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Why Canadian Women's Hockey League Nixed Plan To Add Second U.S. Team

There will be no CWHL expansion for the upcoming season, but a task force could make it a reality at some point down the line. Getty Images

The Canadian Women's Hockey League, where the best Canadian and American women play between Winter Olympics, considered two major issues this summer: Adding a second U.S. franchise to join the Boston Blades, and changing its name to reflect its reach across the border.

In the end, neither happened.

The league's board of directors tabled expansion for the 2014-15 season, keeping its five-team team alignment, commissioner Brenda Andress told espnW. Instead, a task force headed by board member Caitlin Cahow, the two-time U.S. Olympian, will study where expansion fits into the league's strategic plan. The task force is expected to report findings in December.

The name change, which has been talked about for several years, could still happen in the next few months, according to two people who were briefed on the board's deliberations but not authorized to discuss it.

Financial considerations prompted the expansion delay. Andress said in June that she preferred adding a U.S. team in the Midwest to benefit Calgary, the westernmost Canadian franchise. Expansion bids from Minnesota and at least one other municipality were considered. Andress declined to identify the other applicants, citing confidentiality.

Since the league pays all travel costs, applicants were expected to raise $400,000 to $500,000 annually to cover airfares, hotel and related expenses. The league features four Canadian franchises -- in Calgary, Montreal, Toronto and Brampton, a Toronto suburb -- plus Boston. Toronto is the reigning champion. Hilary Knight, Julie Chu, Anne Schleper and Meghan Duggan are among the U.S. Olympians who have played in the CWHL.

The league still seeks major U.S.-based corporate sponsors to join its seven Canadian partners, which would lessen the annual stake. Andress said the league turned a small profit the last two years and generated $1.2 million in revenue last season. But players are still not paid. The board preferred stronger financial footing before proceeding.

In a statement, the league said: "The CWHL Board, along with its Commissioner, evaluates all aspects of requests for expansion and will continue to make sure that every business opportunity is reviewed with due diligence and an eye to what is in the best interest of the League."

Former University of Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson, along with owners of the Minnesota Whitecaps franchise from the defunct Western Women's Hockey League, head the Minnesota bid group. Halldorson said it lined up a home site -- Ridder Arena on the Minnesota campus -- as well as a possible head coach, Robb Stauber, the goaltending coach for the U.S. women's national team and a former Minnesota men's assistant.

"We understand the league wants to do it the right way," Halldorson said. "They're going to take a thorough approach. Though we have people here in Minnesota who would like to see a CWHL team right away, we understand it's going to take time. We respect the path they're taking and look forward to hearing what the board decides regarding expansion."

The delayed expansion decision did not surprise Blades coach Digit Murphy, given the projected costs. Murphy would prefer that the league pay its players before adding another team. The Blades recently secured a deal with State Street Bank that may include employment opportunities for one or two Blades players. The season opens Oct. 18.

"I think the Minnesota market is the right market," she said. "But you can't just start it with angel money. You have to have a revenue stream. It's not going to be the male model -- people go to the games, wear the jerseys and watch on TV. There's going to have to be a creative solution to creating revenue."

Murphy believes the league cannot succeed without some involvement from the NHL.

"I really think that since women's hockey had such a great showing at the last Olympics, the NHL probably has some interest in it," she said. "I think it's a way to bring even more women fans into hockey, which it doesn't have right now."

An NHL spokesman said the Calgary Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs made modest financial contributions to the CWHL franchises in those cities and advised them on marketing and branding. That may be as far as the NHL is willing to go. In an interview with NBC at the Olympics, commissioner Gary Bettman said the NHL can't subsidize a women's pro league the way the NBA does with the WNBA.

"The overall development of women's hockey from the grass-roots level through the college level isn't at a point where a professional league is viable," he said. "We very much believe in the importance of the women's game ... but it's going to take some more time and more development. We're still trying to grow men's hockey."