise in Montreal after spending two seasons with Boston of the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League.

Knight is in no hurry to rush back to the NWHL, acknowledging she left the league in part by how the league operated, including cutting players’ salaries in half a month into the 2016-17 season. With the CWHL’s collapse due to financial reasons, the 29-year-old said she prefers taking a contemplative step back before determining what’s best for her and the sport.

”I don’t think either model has it figured out, to be honest,” Knight said, referring to the CWHL, which operated as a nonprofit, and the private investor-backed NWHL.

”We want to be confident in something we’re endorsing, and that’s one of the reasons I moved to the CWHL,” she added. ”And now, there’s a lot of different open doors, and we just have to figure out which makes sense for the future.”

Knight isn’t alone.

The five-team NWHL swiftly announced its intention to expand to Toronto and Montreal next season, but players on both sides of the border are using the CWHL’s demise as a starting point for a big-picture discussion on the game’s future, and demanding they have a say in it.

”I think it’s kind of opened our eyes to something that we always knew was there, and to seize the opportunity to really ask for more for our sport,” said goalie Liz Knox, the CWHL Players’ Association co-chair.

”I see more often, women, especially female athletes, being told to be grateful for opportunity. And certainly we are,” she added. ”But at some point that line of being grateful has to be broken to ask for more or to demand for more. … There’s got to be better out there for us.”

Without going into detail, the 30-year-old Knox said there have already been ”a handful” of proposals kicked around in the three weeks since the CWHL announcement. Players and CWHL executives have been communicating via email and text, and Knox expects those discussions to ramp up now that the world championships are over.

Though time is an issue with NWHL teams preparing to restock their rosters next month, Knox said players need to present a united front in knowing they have leverage in determining their futures.

It’s a moment not much different than two years ago, when Team USA players won pay raises after threatening to boycott competing in the world championships being held on U.S. soil.

”Certainly, what the U.S. girls did was courageous to say the least,” Knox said. ”But that’s very much the situation we’re in.”

As for the NWHL, Knox said she doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of what the plusses or minuses might be in joining the rival league. She does question whether players will eventually find themselves having the same struggles making ends meet.

”The NWHL seems comfortable. And maybe some players want that,” Knox said. ”So I’m not saying, ‘No.’ But I’m also saying if given the opportunity for more, I think most players would take that.”

Ultimately, she said, the decision mostly rests on both countries’ national team players because they have the most invested in the game.

The NWHL released a statement to the AP saying it ”understands the players’ desire to consider all options, and we are in the process of communicating with them about our plans for the upcoming season.” The league is also open to addressing questions or ideas players might have.

The NWHL declined to provide any updates on its expansion plans into Canada, while noting the next season opens in less than six months.

”There is a lot of work to be done in a brief time,” the NWHL said. ”The opportunity for professional women’s hockey in North America is enormous, and the NWHL is committed to building the league that the players and fans deserve.”

In an email to the AP, U.S. national team member Jocelyne Lamoureaux-Davidson said players are on the same page. She added joining the NWHL ”is too simple to assume” but only time will tell.

Lamoureaux-Davidson also noted how players have been outspoken in having the NHL play a role in overseeing a pro league.

Though the NHL financially supports women’s pro hockey, it has been cautious in taking a larger role. Commissioner Gary Bettman previously said the league was hesitant about assuming control of the CWHL or NWHL or both because, as he put it, ”we don’t believe in their models.” He emphasized the importance of starting with a clean slate.

CWHL interim Commissioner Jayna Hefford believes the NHL stepping in is the ultimate answer.

Though disappointed by the CWHL’s demise, Hefford said the announcement has provoked serious discussion over the sport’s future.

”This certainly appears to be the end for the CWHL, but I’m extremely optimistic for what will happen down the road,” Hefford said. ”I think it’s time for change in women’s sports, and we don’t know what that change is yet. But I certainly believe the players need to be strong in what they want.”

AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed to this report.

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Top women’s players vow to shape pro hockey in North America

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ESPOO, Finland (AP) — Some of the top women’s hockey players in the world are vowing to use their voices to shape the future of the sport in North America after the six-team Canadian Women’s Hockey League announced it is shutting down after 12 seasons at the end of this month.

The CWHL announcement Sunday was followed just two days later by word that the National Women’s Hockey League planned to establish teams in Canada’s two largest cities , Toronto and Montreal, by next season. The NWHL currently has five teams, all in the U.S.

