CALGARY--She's only 25, but Tessa Bonhomme already has a resume that sparkles--and a new place to play. She crafted her defensive skills in the NCAA ranks with the Ohio State Buckeyes, then spent a season with the Calgary Oval X-Treme of the Western Women's Hockey League. After that, she spent a season with the Canadian national women's team's centralization program as lead-up to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, where she was a member of Canada's gold-medal team. Now she's back home in Ontario--out of necessity.
"The most difficult part of our sport from a competitive standpoint is finding a place to play after the university level," says Bonhomme, a finalist for the 2007 Patty Kazmaier Award as the top player in the NCAA Division I women's hockey. "Players are reaching the prime of their careers at that time, early to mid 20s. They're still very much a part of national team setups.”
They love to play. They want to play. They're good enough to play. But the choices, right now, are limited. Why? Blame it on the lack of opportunity and finances. She had to leave Calgary two years ago when the X-Treme fell victim to budget cuts at the city's Olympic Oval budget and local parties interested in bringing the team back unable to scrape together the $160,000 required to operate for the 2010-2011 season.
"It was difficult to leave Calgary," Bonhomme says. "I loved the city. I'm not sure what I would've done, even if the X-Treme had been operational this year. I wanted to be near my family, for certain reasons . . . spend more time with my great-grandma, for instance. As it turned out, though, it didn't matter. I had no option."
On Aug. 12, she made history when she was the first overall pick in the inaugural Canadian Women's Hockey League entry draft and will suit up this winter for the league's Toronto squad. The event, a first for women's pro hockey, was staged amid much pomp at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
Women's hockey at the U.S. and Canadian collegiate levels is booming, and the development of programs and level of play continuing to improve by leaps and bounds. Star under-18 level grads Jessica Campbell of Canada and Kendall Coyne of the U.S., for instance, are expected to play NCAA hockey this winter. The dilemma is in finding a high calibre of play following those years particularly in the year following the dying down of euphoria from an Olympic Games buildup, at the start of another four-year cycle.
If the problem is troublesome in North America, it's debilitating in Europe. Many extremely talented players quit the game altogether in their mid-20s because there is no league for them to stay sharp, or they are unwilling to relocate far away to maintain their competitive edge. As a result, on every Olympic cycle, national programs are having to introduce a flock of new players into the system, which makes it impossible to build the quality, quantity, and continuity required for countries to pose a tangible threat to the Canadian and U.S. dominance seen since women's hockey hit the international level.
At present, the five-team CWHL--Toronto, Brampton, Ont., Burlington, Ont., Boston and Montreal--and four-franchise WWHL--expansion Winnipeg, Minnesota, Strathmore, Alta., and Edmonton--are the options. Of significance is that Ottawa has at least temporarily dropped out of the CWHL and the X-Treme, a prototype franchise only a few years ago, based in Calgary, the city that houses Hockey Canada and the women's national team, finds itself in limbo, too.That's nine teams, for a sport seeking to develop its talent level and looking to establish itself in a more mainstream public way. So if you're a player in your early 20s who doesn't live in or near one of the hub centres or isn't independently wealthy . . .
"So many times," says Shannon Szabados of Edmonton, named the top goaltender at the Olympic women's hockey tournament, "your only option is to stay close to home, and that's not always possible. There are only so many teams with so many spots. NHL players earn millions and millions of dollars, women's players a couple of thousand.
“The next logical step," says CWHL president Brenda Andress, "is to create a more truly professional women's league, a larger league where players out of the NCAA and Canadian universities can continue their careers. We lose players because they can't afford to relocate. A lot of these women need full-time jobs. Some of them have families. But the women's game is growing. We've added a team in Boston for this season.
“We plan to add more as the years go on. But it's a process. It doesn't happen overnight, and what you need are solid franchises to start with, as a base. Then you build from there. We believe there's a void in the sports entertainment that we can fill. We have a great product and a high skill level. We do need to do a better job of getting our message our there. I meet so many people who tell me they loved watching Olympic women's hockey, and when I tell them about our league they're surprised. 'Really? Is that going on?'"
Andress points to the Women's National Basketball Association model as a perfect example. The NBA helped kick-start the WNBA, investing money in each of the startup franchises. The women's teams played at the NBA arenas and benefited from the visibility. Now, seven of the WNBA's 12 franchises--the Atlanta Dream, Chicago Sky, Connecticut Sun, Los Angeles Sparks, Seattle Storm, Tulsa Shock and Washington Mystics--are independently owned.
Discussions involving women's teams and NHL clubs with a design on a similar sort of relationship are ongoing. Funding, as always, is a huge issue. "It's great that we've got Scotiabank on board,'' Bonhomme says of the CWHL. "But obviously we need more sponsors to keep the ball rolling. Players like Sami Jo Small and Cassie Campbell and Jayna Hefford have done so much to bring our game where it is today. Right now, if we have to make some sacrifices to further build it, so be it. For us, it's worth it."
About the Molson Canadian World Hockey Summit
The Molson Canadian World Hockey Summit is the world’s pre-eminent hockey symposium, attracting global leaders of the game and interested stakeholders to share and enhance global hockey knowledge. The event will be held in Toronto, Ontario, Canada between August 23-26, 2010.