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IMHO: Dartmouth’s Schuler bullish on women’s hockey despite CWHL’s demise

  • Dartmouth Head Coach, Laura Schuler, gives directions to players in the box during the second period of the game against Quinnipiac. Dartmouth lost to Quinnipiac at home on Friday night, November 11, 2016, with a final score of 2-1. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Greg Fennell. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Sports Editor
Saturday, April 06, 2019

Laura Schuler heard the remarks when she was a young girl in Ontario: Hockey is for boys, not girls. Go find something else to do.

Her love of the game overrode the naysayers. Schuler enjoyed a superb career at Northeastern University with three 20-win seasons, led the Huskies in scoring once, captured gold medals for Canada at three IIHF Women’s World Championships and skated on the country’s first Olympic women’s hockey team in Nagano, Japan, in 1998. She’s in her alma mater’s varsity club hall of fame.

So when the second-year Dartmouth College women’s hockey saw the news of last week in her sport, she chose to view the opportunity rather than the disappointment.

Last Sunday, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League — one of two small women’s pro circuits in North America — announced it would be folding effective May 1 after 12 seasons. The league, which employed a considerable number of current and former American and Canadian Olympic stars, operated six franchises, at least two of which — Les Canadiennes de Montreal and the Toronto Furies — appear to be headed to the surviving association, the five-team, U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League.

The timing couldn’t have been much worse: The women’s world hockey championships began in Finland on Thursday, giving players at the game’s top level an unwelcome talking point.

“I think my reaction was the same as the players’: I was definitely shocked by it,” Schuler said in a Wednesday phone chat from her Dartmouth office. “Obviously, it was bad to see that they had to fold, because it was a great league. The product they were putting on the ice was absolutely outstanding. The best players in the world are there.”

But she’s a firm believer in the theory that a door opens as another closes.

We find ourselves in an important period in women’s sports. There have been some victories: pro tennis’ attempts to deliver equal winnings to men and women, the successful effort by last year’s U.S. women’s world hockey championship team to get better pay. Some Major League Soccer franchises have taken active interest in the National Women’s Soccer League teams in their cities, providing logistical assistance or scheduling women’s-men’s doubleheaders.

There have been setbacks, too. The WNBA, in my mind, remains the standard bearer for women’s professional sport in this country, at least in terms of visibility, but player salaries lag behind their NBA counterparts — and even some members of the second-tier NBA G League.

Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw delivered a gender equity rant prior to last week’s NCAA Final Four, and all of her points — the lack of female coaches in her sport, the desire to see more women in leadership roles everywhere — were valid. Yet at the same time, the New York Times reported how USA Hockey has failed to follow through on promises made to the national women’s hockey program in the wake of last year’s job action, the organization doing little to raise the sport’s presence or contribute to its growth in the wake of an Olympic gold-medal run in South Korea.

Schuler — whose Canadians took home silver from Pyeongchang and who no longer coaches the national team — didn’t have a professional league in which to skate when her Northeastern playing days were done, but she has an appreciation for the option being available today. It isn’t part of her pitch to recruits, however; Schuler said international hockey remains to the pinnacle of her sport.

“For a lot of our girls, what’s important is they aren’t necessarily playing the game to go play professionally in the end,” Schuler explained. “They love to play the game, if that makes sense. They’re trying to be better because they love the game.

“When we’re recruiting kids, it’s about trying to sell the fact that if they come to your program, you will help them be the best player and person they can become, so they can succeed beyond four years of college in whatever path that takes. It could either be playing for a professional or national program or moving on and becoming a professional in whatever field of study they are pursuing.”

On Tuesday, according to the Times, the NHL became one of the biggest financial backers of the NWHL. Commissioner Gary Bettman has been quoted as saying he’s not a fan of the economic models of either pro women’s league. That’s fine; at least the NHL is doing something, but I think it can do more.

Seattle will join the NHL as its 32nd member in the next two years. Why not go back to the ownership group and offer an incentive to start an NWHL franchise? The city enthusiastically supports women’s teams such as WNBA’s Storm (average attendance: 8,109) and NWSL’s Reign (3,824). Games need not be held in whatever new arena gets built; find a smaller and more intimate setting, then drop the puck and see what happens.

I suspect it will be something good, just as Schuler thinks women’s hockey will bounce back from its most recent and unexpected setback.

“I grew up playing with people telling me I shouldn’t play hockey, it’s a boys sport, but that never stopped me from playing a game that I absolutely loved to play,” she said. “When I grew up playing there was no national team, no professional teams, but that never took away from my passion for wanting to play that game and trying to get better at it.

“I think that the game itself is something what will continue to inspire young boys and girls to keep playing and evolving and growing. Honestly, I think our game is just going to continue to keep getting better.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.