CWHL downplays Chinese influence in player payments

NEW YORK – Brenda Andress, commissioner of the Canadian’s Women Hockey League, had steadfastly assured her players through the years that the league was on a path to paying them.

She did so when others scoffed at the idea of a pro women’s hockey league. She did so when the National Women’s Hockey League, a U.S.-based rival, began paying its players in 2015, and she did so when the NWHL was forced to abruptly cut salaries the following year due to falling revenues.

“We’re right on target with our strategic plan,” said Andress to Sportsnet in March 2017. “But I’m not a fortune teller. We want to make sure that when we pay our players, we’re not going to take money back from them or discontinue paying them.”

Perhaps Andress didn’t see this moment coming in her crystal ball: The league announced last month that, for the first time, it would offer a salary to its players. The CWHL will pay players a minimum of $2,000, a maximum of $10,000 and a salary cap of $100,000 for each of the CWHL’s seven teams during their 28-game season. That’s money on top of the meal stipends, equipment costs and insurance that’s also covered by the league.

It’s a start, and the news was met with adulation from the players and fans.

“Although it’s a small step forward, it is a strong step in the right direction,” said Karolina Urban, a former CWHL player, via The Athletic. “The CWHL made its mandate to pay its players and to ensure sustainability.”

For Andress, it was validation.

“It’s been phenomenal for us, especially the player reaction. It’s so exciting for us, because it’s an historic moment we’ve all been working towards for the last five or six years. We’re just ecstatic that we went slow, and that we have something in place that will be sustainable. I’m so happy to give something to the women that have supported us for so long,” said the commissioner, at a “Declaration of Principles” event featuring 17 hockey organizations in New York on Wednesday.

“We promised this year. We kept our promise. That’s what the CWHL is all about.”

Would that it t’were so simple…

The CWHL had been telling players “wait until next year” for bit, according to one anonymous player who spoke with Habs Eyes On The Prize: “We’ve heard for the last few years that the following year we were going to get paid, so we were wondering if it would actually happen…”

So what changed?

China happened.

The timing of this decision by the CWHL coincides with a historic expansion to China by the league, which is welcoming the Vanke Rays and Kunlun Red Star next season. Whether or not this expansion into fertile revenue grounds was the catalyst for the players getting paid is something that’s in dispute: Andress downplays the timing of it, while many others in the hockey world find no coincidence in it.

The financial influx of revenue, and potential revenue, from two teams in China is palpable. Especially in the case of the Red Star, which has backing from Xiaoyu Zhao, a banking executive, and Billy Ngok, an oil and gas investor, according to The Victory Press. These Chinese teams are the starting point toward having a competitive women’s team to ice at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.

Andress wouldn’t tell the New York Times if there was “any direct financial investment from Chinese hockey parties” in the CWHL, only that the partnerships helped open new doors to sponsorships for the league.

That influx of revenue is also palpable for the players that have decided to skate with the Chinese teams next season. USA Hockey star Kelli Stack and Finnish national team star goalie Noora Räty were the two most prominent names. Stack left the NWHL for the opportunity. Räty had not played before in the CWHL.

The international players joining the Chinese teams were promised a salary well before the CWHL announced it was paying its players.

“All we can tell is we’re not hired as an athlete, we’re hired as ambassadors. I’m an ambassador for the sport in China and for the Kunlun Red Star team. I’m not actually paid to play, but that’s just kind of my side [job]. What we are paid to do is actually grow the game in China,” Räty told Sportsnet.

According to a source with knowledge of the league, the “off ice” salaries of the China-based players were a catalyst for getting the rest of the CWHL players paid – once it became apparent what players like Stack were making as “ambassadors,” it almost mandated that her peers in the league receive some slice of the revenue pie. Since the pie had grown significantly over the summer.

Andress reiterated that the Chinese teams were part of a larger upward trend for the league.

“If you look back to last year, the many times I was interviewed, China was not on the map and the board said we were going to pay the players this year. Did it help? Did it add to it? Did it open up brand new doors for us? Absolutely, and not unlike Calgary did when it entered the league,” said Andress.

The trick for the CWHL is the same one other leagues, including the NHL, have to manage: How do you balance the revenue cash cows in China with the rest of the league? Will they get preferential treatment from the League?

Andress says no. “We’ve had to keep that balance over the last 10 years. Les Canadiennes is a phenomenal fan base and a good revenue team. I don’t know if we have to keep anybody reined in,” she said.

The CWHL paying its players is another step in a steady, patient journey to success and sustainability. It’s in the partnerships it’s made with NHL teams, like the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens. It’s in the association it has with the NHLPA. It’s in getting important games featured on Sportsnet.

It’s a league that now stands in contrast with the NWHL, less than a year removed from the ugly standoff with players over salary cuts and a league without the same bold-type partnerships as its rival.

“I’m excited for them,” said NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan on Wednesday at the “Declaration of Principles” event, on the CWHL paying its players. “It’s such a great step for the game, and I’m glad they were able to make it.”

I asked Rylan if she was concerned that the CWHL had stolen her calling card, after having been positioned as “the pro women’s league that pays its players” for the last two years.

“No. I believe all women should be paid for doing what they’re best at. I’m glad they were able to get there,” she said.

For Andress, the last few years have been about getting there, and then staying there.

“I think ourselves, the board, the players and myself, we always believed that it would happened. We never strayed from that. A lot of times in life, people are asking you to go quicker. ‘Why aren’t you doing this yet?’” she said

“When you believe in something, you want it to last. You want your word to be there. You want to have people trust in what you’re saying.”

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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