The rapid-fire developments came as players from both leagues gathered in Finland for the world championships, which start Thursday. Eighteen of 23 players on Canada’s roster, six from the U.S., and two each from Finland and Japan played in the CWHL this past season.

Canadian captain Marie-Philip Poulin, a three-time CWHL MVP with Les Canadiennes de Montreal, said the game’s biggest names must form a united front when tournament ends in mid-April.

”When the time comes, we’re going to stick together,” Poulin told The Canadian Press on Wednesday. ”Obviously there’s going to be two weeks now where we’re going to focus on the world championship. It’s going to be huge for us for the next couple months to come out strong and stick together. Not only Canada, but the U.S., Finland, Sweden, everyone.”

Calls for one women’s professional league in North America have increased over the last year. One league’s dissolution opens that door, but is women’s hockey ready walk through it?

”I hope so,” said American forward Hilary Knight, who was Poulin’s linemate in Montreal. ”It’s no secret that resources were getting dispersed between two leagues.”

For the players who have put time, energy and sweat into their CWHL team, the loss the loss of the league felt like a heavy price to pay.

Canadian forward Brianne Jenner hoisted the Clarkson Cup trophy a week before the CWHL declared its demise . Her Calgary Inferno beat Les Canadiennes 5-2 in Toronto.

”I think the reason we’re all so devastated our league is gone is because we love it so much,” Jenner said. ”We’re focused on this tournament right now, but certainly as an international player group, we have a lot to think about in the offseason. I think our power comes from being united as a group.”

The Americans have experience flexing their collective power.

Prior to the 2017 world championship on home ice in Michigan, the U.S. players threatened to boycott the tournament if USA Hockey didn’t provide more financial and competitive support for the national women’s team. They won several concessions from their federation.

”As long as our national team girls, the U.S. and Canada, are sticking together, I think it shows a lot,” said U.S. forward Brianna Decker, who played for the Inferno this past season. ”I think that what’s we’re striving for is one league. It’s disappointing about the CWHL. They put so much work and effort into growing our sport and growing our game. I hope that something bigger and better (is coming). There obviously is a lot of unknown right now.”

While the NWHL declared its interest in the Toronto and Montreal markets, the general managers from the six CWHL clubs said in a statement ”there are currently no negotiations occurring between any former CWHL teams and the NWHL.”

The prospect of losing what the Les Canadiennes have built in Montreal worries Caroline Ouellette. The four-time Olympic gold medalist played for Les Canadiennes before retiring last year and stepping behind the bench. She is one of Canada’s assistant coaches in Espoo.

”The saddest thing for me is thinking about my GM and everything she’s done for 12 years and not knowing what’s going to happen for her,” Ouellette said. ”I’m know I’m going to keep pushing so we can keep Les Canadiennes in Montreal and keep having the organization that we’ve had.”

She echoed the need for top players to get involved as soon as possible to get the league they want.

”I think 100% the players know they are the ones holding the power,” Ouellette said. ”They know the game is going to take the direction that they want it to take.”

NWHL OKs plan to expand to Canada after CWHL folds

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The National Women’s Hockey League is moving swiftly to expand to Toronto and Montreal following the demise of its Canadian-based rival.

NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan told The Associated Press on Tuesday the league’s board had approved an investment plan to establish teams in Canada’s two largest cities for the start of next season. Rylan also said her league has received a commitment from the NHL that will make it one of the NWHLs biggest financial sponsors.

The decision by the U.S.-based NWHL to cross the border and expand from five teams to seven comes on just two days after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League abruptly announced it will cease operations by May 1 due to financial issues. The CWHL had four teams in Canada, one in suburban Boston and a sixth in China, and its decision after 12 seasons was seen as a major blow to the sport.

”The news definitely came as a shock to us on Sunday morning, but it was obvious that we needed to do what we could to provide for those players to have a place to play this fall,” Rylan said by phone. ”The focus of ours was to figure out a solution for Canada first, and we’re fortunate we were able to do that pretty quickly here.”

Rylan said the expansion decision and NHL’s increased backing weren’t exactly connected. She instead views the NHL’s increased financial support as ”an endorsement of our business and the brands that we’re growing.”

Rylan did not reveal how much additional money the NWHL will receive above the NHL’s $50,000 previous annual commitment. The NHL also contributed $50,000 to support the CWHL.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly confirmed the league has increased its financial support. Daly, however, cautioned the additional support doesn’t change the NHL’s position in fully backing a women’s pro sports league.

Daly referred to what he wrote on Sunday in response to the CWHL’s collapse.

