The Women's Winter Classic may be remembered as the most historic sporting event that nobody was allowed to watch. The game was not televised or streamed for reasons that, even after the fact, are still unclear; front offices made vague statements about ice quality, sponsorship, and the time to "do it right" that, in the end, said little about why the game was invisible, and a lot about why it almost didn't happen at all. Those of us covering the women's leagues have become accustomed to half-answers, and tried instead to be glad we had a game to cover at all.
So we were pretty surprised to learn that three three women most involved in putting on the Winter Classic showcase were going to appear together. Brenda Andress and Dani Rylan, commissioners of the CWHL and NWHL, respectively, and Susan Cohig, the NHL's Senior Vice President of Business Affairs would be available to answer questions from the media before the game. What with all the tension surrounding the formation of the new league, the drama surrounding the exhibition game, and the speculation on the reasons for the late announcement, this presentation of a united front seemed, like much of the Winter Classic spectacular, almost too good to be true.
And it was. Andress came first, Rylan came second, and Cohig never came at all. If she had, I'm guessing she would have talked a lot about first steps, which seemed, for better or for worse, to be the theme of the day.
Andress joined media for a relaxed roundtable discussion, and told us that the CWHL had been wondering about being part of an event like the Winter Classic for about 5 years: "every year there's an outdoor game. Can we be a part of it?"
The Bruins/Habs matchup was ideal, both geographically and in terms of devoted fanbases that might help grow the women's game, Andress explained. "The Montreal and Boston teams would only be the right teams to put together ... the right opportunity for us." Asked about whether the women's leagues might be part of future Winter Classics in cities without N or CWHL teams, Andress emphasized that "this is just Step One, in continuing the opportunities for us to partner. I don't think the NHL would have gotten involved if they didn't have plans to continue to showcase women's hockey on a grander scale."
Andress made a point of mentioning the CWHL's previous partnerships with the NHL, making the Women's Winter Classic seem like a logical progression as opposed to a sudden, perhaps rushed decision. When asked why the announcement came so late, she described it as a "learning curve" for both the women's leagues and NHL. "The great thing about obstacles is that you learn from them and become better from them. Next year will be smoother and quicker." For her, the difficulty lay in figuring out logistics. "The NHL is a machine, there are all types of things that have to be put into place ... there are criteria we didn't know about."
When asked how an exhibition game that no one could watch was going to help grow the sport, Andress responded with a bit of an edge: "Well, you're all talking to me." She continued, "The exposure in itself has been phenomenal ... in the first step this has been great. The NHL has done a great job."
She also defended the decision to limit the game to two 15-minute halves, running time (shortened further when Pride player Denna Laing was badly injured and had to be hospitalized). She explained that the NHL wanted the women's game to be close enough time-wise to the men's alumni match to draw early fans, but then needed time to fix the ice: "Our women will damage the ice just as much as the men will. They're strong, powerful skaters."
Asked about how her league might grow and the possibility of expansion, Andress stressed the need for quality players. "The women's game can't grow faster than the grassroots itself. You don't want players on the teams that shouldn't be." She warned against earlier leagues' reliance on recreational players to fill their rosters. "We're trying to create the elite of the elite. And research will tell you that there's only a certain amount of people in that. And that's where Gary Bettman's comments come from over the years after the Olympics, when he made statements such as the grassroots programs aren't there yet ... he's absolutely right. You have to grow the game based on the grassroots program, based on who's available, because you want to see your 2nd 3rd and 4th lines as powerful as your first lines, and that's a key to promoting the game. Because you'll get bored really quickly as a fan. You could see that in the 2nd 3rd and 4th lines in the past, because it would be rougher game because they couldn't keep up and therefore you get physical. You see our games and it's a faster game, it's a better game. So you've got to expand based on that."
Andress also made a point of expressing her commitment to You Can Play, and the games the CWHL will host with them on Jan 2: "The league is not just about playing the game ... That's one of the things we're most proud of with our women. It's not the short time frame of just a two or three year window of just laying the game, it's creating careers afterwards, it's creating opportunities to send that message out to young kids and other people, and You Can Play is a prime example. Whoever you're born to be in life, you should be allowed to be, and that's what that game is about."
When asked what she was proudest of, Andress didn't hesitate. "The game is going. There's many times I've stood at our first all-star game, our first Clarkson Cup that was played at NHL rinks, and you walk out and see 7000 fans out there for our players, and I'm so proud, proud of what my players have done. Because the league is about the players, it's not about me or anyone else, it's about what the players do to play the game they love, and they're actually creating a history of that game, and how they are changing it for those that will come after them. ...the young girls that will come after them will see the benefits."
