A net gain for U.S. hockey?
Anne Schleper never considered moving to Boston a hardship. After winning an NCAA championship as a senior at Minnesota, she dreamed of playing for the U.S. Olympic women's hockey team. If that's what it took to face better competition and improve her game, so be it. Move she would.
One season with the Boston Blades -- the only American team in the Canadian Women's Hockey League -- helped land Schleper, a St. Cloud, Minnesota native, on the 2014 Olympic roster for Sochi. But not every potential Olympian from the Midwest had that flexibility.
That's why Schleper applauds the CWHL's plan to expand from five to six teams by adding a second American franchise, possibly in the Midwest. CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress said bids from Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit and New York City will be considered at a league Board of Directors meeting later this month.
A total of 21 of the 23 members of the U.S. Olympic team hailed from either the Northeast or the Midwest. Schleper, a 24-year-old defenseman who plans to continue through 2018, believes a Midwest franchise would benefit players bound to the area due to family, work or graduate school obligations.
"If there was a team closer to them, would you get more of them to play?" she said. "I think more of them would go that route."
The CWHL, founded in 2007, offers the highest-level competitive option for North American college graduates preparing for the Olympics. Created after the collapse of the National Women's Hockey League, the CWHL features franchises in Montreal, Toronto, Brampton, Ontario (a Toronto suburb), Calgary and Boston. Its season runs from November through March.
Fourteen Canadians and nine Americans from the league competed in Sochi, according to rosters on Hockey Canada and USA Hockey websites. Seven of the Americans played for Boston.
The U.S. has not won Olympic gold since 1998, collecting three silvers and one bronze. In Sochi, Canada overcame a late two-goal deficit to beat the U.S. 3-2 in overtime for its fourth consecutive gold.
Keeping sharp between Olympic cycles has been an ongoing problem for American college graduates. Laura Halldorson, the former coach at the University of Minnesota, believes the lack of postgraduate competition contributes to that gold medal drought.
"Players need a place to play in between national team events," said Halldorson, a representative of the Minneapolis bid that includes owners of the Minnesota Whitecaps franchise in the defunct Western Women's Hockey League.
USA Hockey women's director Reagan Carey, formerly on the CWHL board of directors, said the U.S. talent pool is deep enough to fill two postgraduate teams. Carey admitted no preference to a location but has been briefed about the Minnesota proposal by Halldorson, an old friend. Halldorson recruited Carey to Colby College in Maine before leaving for the University of Minnesota.
A 2008-09 residency program in Blaine, Minnesota, stocked the Minnesota Whitecaps, who won their first WWHL title, and helped Team USA defend its world championship. But USA Hockey discontinued it after a silver-medal Olympic finish in 2010.
Later that year, Boston joined the CWHL. Loaded with past and prospective Olympians -- including Schleper -- and coached by Digit Murphy, formerly of Brown, the Blades won the Clarkson Cup as league champions in 2013.
Andress said the CWHL, established as a nonprofit, made a small profit the last two years. It generated $1.2 million in revenue last season, largely from Canadian corporate sponsorships. Audiences for the Olympic gold medal game -- 4.9 million viewers on NBC, nearly double that of 2010, plus another 1.2 million via live streaming -- suggest to Andress a growing market.
"Financially, we're in a great place and we're ready for it," Andress said in a telephone interview from Toronto. "We know the players are there."
By expanding in the U.S., Andress hopes the league can attract more American corporate support. Her goal is to raise $3.2 million over the next 18 months, which would cover all league expenses plus pay players $15,000 per season.
Currently, players are not paid. That forced Schleper, who receives a small stipend from USA Hockey, to share an apartment with three teammates and teach skating to pay the bills.
"We don't have a major U.S. sponsor," Andress said. "On the American side, we need to get some sponsors on board that not only cover expenses but embrace the league."
Andress prefers a Midwest location for the new team so that Calgary, the league's westernmost city, isn't an outlier.
"We have to keep the western part of the U.S. and Canada in the loop," she said.
But the decision may come down to money. The league pays all travel expenses. Putting a team in the Midwest means the league must come up with $500,000 to cover airfare, lodging and meals. Halldorson said her group has raised a little more than $200,000 and seeks more.
Murphy prefers the league pay players a living wage before expanding. Too many American players retire in their mid-to-late 20s because they need jobs and can't afford the training costs, which Murphy calls a travesty. Julie Chu, now 32, was the only U.S. player older than 30 at the Sochi Games. Canada had five, including four-time gold medalists Hayley Wickenheiser, Caroline Ouellette and Jayna Hefford.
"We need to start to figure out a way to generate a revenue stream for the existing five teams," Murphy said. "I'm not anti-Minnesota. I'm not anti-any other team in the U.S. But I'm pro-resource distribution to our athletes.
"I want to raise $22 million to endow the entire league. I keep saying I need 22 hockey angels to donate $1 million."