As the third National Hockey League lockout in 18 years drags on, this is the most bizarre, with reasons not clearly explained for the comprehension of the fans.
In the middle of this dysfunction, one bright spot emanated. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames reached landmark partnership agreements with the Toronto Furies and Team Alberta of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. The agreement was commemorated by a November 17 contest at Air Canada Centre between Toronto and Alberta (a 3-0 win for Toronto), a watershed moment in the CWHL’s history.
While many women’s hockey fans may see this as long overdue, there are still three CWHL franchises eager to seek a partnership agreement. While it would seem logical that the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins would eventually show their support towards the Montreal Stars and the Boston Blades, there is still one CWHL franchise looking for a dance partner.
The Brampton Hockey Club (formerly named the Thunder) faces a conundrum, as there is no second NHL franchise in the Greater Toronto Area to seek support from. If the Burlington Barracudas still existed, it would complicate matters further. There is no question that Brampton must obtain support.
In many ways, Brampton is the hub of Canadian women’s hockey history. Brampton’s first great contribution to women’s hockey was in 1968. The Brampton Canadettes Girls Hockey Association organized the first Dominion Ladies Hockey Tournament, in which 22 women’s hockey teams participated.
Through various incarnations since the 1960’s (from the Brampton Canadettes to the Thunder to the CWHL Hockey Club), Brampton has been home to a venerable who’s who of hockey. From the Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League to the National Women’s Hockey League to the current CWHL, Brampton has been a staple in Canadian women’s hockey.
Fran Rider, one of the most important builders in the history of women’s hockey (and a highly deserving candidate for the Hockey Hall of Fame), organized the Brampton Canadettes tournament from 1978 to 1988, and even played for the Canadettes. Angela James, the first Canadian woman inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, also played for Brampton during the 1985-86 COWHL season and was the team’s coach in 2011.
Justine Blainey-Broker, whose landmark Supreme Court case in the 1980’s opened the door for girls to play boys hockey, suited up Brampton in the early 2000s. Along with Blainey-Broker, another hockey activist who may one day warrant consideration in the builders’ category of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Samantha Holmes also played for Brampton in the NWHL.
One of the landmark moments in the history of the Brampton franchise was the participation of Americans with the franchise. Meghan Sittler (daughter of Maple Leafs legend Darryl Sittler) played for the US National Women’s Team, but spent a few years afterwards with the Thunder. It would help set the stage for the arrival of Kathleen Kauth.
Kauth, who lost her father in the horrifying September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, was one of the first American women’s hockey players to compete in the NWHL. At a time when the rivalry between Canada and the United States was based on extreme hatred, the involvement of Kauth in Brampton helped to soften the rivalry.
When Brampton became one of the charter franchises of the CWHL, another American would make an impact with the franchise. Former Wisconsin Badgers legend Molly Engstrom bolstered the Brampton blueline for several seasons while appearing in two Clarkson Cup finals. In the hearts of Brampton fans, she was an honorary Canadian, and they admired her for her remarkable play and leadership.
As a charter member of the NWHL and CWHL, Brampton was one of the first Canadian women’s hockey franchises that were a second home to many of Canada’s heroes from the Winter Games. Lori Dupuis and Vicky Sunohara were the heartbeat of the franchise for close to a decade. In addition, Allyson Fox, a longtime competitor for Brampton, was one of five ladies who helped form the CWHL.
Third-generation star Gillian Apps, Cherie Piper and Jayna Hefford (one of the greatest women who ever played) currently carry the torch for Brampton. The club’s crop of remarkable youngsters such as Bailey Bram, Vicki Bendus, Laura MacIntosh and Liz Knox will proudly carry the legacy and define the future.
As one of the signature franchises in the CWHL (and the franchise that won the first CWHL championship), the challenge facing the franchise is finding a sponsor. From a geographical standpoint, it would be easy to look down the Queen Elizabeth Highway and consider the Buffalo Sabres.
