The competitive conundrum, Hockey Canada edition — Jen Flowers talks success of the WCHA — Must-click women’s hockey links

The IX: Hockey Friday with Anne Tokarski, December 3, 2021

Buckle up, everyone, because I have some thoughts.

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This past week, the Canadian women’s senior national team participated in Hockey Canada’s Capital City Challenge, a tournament between the reigning World Champions and three U17 boys teams. The national team went 0-for-5 at the tournament, opening play with a 7-3 loss to Canada White and closing the tournament with a 6-1 loss in the consolation game. Objectively, not a great outing from the best women hockey players in Canada — and, right now, arguably the best women hockey players on the globe, if their record at Worlds is any indication.

The problem is not that the likes of Marie-Philip Poulin, Sarah Fillier, and Natalie Spooner are getting blown out by 15- and 16-year-old boys, though some might argue that’s definitely a facet of the issue at hand. (For transparency, I’m not quite sure what I think about that just yet.)

The problem is that there are so few other options for the likes of Marie-Philip Poulin, Sarah Fillier, and Natalie Spooner to play against. The best women players in the world are all but forced to compete against 15- and 16-year-old boys because of a lack of a major junior hockey pipeline for Canadian girls and women. While Canada is a premier destination for major junior men’s hockey, no such system exists for women’s hockey up north (or, for that matter, in the United States). The best alternative to playing a non-existent junior women’s team would be competing against university women’s teams…but most of Canada’s top prospects embark on the NCAA/American university route instead of attending university in Canada, so even that isn’t really an option either.

To compound that, the men’s and women’s games are so different. While the fundamental rules of hockey are the same no matter what players are on the ice, there are different rules and different strategies for all genders. The women’s game is generally faster and more skilled than the men’s game, so the same directives don’t always work when you put men and women on the ice to compete against each other.

This isn’t an issue exclusive to Canada, either, though it was the Capital City Challenge that prompted this little think piece. South of the border in the U.S., the women’s national team has been competing against (and losing to) junior boys’ teams in New Mexico and girls’ AAA programs in Chicago.

Long story short: invest in women’s hockey, but also invest in girls’ hockey — for the betterment of the entire sport.

This Week in Women’s Hockey

Jennifer Botterill named to CCM’s Board of Directors (NewsWire)

2022 Frozen Four tickets on sale now (Penn State)

Team Canada’s preliminary U18 Worlds camp roster released (Hockey Canada)

Mercyhurst alumna Jesse Scanzano named first CHA 20 in 20 honoree (College Hockey America)

Carlie Markey, Alyssa Longmuir, and Mike Murphy debut new podcast: Net Growth

Toronto Six to host 2022 PHF All-Star Showcase (The Star)

Wicked Angles: What ‘getting uncomfortable’ means in the PHF (The Ice Garden)

NCAA Division I Women’s Hockey recap (USCHO)

Five at the IX: Jennifer Flowers

The IX sat down with WCHA Commissioner Jennifer Flowers after a weekend where the league’s teams went 8-for-10 in non-conference play. Flowers, whose contract as commissioner was recently renewed for three years, has ushered in one of the most successful eras for the WCHA.

Question: There were ten non-conference games this past weekend, and only two WCHA teams registered a loss (and both were only one-goal losses). What differentiates this league’s teams — and the league’s athletes — from non-conference opponents?

Jennifer Flowers: I think you know, the success of the league over the last 23 years is probably what separates things, you know? I think there’s a real expectation that any of our teams can win and can win at the at the national level as well. And often times when you play the best teams week in and week out, it prepares you a bit differently., and so I think the overall strength of our entirely top to bottom is what, at this point, is differentiating us and helping our teams maybe feel a bit more prepared in those non-conference [games].

Q: With four WCHA teams currently ranked in the national top ten and a couple of exciting upsets by teams like Minnesota State and Bemidji State already in the books, how has the first half of the season measured up to your expectations for the league?

Flowers: I think it’s exactly what I expected. And what I mean by that is that I really do believe that any given night, anything can happen in our league. And I think that while the records may not indicate that, every single night we step on the ice with the competition, it’s a battle and you never know what to expect. And there may be separation and rankings. There may be separation in, you know, final scores, but the separation on the ice is much less than people probably expect, and so I think the second half is going to look very similar to the first half. I think there’s going to be huge games. I think there’s going to be a few upsets along the way and I think that’s what makes the league so special.

Q: The NCAA recently expanded its postseason tournament field from eight to eleven teams. What does the expansion mean to you as commissioner, and what do you think it means for the players?

Flowers: Well, first, I would say I think it’s been a little bit of a long time coming and I’m really proud of the efforts of the women’s coaches body, the women’s championships committee, our commissioners group, and everyone who put work in to try to help everyone understand why the our bracket should be expanded. I think for the student athletes, it has to be exciting. There’s just more opportunity to play at that level and to have a chance to be a part of an NCAA championship, and that’s what everybody plays for. So it was a historic day for women’s hockey when that was announced.

And I I understand all the, you know, questions and inferences around 11 teams and how odd that number is, but at the end of the day, we just got three more teams an opportunity to compete for a championship and that really matters and I think it only will benefit our sport as we continue to try to grow and try to you know, strengthen from top to bottom across the country.

Q: The league announced a landmark streaming deal with B1G+ ahead of this season. How would you say this deal has changed the landscape for streaming women’s college hockey?

Flowers: You know, I think people are…no matter whether it’s sports or television or whatnot, I think how people are accessing their entertainment is different now. So streaming is a huge platform and something that we knew very strongly we had to get to a better space with. And so I think having you know the brand of the B1G Network and B1G+ attached to the WCHA strengthens everything about what we’re doing. Everything looks better, it feels better. It’s one platform for all eight teams at a very competitive price. And all of those things really benefit our fans. And that was the biggest goal was to provide something that would give our student-athletes a platform to showcase themselves and showcase their skills in a way that it could be received. And we feel like based on early numbers, and based on feedback, that it’s been a great, great move for us and it’s only going to continue to get better as we keep going.

Q: With a three-year contract extension signed, sealed, and delivered, what are some of your goals for the conference for the next three years?

Flowers: Well, I would say probably my biggest goal is to continue to push the exposure of our league and the exposure of our athletes. We believe we’re the best, you know, collegiate women’s hockey conference in the country, and some of our student athletes are some of the best players in the world. And I want them to have the exposure that they deserve and whether that means, you know, bigger, better opportunities from a television perspective or capitalizing in different ways on on how we’re marketing ourselves or marketing our schools. Just finding new and creative ways to provide exposure is really important to me.

And I think the other thing you know, just that there’s so much instability, I guess around Division I college conferences and things like that…really trying to just ensure the stability of the league, and make sure that we are you know, strong and committed in what we’re doing from top to bottom from a membership perspective and that our office and our staff is able to provide the support, the guidance, the leadership that the members deserve to maintain our level of excellence.

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Written by Anne Tokarski