”We recognize the importance of women having options to play the game at the professional level. If those options were to become unavailable in the future, we would certainly consider doing what’s necessary to fill that void,” Daly wrote. ”But that’s not the case currently.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman previously told The AP he was hesitant about the league assuming control of the CWHL or NWHL or both because, as he put it, ”we don’t believe in their models.” At the time, he emphasized the importance of starting with a clean slate.

The CWHL operated liked Major League Soccer by owning each of its teams, except for the one based in Shenzhen, China. Starting in 2017-18, it began paying player salaries ranging from $2,000 to $10,000 out of a total budget of $3.7 million. The NWHL has relied on private investors and was the first to pay players a salary.

The shifting fortunes for pro women’s hockey in its hotbed of North America has come with most of the world’s top players in Finland for the world championships, which open on Thursday. Many players tweeted their disappointment on Sunday and Canada’s national team issued a statement Tuesday.

”We are disappointed and shocked to learn of the CWHL’s plan to shut down league operations,” the team said. ”There are many unanswered questions about the future, but we will continue to create dialogue with our teammates, fellow players and leagues. Our priority as players is to move forward and advance the game at all levels, and to ensure female hockey players have a viable league for the future.”

Rylan previously had merger discussions with CWHL officials in a bid to form one North American league rather than have two leagues competing for the same pool of sponsorship money and investor backing.

With the CWHL ceasing operations, Rylan said she can now work to fulfilling the vision she had when establishing the NWHL in 2015.

”A lot of stakeholders and brands have been hesitant to invest in women’s hockey because there was a decision to make before, the CWHL or NWHL,” Rylan said.

”And now there’s no decision,” she added. ”We are the league to do business with and we are continuing conversations and exploring conversation, and eager to accept that business this offseason.”

Without going into detail, Rylan didn’t rule out the possibility of adding more expansion teams before the start of next season.

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NWHL All-Star captain’s hope for future? Combined league

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By Teresa M. Walker (AP Sports Writer)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — On a day the NWHL wanted to keep the focus on its All-Star celebrations and a record crowd for a professional women’s hockey game in the United States, Lee Stecklein couldn’t help but look beyond to what the future might hold.

It was a vision of one combined league, as opposed to the current reality of splitting the best women in the world between two competing North American leagues: The U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League and the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

”We have so much talent, I think it’d be really fun if we got to play each other all the time,” Stecklein said.

The NWHL All-Star game Sunday featured 11 women who competed in the 2018 Winter Olympics, including Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados who captained the winning team. But Marie-Philip Poulin and Hilary Knight, who left the NWHL, are among the stars currently playing with the CWHL.

Stecklein and other members of the U.S. team will see Canada’s best starting Tuesday in a three-game ”Rivalry Series” starting in Canada, and ending in a week in Detroit.

Playing each other more often would be much more fun, and likely more profitable. A combined league also is expected to be more attractive to the NHL with Commissioner Gary Bettman making clear the league’s interest.

”It’s somewhere we hope it goes someday, but who knows?” said Stecklein, who recently signed her own endorsement deal with Bauer. ”As long as we continue to grow, giving more women the opportunity to play after college because we want to keep getting better and better. We don’t want to have your careers end at 24, so even having this opportunity is great but definitely want a next level.”

Dani Rylan founded the NWHL in 2015 after splitting off from the CWHL, which is in its 12th season, and has six teams with four in Canada, one in the U.S. and another in China. Rylan told The Associated Press last October that one league was inevitable, but questions about a merger weren’t allowed during the NWHL All-Star weekend.

Then Stecklein was asked how she would like to see the sport grow.

”We know we’re role models to a lot of young girls,” Stecklein said.

The NWHL had 6,120 fans for the game at Bridgestone Arena, the home of the NHL’s Predators. The game followed Nashville’s 5-4 overtime loss to St. Louis with fans allowed to stick around for the women, and the result was a record crowd that was good.

Goalie Katie Burt stopped Gigi Marvin in the shootout for a 3-2 win for Team Szabados over Team Stecklein.

Szabados thanked the fans who stayed to the end.

”You made this a special event for us,” Szabados said.

The NWHL women did their best to make an impression.

Kendall Coyne Schofield skated a lap of 13.9 seconds that was even faster than her 14.3-second time Jan. 26 as part of the NHL All-Star Game’s skills competition, and the All-Star from the Minnesota Whitecaps was the first to point out the NWHL course was a little different.