In many ways, the involvement of Buffalo would be a political hot potato. After the 2011-12 NCAA women’s season, the Niagara Purple Eagles folded. If Buffalo were to sponsor Brampton, there would be many irate Purple Eagles fans that would demand why the Sabres did not assist them. With the great collegiate women’s hockey history that exists in western New York (Elmira College and the Rochester Institute of Technology), there is no question that fans would prefer if the Sabres helped start up a team for the region while giving ladies from that area a team to play for after their post-secondary careers.
Another option that would seem to exist is the Winnipeg Jets. Naturally, the thought of Brampton obtaining partnership with a Canadian franchise would seem the most logical. As the Jets' return to the NHL was the feel good story of the 2011-12 season, their involvement in women’s hockey would certainly make new fans.
In a similar situation to Buffalo, the move may not be popular with hockey fans in Manitoba. While the Western Women’s Hockey League has shrunk to only two franchises, the fledgling league features the Manitoba Maple Leafs. Its most notable alumni was Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs legend (and Canadian national team member) Jocelyne Larcoque. Once again, Jets fans may prefer that the franchise supports Manitoba in an effort to create a team that could rival Team Alberta.
With the Brampton club donning black and red colors, one may believe that the Ottawa Senators (whose colour scheme is similar to Brampton) would be perfect. Canada’s capital region has become a women’s hockey hotbed. The area boasts two clubs (Carleton and Ottawa) in Canadian Interuniversity Sport, while the Provincial Women’s Hockey League features two great franchises in the Ottawa Lady Senators and Nepean Wildcats.
Over the last few years, the Ottawa area has contributed a remarkable number of stars to the NCAA and the Canadian national Under-18 and Under-22 program. Players like Amanda Leveille, Erica Howe, Jamie-Lee Rattray, Jenna Ciotti, Isabel Menard, Stefanie McKeough and Morgan Richardson have turned Ottawa into a factory for producing elite women’s hockey talent.
Senators owner Eugene Melnyk (the only reason Ottawa still has an NHL franchise) has been a key supporter in developing women’s ice hockey in Ottawa. With the Ottawa Senators vs. Toronto Maple Leafs rivalry eclipsing that of the Leafs vs. Canadiens, there is no question that for many fans, the thought of Ottawa supporting a GTA franchise like Brampton may raise eyebrows. The hatred between Ottawa and Toronto fans, players and even some members of the media is nothing short of white-hot.
With the 2013 IIHF Women’s Worlds coming to Ottawa, the complication is that some fans may prefer that the CWHL to return to Canada’s capital region (the CWHL’s Ottawa Senators folded in 2010). Despite this, there is still reason for hope.
Eugene Melnyk once simultaneously owned two franchises in OHL (the Mississauga Ice Dogs and the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors). There is no question that the philanthropic Melnyk could find a way to sponsor two franchises.
Despite the obstacles that exist, the churning of the rumour mill may also be a source of relief. There is speculation that some of the NHL’s struggling franchises in the Sunbelt States may relocate after the end of the lockout. While areas like Seattle and Quebec City are possible destinations, there may be an unexpected possibility.
With the construction of a hockey arena that could meet NHL capacity in the Toronto suburb of Markham, Ontario, could the Greater Toronto Area finally earn its long-overdue second franchise? When one considers that areas like Los Angeles and New York share baseball and basketball franchises (New York also shares hockey and football), another franchise in Toronto would not be a threat to the Maple Leafs.
Not only would it help show to the rest of North America that Toronto is a big-time world-class city (because it would look like an important and big enough market to support a second team), but it would put money in the pockets of all NHL owners. When one considers that visiting teams earn a small share of the gate receipts, not having a second team in Toronto is business being lost on the table. Not only would travel costs be efficient, but a second NHL franchise in the Greater Toronto Area would be the solution to help Brampton further its legacy as the women’s ice hockey capital of North America.