Hall of Fame inductee Jayna Hefford

Hall of Fame inductee Jayna Hefford plans to take women’s hockey to the next level
It won’t be easy, but as Hefford can personally attest, some of the most satisfying victories can bloom from the unlikeliest of circumstances.
Dave Feschuk
By Dave FeschukSports Columnist
Sun., Nov. 11, 2018timer6 min. read
If a fateful puck didn’t hit a famous post in Sochi four years ago, if it slipped into Canada’s empty net and padded a United States victory in a gold-medal match in 2014, Jayna Hefford would probably still be celebrating her induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday night. Post or not, win or lose, Hefford would still own five Olympic medals and a nearly peerless career as one of the greatest players in the history of the women’s game.

“Even if we hadn’t come back and won the game,” Hefford was saying the other day at the Yonge Street shrine, “I think it’s a display of perseverance we could be pretty proud of.”

But Canada, as it happened, did come back and win that epic game. Down 2-1 with the goaltender pulled and 1:25 to go when a U.S. clearing attempt hit Canadian iron, Canada would tie it with 54 seconds to go in regulation before scoring in overtime, Marie-Philip Poulin potting both clutch goals. For Hefford, it was an unforgettable way to cap a stellar career at age 36. Not only did the victory give the high-scoring forward from Kingston her fourth Olympic gold to go with one silver (of all the athletes who’ve ever represented Canada at the Olympics, Summer and Winter, only longtime teammates Hayley Wickenheiser and Caroline Ouellette can count themselves as fellow members of the four-gold club). It also gave Hefford an all-time great talking point for the many motivational speeches she’s since delivered.

“When (that puck) hit the post, I remember having that feeling of, ‘There’s something at play here.’ This is not going to end like this,” Hefford said. “We could already feel the momentum building at that point in the game, so it was just one of those things … With four minutes left (with Canada down 2-0) I don’t think many people thought we were in the game. But I can honestly say we did. We never felt like we were out of the game. And I think that’s pretty powerful.”

For Hefford, being a believer in the possibility of a hardly-guaranteed triumph is central to her current cause. While Monday night marks the culmination of a celebratory weekend wherein she’s been feted by family and friends and teammates, these days she’s the interim commissioner of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which means her induction weekend has been both a personal high point and a professional networking opportunity. This year’s class sees her going into the Hall alongside longtime NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, one of two inductees into the Hall’s builder category with colour-barrier pioneer Willie O’Ree. Hefford joins Martin St. Louis, Martin Brodeur and Alexander Yakushev in the players’ wing.

There’s long been hope in women’s hockey circles that the CWHL and Bettman might eventually do business. Some 22 years since the NBA backed a women’s league, there are those who believe the time is right for the NHL to follow suit.

“I believe (Bettman) wants to see women’s hockey succeed,” Hefford said. “There’s a tricky road to get there and there’s a lot to figure out. But certainly we understand where each other are at, and I’m hoping we’ll be able to work together to make sure the sport gets to the level we all want to see it.”

The tricky parts are well documented. There are currently two women’s pro leagues in North America, the National Women’s Hockey League being the other. While the CWHL is a not-for-profit operation, the NWHL is a for-profit business run by U.S. entrepreneur Dani Rylan.

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“The business models are a little challenged. I’m not sure there’s enough talent at this point in time for two leagues,” Bettman said. “Under the right circumstances, we have said repeatedly, we would get involved in starting our own women’s league. But … we’re not going to interfere with the work the other leagues are doing.”

Beyond hockey there are signs women’s elite sports are gaining more and more traction in the popular consciousness beyond the nationalistic glow of the Olympics. TV ratings for women’s pro basketball and women’s pro soccer have seen impressive bumps. And there are U.S. markets where women’s teams are consistent draws. Portland’s entry in the National Women’s Soccer League, home club of Canada captain Christine Sinclair, has averaged no less than 13,000 fans a game for six straight seasons, averaging more than 16,000 in 2018. The typical WNBA team has been averaging 7,500 fans a game for years. Still, CWHL games, even though they feature stars of the women’s Olympic squad like Poulin, often count crowds in the hundreds. So there’s work to be done, or untapped opportunity to be seized, depending on how you look at it.

Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Jayna Hefford won four Olympic gold medals and one silver in her career. She’s now the interim commissioner of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and hopes to work with the NHL in raising the profile of women’s hockey.

Hefford said she saw Sinclair play in Portland a while back and was taken by the possibilities.

“For a long time we’ve always said about women’s hockey, ‘We’re trying to attract young girls.’ It was obvious in Portland that’s not what they’re trying to attract,” Hefford said.


Applying the Portland soccer model to hockey, Hefford said, means it’ll be important to widen the target audience.

“You’re trying to attract hockey fans, girls, boys, men, women, college folks. It doesn’t matter. It’s about people who love the game,” Hefford said. “Because we believe in the product and we believe in the athletes. That’s our goal. And we’re expanding our fan base. We want lots of young female hockey players there, but we believe we’re a great example for young boys, and for women and men, people who love the game.”

Bettman, for his part, said backing a women’s league, if it’s in the cards, won’t be a bottom-line business decision.

“I don’t think anybody will ever get rich off of — certainly, in the foreseeable future — a women’s hockey league,” Bettman said. “But the opportunity’s there to encourage the growth and development of women’s hockey at all levels.”

There are many questions yet to be answered before the NHL gets involved if it ever does. First, Bettman said there’ll need to be a resolution to the two-league problem that allows the NHL will be the entity in charge.

“If we’re going to do it, we need to do it on a clean slate,” Bettman said. “Because once the NHL embraces it, failure is not an option. And if we’ve got to own the success or failure, then it’s got to be on our terms.”

Beyond that, there are issues of geography and scale and budget and revenue. Hefford said one idea is a six-team league — one in each of the NHL’s so-called Original Six markets. NHL franchises currently partner with CWHL teams in Montreal, Toronto and Calgary. But beyond such specifics, it comes down to creating sustainability.

“Everybody says they want to support the game and they want to support women’s hockey. But we really need to see it in a tangible way,” Hefford said.

That means butts in seats, eyeballs on telecasts, likes on Instagram, et cetera. The success of any startup sports league will never be guaranteed. But then, as Hefford can personally attest by pulling out one of four gold medals as proof, some of the most satisfying victories can bloom from the unlikeliest of circumstances.

“The important part is when we take that step, we’ve got to make it work. That’s what I believe and I know that’s what Gary believes. So we’ve got to make sure we do it the right way,” Hefford said. “It always comes back to the chicken and the egg, having fans in the seats and having revenue, and how do you make it work. It’s challenging in a lot of ways. But I don’t think it’s something we can’t achieve, step by step. We know we probably have that one shot of doing it right.”

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