”To see the impact that it’s had on our sport, the perceptions people have had that have changed, the amount of young people that have picked up the sport of hockey, the impact has been tremendous,” she said. ”I’ll skate 14 seconds in a circle every single day if it’s going to impact this many people and grow the sport like it has.”

It’s the latest step for a sport that has been abuzz for the past year since the United States ended a 20-year drought by winning Olympic gold at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The NWHL All-Star skills competition featured a sold-out crowd at a local rink. Bauer Hockey teamed with Play Like A Girl, a nonprofit that works to keep girls playing sports past the age of 14, for a summit that included a street hockey clinic before the All-Stars coached young girls through drills on the ice.

Allie LaCombe, a Minnesota native who played at Syracuse and professionally in Austria, now is an associate coach at Nashville Girls Hockey where the numbers have jumped over the past three years. They have three travel teams, including an under-17 team.

LaCombe has seen interest in women’s hockey jump just since Coyne-Schofield’s sizzling lap in San Jose with people asking if their daughters from ages 5 to 14 can play.

”It’s a huge thing, and our girls hopefully can be at that stage some day,” LaCombe said.

Follow Teresa M. Walker at https://twitter.com/TeresaMWalker

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Rise of women’s hockey gives Szabados chance to keep playing

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Having already blazed a trail in men’s professional hockey, three-time Canadian Olympic team goalie Shannon Szabados will continue her career by finally giving the women’s pro game a try.

Putting aside thoughts of retiring, Szabados cited opportunity and proximity as reasons she signed with the Buffalo Beauts of the National Women’s Hockey League.

”Although I’ve never played in the league, or any women’s league, I know what the caliber’s like,” she said Thursday, a day after her signing was announced. ”I’m excited to see where women’s hockey has gone in the last few years and where it’s headed.”

Buffalo was an obvious choice for the 31-year-old because it’s only a three-hour drive from Ohio, where Szabados now lives with her boyfriend.

There was also the opportunity the NWHL provided in paying its players a salary since it was established four years ago. That’s something Szabados never envisioned while growing up in Edmonton, Alberta, where she had no other option but to develop her game in junior and professional male leagues.

Her signing comes four months after Szabados gave up the decisive shootout goal to Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson in the United States’ 3-2 win over Canada in the Winter Olympic gold-medal game in South Korea.

”I knew I was going to be moving back to Ohio after the Olympics, but I didn’t know what the plan was, whether it was to retire, to play, to play for fun,” Szabados said. ”But the longer it was after the Olympics, I kind of missed having skates on. And I was like, ‘I’m not ready to hang them up yet.”’

It’s not lost on her how big of an impact USA’s gold-medal win had in raising the sport’s profile across America.

”It’s been incredible,” Szabados said. ”There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we’re headed in the right direction.”

Szabados becomes one of the highest-profile players – and most notable Canadian – to join the NWHL.

She has an 8-1 career Olympics record, and won gold medals in 2010 and ’14.

Then there are her accomplishments playing against men.

In 2002, Szabados appeared in four exhibition games for the Tri-City Americans in becoming the first female to play in the Western Hockey League. In December 2015, playing for Columbus, Georgia, of the Southern Professional Hockey League, she became the first female to record a shutout in a men’s professional league game. Overall, Szabados went 20-23-6 in 51 SPHL games over four seasons.

North America has two women’s professional leagues. The NWHL was the first to pay its players a salary, and is adding a fifth team in Minnesota this year. The seven-team Canadian Women’s Hockey League has been around for more than a decade, but only recently began regularly paying its players.

Wearing a ring on her middle finger of her left hand and a gold chain around her neck with maple leafs on them, Szabados acknowledged being nervous over what the reaction she might receive in signing with a U.S.-based league.

”By no means was it a choice of one league over the other. It’s just proximity,” she said. ”My phone’s been kind of blowing up with some positive responses.”

Szabados expressed what’s become a long-held desire among women players on both sides of the border for the two leagues to settle their differences and consider merging.

She then laughed off a question about whether there’ll be any bad blood joining a Buffalo team that features several U.S. Olympians, including Emily Pfalzer, Dani Cameranesi and backup goalie Nicole Hensley.

”Maybe when they put that blue, white and red on,” she said. ”But when we’re in the Beauts’ baby blue, no.”

As for her future, Szabados has given no thought to looking ahead to the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

”Oh, that’s a long ways away,” Szabados said. ”I almost said no to the last one because it’s such a long road. I’ve learned to never say never. We’ll see. We’ll take it one year at a time.”