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How will the CWHL grow?

Will the CWHL one day be able to pay its players enough to make it a full-time job? (Brandon Taylor/CWHL)

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Will the CWHL one day be able to pay its players enough to make it a full-time job? (Brandon Taylor/CWHL)

For the first time ever, The Hockey News has dedicated the bulk of an issue to women’s hockey – you can find it on newsstands, online or your mailbox now. It was an issue I was pretty psyched about and I’m happy with how it turned out.

If I learned anything in the process of putting together my feature on the Canadian Women’s League, it’s that despite the dedication of the athletes and stewards involved, there’s a long way to go before the women’s pro game is actually pro – that is to say, the athletes get paid enough to make it their one and only job.

What will it take? Dollars, of course. But in order to get those dollars, the women’s game still needs to grow.

For the CWHL, that means outreach. Commissioner Brenda Andress points to three groups – female recreational players, school children and NCAA/CIS players as their main targets right now. Because, as Andress acknowledges, a lot of people still don’t know they exist. To create awareness among the youth, the CWHL is planning on doing day games where schools are invited to attend for free (major junior and the American League do day games for school groups, though they’re not free).

“We’re trying to create a connection,” Andress said. “Our women are leaders and they can be your heroes. They’re phenomenal players, but what they do on the side is amazing.”

The fact most women players have to do something on the side is part of the barrier to legitimacy, too, however. When asked for a time frame on when female pros would get paid a living wage to play the game they love (we’re not talking NHL here, but maybe AHL levels), Andress put the target at five years.

“Keep in mind where the NHL was at five years old,” she said. “Back then, guys played for beer and food.”

That was nearly 100 years ago. Women’s hockey doesn’t have the luxury of being so entrenched and comes into a market crowded with entertainment options. This is where the thorniest question about women’s sports comes up: marketing sex appeal.

It worked for women’s tennis and, to a lesser extent, golf, but those are individual sports where a few strong personalities can bring in the crowds. But for all the male fans who love Alex Morgan or Hope Solo, women’s soccer still hasn’t found its niche as a pro league, even when the U.S. national team can draw tens of thousands to a game. Plus, Morgan and Solo are two of the best players in the world – you’re not necessarily being shallow if they’re your favorite soccer stars.

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Take this for what you will, but there is a Bikini Hockey League out there and it has, not surprisingly, received a good share of mainstream media exposure in the U.S. It’s roller hockey and the women can clearly play, but it’s gotta be tough for CWHLers to see them get more coverage than multiple Olympic medal winners. For Andress, she wishes good luck to the Bikini game – entertainment takes many forms, after all – but her CWHL is sending a different message.

“This is who we are, we don’t project certain body images,” she said. “We’re not setting standards that say, ‘you have to look like this,’ in public.”

For now, the CWHL remains on a very specific track. The league owns all five of its franchises and will do so until the teams are financially attractive enough to be purchased by outsiders – but the league would still wield a great deal of control.

Andress is not seeking a WNBA-style system where the teams are buddied up with (and, in the early days of the basketball circuit, exclusively owned by) NBA franchises in the same city. If the Maple Leafs or Bruins want in on the CWHL, it will be on the league’s terms.

Do you need the NHL in order to legitimize the women’s game in the eyes of mainstream fans? And can women grab headlines outside the Olympics without Maxim-style photo spreads or skimpy uniforms? These are two questions I don’t have answers for right now.

The CWHL must face these queries at some point and I hope a women’s league gets more traction. It feels as though the pro game hasn’t been given enough of a sporting chance to gain mainstream acceptance yet and I hope the women get a fair shot to prove themselves one way or another.

Because it hasn’t happened yet.

Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.

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