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Flames, Maple Leafs assist women's hockey with money and marketing

CALGARY - The Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames have boosted the Canadian Women's Hockey League's small budget with a multi-year financial commitment.

The Maple Leafs are providing $30,000 annually for the next five years and the Flames $20,000 each of the next four to the five-team league that includes several Canadian and U.S. national team players.

The two NHL clubs will also market and promote the CWHL teams in their respective markets, which are the Toronto Furies and the yet-unnamed Alberta squad. The Leafs have made the Air Canada Centre available for Saturday's game between the Furies and Alberta.

While $230,000 may seem like pocket change in the NHL, it's a significant revenue stream for the women's league.

"We struggle every year in women's hockey simply to be able to put our players on planes, get ice time and pay for it," said Cassie Campbell-Pascall, a former captain of Canada's national team and the CWHL's vice-chair.

"This league is still going to struggle. We need to find other ways to get revenue. We want to take it to a certain level and this is definitely a first step to it."

The Maple Leafs and Flames announced their intentions simultaneously Tuesday—the Leafs via a press release and the Flames at a press conference in Calgary.

"I think cash is important, but I think what is equally important to cash is that their pioneering efforts that have gone on for many years, I think need to be rewarded," Flames president Ken King said. "They need some breakthroughs and if we can play a very small part in that, we're proud to do that.

"It's really not what's in it for the Flames. The Flames have a lifetime obligation that we put upon ourselves to support all sports and support the community whether it's in sports or not. This is just a natural outgrowth of that."

The CWHL also has teams in Montreal, Boston and Brampton, Ont. The league's model is similar to Major League Soccer, meaning the league owns the teams, hires general managers and pays expenses. There are no individual owners of teams.

The Alberta club practises and plays many of its games at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary. The addition of the western franchise last year increased the CWHL's travel costs.

The CWHL can't yet afford to pay players, but pays the coaches and covers the cost of equipment, ice time and travel. The CWHL's executive director has said a single team's annual budget is about $200,000.

"The league's two most important priorities have been to provide top coaching for our girls and equipment," Brenda Andress said Tuesday from Toronto.

"The money helps our needs, but the second part is the alliance with two powerful teams and using their skills to help us in-house."

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment struck a task force two years ago, led by hockey operations vice-president Dave Poulin, to look at ways of incorporating women's hockey into the business.

Using the partnership agreement with MLSE as a template, the CWHL took proposals to other NHL teams. The Flames are the only other NHL club that has bitten so far.

"I think other teams haven't had time to dissect this," Andress said. "It's a time factor."

The Leafs intend to market the Furies on their website, at home games and on Leafs TV. Alberta, which launched an on-line campaign for a team name Tuesday, will wear Flames colours and the flaming 'C' will be incorporated into their logo.

"They're going to help us with some of their expertise in communications and marketing," Campbell-Pascall said. "We've exhausted our volunteers. We have one employee in the league who is paid.

"The exposure maybe helps us bring in a new sponsor, maybe someone who wants to volunteer. It's endless possibilities on what can happen after today."

Alberta defenceman Meaghan Mikkelson, an Olympic gold medallist in 2010, believes the association with the NHL brings credibility as well as financial stability to the CWHL.

"It is a bit of a relief," she said. "As a female hockey player playing at the national hockey team level, it's not always easy to make money and play and try to compete as a professional would. I think this partnership will help with that.

"People often ask 'Are you associated with the NHL or why aren't they helping?' All this happening now just speaks to the opportunities that can come in the future."

The NHL involved players from the Canadian and American women's teams in promotional events at this year's all-star game in Ottawa. The league also hired former WNBA executive Val Ackerman as a women's hockey consultant in January, 2011.

Susan Cohig, the NHL's senior vice-president of integrated marketing told The Canadian Press earlier this year "we have no specific plans right now to launch a women's league."

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