March 16, 2013

Women's Hockey League Would Be Good Investment For NHL

These ladies are all members of the Vancouver Amazons.

The Amazons were a women's hockey team from the 1910s through the 1920s, originally all young, unmarried women who attended King George High School in Vancouver's West End. This particular photo is from the 1922 Banff Winter Carnival, which featured one of the top women's hockey tournaments in the country at the time. I'm not quite sure who is who in this picture, but the team included sisters Norah and Phebe Senkler on defense, Elizabeth Hinds, Kathleen Carson and Nan Griffith at forward and Amelia Voitkevic in net. Lorraine Cannon and Mayme Leahy were substitutes.

I'm not sure who was the team's coach at that time (although Pete Muldoon, who somehow taught skating drills while wearing stilts, was the original coach in 1914), but the name of the team's owner is very interesting: Frank Patrick.

Frank Patrick, and his brother Lester, are two of the most influential people in the history of hockey. In addition to be great athletes themselves, they had the money and the vision to create the Pacific Coast Hockey Association back in 1911. At the time the top professional leagues were all based in Eastern Canada, but the Patricks established an equally good Western league and tweaked the game so significantly that we just take it for granted today. By the mid 1920s the NHL ran the PCHA basically out of business by winning the bidding war for players, but the influence and importance of the Patrick brothers remains almost unparalleled.

Historians consider the Patricks as being well ahead of their time. This was especially true in their vision for creating a women's hockey competition to compliment the PCHA. They had talked about a full women's league since the mid-1910s, probably because their sisters Myrtle, Cynda and Dora were also hockey stars in the Kootenay town of Nelson. They saw first hand how women's games could draw audiences.

The Patricks could never quite make a women's league viable from a business standpoint. Frank, who owned the famous Vancouver Millionaires men's team, did create a tournament involving the Seattle Vamps and the Victoria Kewpies where his Amazons were declared West Coast Women's champions.

That was about as far as the PCHA's women's league got, but it is fascinating to me that the arguably the game's most important founders - both on the ice and in the board room - took such an intertwined interest in women's hockey. Especially since nowadays there are calls for a top global women's league, and calls for the National Hockey League to fully back it.

It may be little more than lip service, but the NHL has had very encouraging things to say about women's hockey in recent weeks.

At the Wold Hockey Summit NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the NHL has been in "very preliminary" discussions for months about setting up a “women’s league or women’s competition. We’ve talked about potential structures that might work, the need for a business plan and our efforts to be helpful to the extent we can be."

Brian Burke, on behalf of the Toronto Maple Leafs CEO, added, "This morning Richard Peddie told me that we want to be leaders in this. We think that women’s hockey is important and we intend to be involved.”

Why should the NHL back a women's league? It's too bad Frank Patrick isn't around any longer to explain why it would be a good business move for the NHL. Yeah, the NHL might have to operate a, for example, 6 team women's league in the red in the short to medium term. But the positive impact on the women's game would result in more interest, more participation and more money-spending fans from all around the world in the long term.

Perhaps short term coverage can be off set by the benefits of increased content for the NHL's own television channel - in addition to games, a well-done reality television program is a great idea.

Now that being said it seems a lot of people are expecting some sort of WNBA-clone and express great disdain in doing so. I think that might almost be enviable. My expectation is that the NHL will leave the women's league all onto their own devices, perhaps offering some expertise on running a league and some token amount of cash but nothing substantial.

I understand that the NHL is a business first and foremost and that the bottom line must be adhered to. But I also think this is the exact small-minded thinking and the lack of vision that holds the NHL back.

Team Canada captain Hayley Wickenheiser, considered by many to be best women's hockey player ever, has really started accepting her opportunity to be the voice for women's hockey off the ice. She's campaigning for the NHL to think bigger-picture, too.

“They (NHL) won’t jump into anything that is not a viable business opportunity. 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."

The Patrick brothers, especially Frank, were motivated by his responsibility to grow the game. But he was a businessman too and I am certain that when he formed the Vancouver Amazons he envisioned a viable women's hockey league.

Hopefully the NHL has someone right now who is as visionary as Frank Patrick was back then.

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