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Q&A with Jayna Hefford: Clarkson Cup arrives at defining moment in women’s hockey

Q&A with Jayna Hefford: Clarkson Cup arrives at defining moment in women’s hockey
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The Calgary Inferno and Les Canadiennes de Montreal face off Sunday for the Clarkson Cup, in what should be a highlight of an interesting year for women’s hockey — one that, as CWHL interim commissioner Jayna Hefford says, “changed the conversation around the women’s game.” The Canadian Women’s Hockey League final at Coca-Cola Coliseum will be broadcast on Sportsnet at noon in Canada and carried on NHL Network in the United States, a further indication of inroads into the mainstream. Thanks in part to the NHL’s inclusion of Kendall Coyne Schofield, Brianna Decker, Renata Fast and Rebecca Johnston in all-star weekend skills events — where they thrived against their male counterparts — the women’s game has garnered more attention than usual in a non-Olympic year. In addition, Hayley Wickenheiser joined the Maple Leafs’ player development department, while Cassie Campbell Pascall, Cammie Granato and A.J. Mleczko are prominent TV analysts. There are issues at the highest levels, mainly that there remain two pro leagues – the for-profit NWHL in the United States and the non-for-profit Canadian-based CWHL, with teams also in the U.S. and China – when most believe there’s only room for one. The CWHL underwent massive changes over the past year. The Star sat down for a one-on-one with Hefford, the Canadian Olympian who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November and has spent this season as the league’s “interim” commissioner.

It’s been a whirlwind year for you. How was this year as commissioner?

It’s been great. Challenging in a lot of ways. It’s been a steep learning curve in some ways. In other ways, it’s been really exciting. I think we’ve made some positive strides. It certainly was a big transition — I knew that going in — But hopefully we’re moving the game forward. That’s the goal.

Putting your league aside for a second, how do you think the women’s game has moved forward?

The most obvious piece is the momentum behind the game. For the most part, that came out of the NHL all-star weekend. I was in San Jose for the event. It was incredible. The excitement there, the talk. Everyone was only talking about the women. They only wanted to meet the women. It really changed the conversation around the women’s game … I wasn’t surprised how well they performed, because I know how good the game is. I know how skilled they are. I think some people needed to see that tangible way of comparing. We’re not saying the women should play in the NHL, or with men. It’s simply that the game is fast and our athletes are skilled, and that’s something to be appreciated. That’s where the women’s game is now. There’s excitement, there’s momentum and this new conversation about how good these players are.

Whose idea was it?

The NHL is continually trying to find ways to incorporate the women’s game. They did the Rivalry Series. The women (demonstrated) the activities last year at the all-star weekend, but they were all American players where the (U.S. Olympic) team was training. None of it was on television. Hilary Knight performed really well in the accuracy shooting. It was something they wanted to continue this year. They had two Americans and two Canadians. I’d be shocked if we didn’t see this kind of involvement with the women and the all-star weekend.

How has the league gotten better?

Since I’ve come in, one of my priorities is trying to unite the women a little bit, come in with a player’s mindset. We talk about the league being about the players. We really are trying to understand what direction they want to (go). One of my big things was increasing the visibility of the players, putting them out there in different situations. Photo shoots of them out of their gear so people can see their faces. If women’s hockey can be faulted in the past, I don’t think we ever developed enough stars. It was always one or two players whom people knew. We have so many superstars in our league, like our Americans — Hilary Knight or Brianna Decker, Kasey Bellamy — or you go to the Canadians in Marie-Philip Poulin and Rebecca Johnston and Brianne Jenner, Natalie Spooner. It goes on and on. And they are incredible ambassadors for the sport. Regardless of sport or gender, pro leagues are built around superstars. As we continue to build this, people are going to want to see them more. They’re going to want to know more about that. Hopefully that drives attendance and awareness.

How are you managing the CWHL team in China, based on the tumultuous politics between Canada and China these days? It must be quite the challenge.

Since it all got a little bit more turbulent, our last few trips we put some precautions in place, to make sure we were comfortable sending our teams there, and feeling our players are safe and our staff members are safe. That was always a priority. Our partners in China have been great. There (were) no issues while they were there. We do continue to monitor and talk to the right people. We would never put our teams in a situation that was unsafe.

Is the Shenzhen team coming back?

As far as I understand, they’ll be in our league next year. I think it’s a great opportunity for our players to go over there, and for us as a league and a country to grow the game globally is a really interesting piece of that.

Where do things stand regarding a potential merger of the NWHL and CWHL?

It’s an ongoing debate. Like most things, these things take a long time. We’re trying to evaluate what the right model is for us. What might work in a U.S. market might not work in a Canadian market, and what might work here might not work there. The obvious challenge is, we’re not for profit and they are a for-profit league. If the leagues were to merge, we’d have 11 teams. How do you get down to … I don’t think you can have any more than six to have a pro league that has all the best players in it. We’re trying to understand what the right move for the women’s league is. We know that whatever happens moving forward it has to work, it has to be successful. I believe the NHL plays a role in that. I’m not going to sit here and say “This is how it’s going to look” because I don’t know those things, but I do believe the NHL plays a big role in that. We’re going to continue to work to try to find the right model for the women’s game. Once it happens, it can’t fail. We have to make sure we’re elevating the game for the players, for the fans and for the sport.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned on the job this year?

Certainly more on the business-governance side of the league. When it comes to hockey and marketing the game and the players, that’s sort of been my whole life. I enjoy that. But understanding the governance, working with a board of directors. I can’t do everything I want. Things have to be approved by the board. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff I’ve learned a lot about.
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