Perhaps the biggest news was that the CWHL plans to begin paying its players in 2017-18; still, Andress emphasized caution and slow growth. "We're going to do what's best for the players, and what's best for the league. It's very important that the league grows, right, the GMs, the massive staff that we have, they've been volunteers for many years, and they actually grow the game. Those people have to be paid as much as our players, but it will be equated to making sure that we all grow together, which is what our league is about."
Dani Rylan showed up a few minutes later. She chose the Women's Winter Classic banner as her backdrop, which fit with her opening statement that the game was "an unbelievable milestone for women's hockey, to have the opportunity to be on such a grand stage." She, too, characterized the game as the early stage of a lasting relationship. "I think that this is a great first step, and next year it's going to be bigger and better than it is this year ... the NHL has done an amazing job, the little things that they thought of. We are so grateful."
Rylan, too, hedged on questions about the late announcement and the lack of a video stream. "Logistics are really hard to put together, and there are a lot of logistics to be involved in an event like this ... so many little things that you may not think about. I think the NHL has been very supportive and also very forthcoming in saying that if they were going to do it they wanted to do it right and have all the t's crossed and I's dotted." Instead, she chose to emphasize the game's importance as part of the history and growth of the women's game. "What's really special is that on January 1, 2015, this league didn't exist and this wouldn't have been an opportunity anyone would even dream about, and Dec 31 2015 we're in a totally different position and the women's game is on one of the biggest stages around."
Rylan also talked about how the growth of the leagues has changed the shape and duration of women's hockey careers. "The Olympics happen every four years, and the whole point of starting this league was to find a stage, a platform for them to shine between Olympic years, so this is just another one of those platforms ... I think it's going to be huge for the Julie Chus of the world and for the Melissa Gedmans."
Rylan seemed proud that her league helped women to achieve success that the abbreviated nature of a college-only career simply couldn't provide. "That's one of the long-term goals is to see these women reach their full potential. You know, science says that women don't peak athletically until they're in their late 20s, and almost every hockey career ends when these women are 21, 22 years old, so there's all that missed opportunity, missed development not only for the players but also for the national team. So this is an opportunity for these women to continue to train, and I think that Kelly Stack is probably that keynote story on that. She was going to retire, she was done, there was nowhere for her to play and to pay for her mortgage. And then this came along, and there's an opportunity for her to play, get paid, and continue her career, and now she's continuing to get invited to national team camps."
When asked about the "perceived friction between the leagues," Dani said, "It's perceived. We're all here." On the possibility of consolidation, however, she was carefully noncommittal. "I think there is a solution. I don't know if [consolidation] is the solution, but yes, I think that what is best for women's hockey will eventually happen. Hockey was born in Canada, so there needs to be a Canadian presence in any league, and I think that working together is something we're all working on, so, I guess so the dream of what is realistic and what is the best solution is still being ironed out."
Rylan beamed as she described what made her happiest about the day's events. "This morning when I woke up I had goosebumps thinking, 'we're going here, this is amazing,' and the players started tweeting some of their photos out of them playing when they were younger, and the fact that we have so many similar storylines to the NHL, the players growing up on the ponds, always wanting to play outside under the lights, the whole nine, I think that's what's really special, is how much this means to the players."
On that, at least, she and Andress clearly agree. Rylan continued: "it's easy to get bogged down in the logistics, the grind, the work, the thousands of questions that you don't have answers to, and when you read something like [Kelly Cooke's essay for Boston.com], someone who wasn't tainted by the logistics and front office side, is really when you say, ok, wow, this is really special. A year ago this wasn't possible, and a year ago we didn't exist, and now we're on the biggest stage."
Still, the rifts remain. When asked why the NWHL didn't simply join up with the C, Rylan was firm. She described the difference as "philosophical ... we put a huge priority on paying the players for being the best at what they do."
What came through vividly from both Andress and Rylan, however, is the sense of something beginning, of situations improving, of mistakes rectified and challenges overcome. "There have been a lot of things we've learned as a league, and as a commissioner, a lot of things we've taken in stride, and doing whatever we can to improve every day."
Not all new knowledge is philosophical. "Yesterday we learned that we can't give away Winter Classic tickets on social [media]," Rylan laughed. "You learn things every day."