TORONTO – Tessa Bonhomme was chosen by Toronto as the first overall draft choice in the first ever selection of players in a women’s professional hockey league. The event took place last night in front of an overflow crowd of players, families, and fans at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, and although it doesn’t yet have the cache of the NHL’s Entry Draft, it is a significant step forward in legitimizing the league and its ambitions.
“This is just another step in making us a fully professional league,” said Sami Jo Small, one of the CWHL’s founders who grew the league out of the ashes of its predecessor, the NWHL.
The draft was not a routine affair and did have a few necessary wrinkles to it. The CWHL will consist of five teams for 2010-11, one in Boston, one in Montreal, and three in the Toronto area – Brampton, Burlington, and Toronto itself. Because players don’t earn huge salaries and most of them have day jobs, it’s impractical to have Montreal and Boston players enter the draft with the possibility of being chosen by a Toronto-area team. For many, moving and finding a new job is simply not an option.
As a result, those teams held tryouts to determine their rosters, leaving the three Toronto teams to participate in the random selection of remaining players. But before the formal draft began, a supplemental draft, one might say, took place. All five teams were allowed to protect five players who had played at least one year of the last three in the CWHL, but Toronto elected to protect only three and Burlington four. These teams were thus allowed to top off their list prior to the draft. Toronto selected Tessa Bonhomme first, then Burlington took Ashley Riggs, and Toronto finished by selecting Britni Smith.
In all, 101 players were chosen. In order to be eligible for the draft, a player had to apply to be put on the list. This avoided any complications with teams not knowing who or who might not be interested or eligible to play. For instance, Canada’s Jessica Campbell and USA’s Kendall Coyne, both stars and graduates of the U18 level, were not on the list because they will likely play NCAA hockey in the fall.
But the list featured many world-class names from North America’s Olympic rosters, from Jennifer Botterill, Becky Kellar, Gillian Apps, Kim St. Pierre, and Lori Dupuis to Julie Chu, Angela Ruggiero, and Brianne McLaughlin. Appropriately, the biggest cheer – a standing ovation, no less – came when Small was introduced as one of Toronto’s protected players.
As Small pointed out, though, the refreshing thing about the draft is that it isn’t just recycling last year’s players. “We think about 60 per cent of those eligible to be drafted tonight played in the CWHL last year,” she said, “but that other 40 per cent are graduates from NCAA or players returning from Europe because they want to play here. We also have applications from players from seven countries in Europe, which is really exciting.”
Indeed, Small envisions a league in which Europeans come to play and develop their skills in the best women’s league in the world, much like the men did 30 years ago in the NHL. To that end, Brampton and Burlington made the biggest splashes last night.
Burlington used the 13th choice overall to select Danijela Rundqvist, a 25-year-old with tons of experience with the Swedish national team including being a member of the historic “Mirakel” team of 2006 that claimed Olympic silver. “We have every hope and understanding that she wants to play in the league,” said Burlington coach Pat Cocklin. We’ve already talked to her agent about bringing her here, and we’re excited. She’s an impact player.”
The same can be said for two Brampton choices, Sweden’s Frida Thunström and Russia’s Ekaterina Smolentseva, a long-time member of her national squad. Of course, they first have to make the team, which is being coached by Angela James, soon to be one of two inductees into the Hockey Hall of Fame (with Cammi Granato), the first two women so honoured.
The draft is just a first step, however. Now that the teams are stocked with talent, they will hold tryouts in September. Players not chosen last night – or other players who want to apply but didn’t do so in time for the draft – will be pooled together with cuts from the September camps and a second draft will be held to determine final rosters for the upcoming season.
Long term, Small is thinking about expanding in the Southern Ontario, as well as including another team in the U.S. and Quebec, but not necessarily merging with the Western Women’s Hockey League. “They have a different financial structure out there,” she explained of the individual ownership of teams as opposed to the more communal CWHL setup. “Our next goal is to work on sponsorship. Scotiabank has been a huge supporter for us so far – we probably wouldn’t exist without them – but we need more money to grow and reach the next level.”
One thing won’t change any time soon, and that’s the dramatic conclusion to the women’s hockey season in North America when the top two WWHL teams and top two CWHL teams play for the Clarkson Cup. Although only two years old, this format, along with a unifying trophy, has proved successful and clearly is a way to a strong future for women’s hockey.
The CWHL is here, it’s real, and it attracts most of the best women’s hockey players in the world. And now that it has a draft, it can be taken all the more seriously today.