The demise of the CWHL, and now a player-led boycott of the NWHL, leaves American and Canadian female hockey players wondering what comes next for their careers.
When it comes to playing professional women’s hockey, there are only limited chances for these athletes to choose after college. And now that pool just got smaller.
On March 31, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) announced that it would fold on May 1. Operations within the league also ceased.
There is only one league left – the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) – and even that operation appears to be threatened. On May 1, the 200 top women’s professional players – including many U.S. and Canadian Olympic stars - said they would boycott until one women’s pro league was formed. They want a stronger organization, pay and benefits. The NHL is under pressure to help support the league, along the model of the WNBA being with the NBA.
This all affects former CHWL forward Shiann Darkangelo, a native of Brighton, Mich.
“I don’t feel like it’s time for me to not play,” Darkangelo said. “It’s there if I still want to, and I can make it work with what I do. Hopefully we just do the right thing for the sport.
“Like (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman said, the model is not sustainable long term either. So, us playing there is that helping the sport? I can't answer that myself and it's going to be a collective group of people deciding that or so it's tough.”
She had a feeling something was going to happen when a press conference was called a few days prior to the announcement.
“It did cross my mind that something was going on with the league, but you don’t want to believe it,” said Darkangelo, who played collegiate hockey at Syracuse University and Quinnipeac. “There was no build-up, nothing. Even our GMs and coaches, from what we have been told, knew.”
Darkangelo began her professional career with the USA National women’s hockey team and moved to the then brand-new NWHL. She then jumped to the CWHL, playing for the Buffalo Beauts and winning the Isobel Cup in 2017. She went on to play for the Connecticut Whalers in the NWHL and later played for the Kunlun Red Star and Toronto Furies.
She viewed the pro leagues as an opportunity to continue her playing career after college, and hopefully, also aiming for a shot at the U.S. Olympic team.
“It was a new thing that kind of popped up while a bunch of us were still at school,” Darkangelo said. “It's just kind of like, O.K., let's see if this thing is actually real or not. It ended up going through the first year and stuff and it was kind of an easy decision.”
Another player involved with the NWHL is Metropolitan Riveters forward and Birmingham, Mich. native Madison Packer. In the past four seasons, Packer has stuck to the same team and won the Isobel Cup last season.
Packer had similar goals to Darkangelo coming out of the University of Wisconsin to continue her professional career and trying to earn a spot on the Olympic team.
“I really grew to admire and have a lot of respect for our former coach and the culture that he treated it,” Packer said. “From the first day that we walked in and my first year, when we weren’t on the ice we still enjoyed it and we believed in each other. It was a unique group to be apart of.”
Unlike Darkangelo, Packer never thought of leaving the league to join the CWHL.
“That was never going to happen,” Packer said. “I always wanted to stick with the NWHL.”
Darkangelo viewed having two leagues as an opportunity for more competition. The Canadian league offered more games in the season.
The season that Darkangelo joined the CWHL was during her gap year and she wanted somewhere to play. At the time, Olympians, such as Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker, played in the league.
“If I still wanted to play and maybe have a shot of the next squad, so they reached out to me on going to China,” Darkangelo said. “That was an easy transition. Just coming up to travel and work with another national team sparked my interest and I said, ‘Hey, why not?’”
All the national players were in the NWHL and decided to stay in one league together, but the competition varied on different levels. For her, it wasn’t a hard decision to make the transition.
“The competition was just as good in the CWHL,” Darkangelo said. “It says a lot even during an Olympic year. There’s a lot of good players, division I players. After that, more US girls started to come over here. Other people that are American joined this league.”
While she stayed for the past four seasons in the NWHL, Packer felt that the American-based league had a better business model.
She stated that everybody wants to watch it and the best way to do that is to get everybody from both leagues together. She feels that the NWHL isn’t going anywhere and believes one league is best for women’s hockey to continue the growth within the sport.
“It changes the whole dynamic of the game,” Packer said. “Hopefully, it will evaluate itself again and I think it will be around for a long time. If you were to ask my five years ago if I was getting ready to play in my fifth NWHL season I would have told you, ‘No way.’”
For Darkangelo, this was a larger chance for more female athletes to get their shot and grow their skills outside of college hockey.
“Girls don’t reach their full potential in college years,” Darkangelo said. “You’re still so young when you come out of college and girls who are fortunate enough to stay in the national programs long enough I think can reach their peak. I'm not the only one, but I mean there's many other athletes out there with like untapped potential because we have nowhere to play. It’s tough for them.”
During the offseason, there will be some changes, but no one knows exactly what will happen. As for Darkangelo and Packer, the future continue to be grow for women’s hockey.
“You’re definitely are going to see something pan out from here in the next month or two,” Darkangelo said. “I’m not sure what’s to come, but the future is bright for women’s hockey I feel people are more aware of the girls’ game. The is growing and I think something is going to happen and the time is now.”