By Jay Gutteridge
Hayley Wickenheiser is to be commended for her recent accomplishments.
The Shaunavon, Sask., native definitely held her own Jan.11 in her first game in a professional men’s hockey league. She even notched her first point — an assist earned by winning a face-off back to her teammate.
Wickenheiser’s success with the Kirkkonummi Lightning of the Finnish second division is being viewed in some circles as a stepping-stone for women in hockey.
This is difficult to argue against.
What is disputable is the idea that a woman might someday play in the National Hockey League in a position other than goaltender (Manon Rheaume briefly played in net for the Tampa Bay Lightning).
The notion of a woman competing in such a physical league with some very large men is unrealistic.
Wickenheiser is probably the best woman ever to play professional hockey, yet she is playing in the third-best hockey division in Finland.
Against the best female players in the world at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Wickenheiser posted 10 points in five games. These are great numbers, but they don’t illustrate enough dominance to make her good enough to compete against the best male players.
Wickenheiser is five feet nine inches tall and weighs 170 pounds, making her comparable in size to some of the NHL’s smaller players.
The fundamental difference, however, is that women generally have less muscle mass than men. Also, women usually have smaller lungs than men, and a woman’s heart generally pumps less blood per beat than a man’s.
The fact is, the only women to ever play in the NHL will be goaltenders.
This isn’t a bad thing, however.
Women’s hockey, when played at a high level, is an entertaining game to watch. What the world’s top female hockey players need is their own league, something along the lines of the Women’s National Basketball Association.
Canada’s current league, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), is not promoted well.
For example, it’s unlikely the average person knows that Wickenheiser’s old team is the Edmonton Chimos of the NWHL.
To make matters worse, the players don’t even earn a living wage. This fact deters some of the world’s top players, like Wickenheiser, from participating.
There can be little doubt that a full-fledged professional hockey league for women would be successful.
The CBC’s ratings for the gold-medal game of the 2002 Olympics, between Canada and the United States, illustrate this point. An average audience of more than 4.5 million Canadians tuned in to watch Canada win the gold.
Of course, things would have to start small. Six teams would do, divided into two conferences. In the Eastern Conference would be Toronto, Montreal and New York. Detroit, Calgary and Vancouver would make up the Western Conference.
Thus, the league would be represented in four of Canada’s largest cities and the United States’ two best hockey markets.
Salaries would have to be kept in check for the first few seasons while the league got off the ground. A $70,000 per season player salary cap would certainly do, and a $35,000 league minimum would be a good starting point. These numbers could increase with the league’s popularity.
The season could be 40 games long and include two rounds of best-of-seven playoff series. In order to avoid competition for arena space with the NHL and NBA, the games would be played from June to October.
All that’s needed is a wealthy sports fan with deep pockets to fund the league. The number of teams in each of North America’s professional sports leagues suggests there are plenty of rich people willing to make an investment in sports.
This league would be a great success as long as it featured the best players from Canada, America and elsewhere. It would probably be enough to bring Hayley Wickenheiser back to Canada.