Inside two women’s hockey reporters’ campaign to save CWHL history

Les Canadiennes players gather around Caroline Ouellette and the coaching staff on the Montreal bench during a timeout. (Shanna Martin)

Two Montreal-based women’s hockey reporters, Kirsten Whelan and Jared Book, have raised over $9,000 CAD in an attempt to preserve CWHL history and benefit the league’s former players. (Shanna Martin)

If you’ve played hockey, or been a part of a hockey team, you’ve probably longed for one of them at some point. They come in all shapes and finishes. Some of them you can drink out of. Some of them you can buckle up next to you on the plane ride home, from whichever faraway rink you’ve triumphed in. Some of them are heavy, most of them probably not as much so when you lift them above your head. No matter what, they are always the point in sports, right? The trophies.

They are not just forged out of metal and carved out of wood, but welded together with hours and hours of work, and sweat, and tears. Some of them go to entire teams and some of them just to one person. Either way, a trophy is a physical stake in the world that says, “I was here. We were here. And we were the best.”

The Canadian Women’s Hockey League had its trophies, too. For 12 years, they honored amazing player performances with them. But the call for dollars and cents, particularly in women’s sports, is always so much stronger than any performance. It turns out it’s even stronger than the desperate need that exists to play the actual game. Whether you think it’s that simple or not, that’s how we got to this point: the league folded, and there just wasn’t enough cash left to save it. So it’s not a surprise that there wasn’t enough cash left to save the league’s history, either.

In order to dissolve, the league needed to liquidate all assets. This is a clearly defined legal process for any organization that’s folding, and so that is why the auctions began, first for the individual teams and then for the league itself. The CWHL and its teams put virtually everything up for sale. Anyone with an Internet connection could sign on and bid for jerseys stitched with the names of some of the sport’s biggest legends and fan favorites, signed sticks from championship teams, even the photos that adorned the halls of the league’s offices. All of these artifacts documenting the league’s history, the players’ accomplishments, they all needed to go. Including the trophies.

The Clarkson Cup, which was not owned by the league, did not go up for auction. The Angela James Bowl was taken down from the auction after proof of ownership was shown for that, too. But plenty of others were still up for grabs: the Jayna Hefford Trophy, Most Valuable Player, Goaltender of the Year, Defenceman of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year. There was no way for the league itself to save the trophies, or any other artifacts, for display at the Hockey Hall of Fame because the league must liquidate all of its assets and pay off its creditors. That includes a safe estimate of a six-figure amount owed to the players in bonuses.

While there was a deafening silence from nearly every person and company with real sums of money who could help preserve the CWHL’s history (and presumably help out the players, too), two women’s hockey reporters, Kirsten Whelan and Jared Book, took matters into their own hands. The trophies went up for auction on April 26, four days before the auction closed and the league semi-officially wrapped up operations. That night, the two decided to start a GoFundMe campaign to raise money and salvage as many items as they could.

“In my head, I’m like, ‘We’ll try it, we’ll see what happens.’ We had no idea what we were doing, no idea how it was going to work,” Book said. “But if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. At least we tried.”

When they decided to set up the GoFundMe page, they reached out to each team’s general manager and asked for a list of items that would be worth preserving. They also coordinated with former CWHL Players’ Association representatives, the Markham Thunder’s Liz Knox and Les Canadiennes’ Karell Emard, to figure out their priorities for items as well. But Book and Whelan didn’t have the highest hopes to start; instead, they just figured nothing bad could come out of an honest effort to help.

“At the end of the day, it was kind of, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?'” Whelan said. “It’s worth a shot, because there were so many people who were talking about wanting to contribute and wanting to stop things from going all over the place, or just to have some sort of impact, and who, on their own, knew that they wouldn’t be able to buy anything but really wanted that opportunity to feel like they were having an impact. And so I think having that platform, if nothing more, made a lot of people feel like they were able to do something at a time when a lot of folks were feeling kind of helpless. Ourselves included.”

It started off as just a small amount. Book actually made the first donation himself, anonymously, so there was something on the page for people to see. Once they had a few hundred dollars, they could breathe a little easier. They had enough to bid on at least one jersey.

But the campaign snowballed even further. Whelan and Book hit their initial goal of $2,500 CAD in one day; they raised it three times after that, eventually topping out at about $6,700 CAD before the auction ended. After some research to determine the historical validity of some of the items, they received only one specific request from a team: Montreal’s camp wanted to preserve Caroline Ouellette’s jersey from the 2008-09 season, her first in the CWHL. Notably, Whelan and Book received enough funds to try and secure some trophies, too, and help round out bids for other parties who wanted to donate trophies to the Hockey Hall of Fame. They also planned to inscribe the names of the 2018-19 winners on each trophy, and give the excess funds straight to the players.

In particular, Book and Whelan were aiming to secure the MVP trophy, and repurpose it as a media- and fan-voted award for whatever comes next for professional women’s hockey, partly as a nod to all of the support they received but also as a way to preserve the award’s living history. Whelan, who is now in law school but studied history as an undergraduate student at McGill University, understands the importance of that.

“Ultimately, relegating it to an archive where nobody can access it isn’t doing much to preserve public memory, and make sure that this history is known by the public,” Whelan said. “We felt that [repurposing it for the future] would keep a part of the CWHL’s history alive, that it would maintain a sense of continuity with the past winners being engraved alongside the future winners, and would really enable the trophy to  continue the legacy that was started as the CWHL.”

Book and Whelan are also in a unique position as campaign organizers. Book is the Deputy Managing Editor at Habs Eyes on the Prize, where he’s covered the CWHL for the past four years, and was a broadcaster for the league for the last two seasons. Whelan has covered the league for two years for The Victory Press, and previously volunteered for the CWHL as an in-house beat reporter. So they are not just avid fans or supporters of women’s hockey; they are two of the people most responsible for regular, thoughtful coverage of the sport, and the CWHL in particular.

To a fault, we have generally accepted as a society that journalism is supposed to be objective; reporters should keep a wide berth and present the facts, and certainly not jump into the story themselves and actively pursue a different ending. But any good journalist knows that you can’t hope to truly capture a story while keeping so wide a berth, and that’s at least partly how Whelan and Book ended up deep in the nitty-gritty here, working to help preserve the league’s history and assist its players going forward. Both of them recognize that you can’t cover a sport with the depth and nuance it deserves unless you care about what the hell happens to it in the first place.

“I think there’s a responsibility in women’s hockey, and in other sports that don’t get the kind of mainstream attention that they ought to, to use that platform in a way that is benefiting the sport and benefiting the players,” Whelan said. “There’s no such thing as objective journalism; it’s just feigning objectivity. So at a certain point, you have to ask yourself, what are we really here for? And if it’s not to support the players, and support the sport—and I think that those two things also have to be one in the same—if it’s not also happening in the best interest of the players, then it’s really worth reevaluating what your journalism is serving, and what your reporting is actively doing in the world.”

On the final day of the auction, Book and Whelan were confident that they’d be able to snag the trophies that remained on the site (three, including the Jayna Hefford Trophy, were eventually taken down after a third party reached out to the league to discuss purchasing and donating them to the Hockey Hall of Fame). But the frenzy picked up as they got closer to the deadline, and in the final few hours, another party began upping the bid for the MVP trophy.

“It’s stressful to have six or seven thousand dollars of other people’s money that you’re trying to win things with, during an online auction,” Book said. “An online auction is stressful enough when it’s your money. And you have this high hope of getting these historic items and keeping them.”

Book and Whelan did their best to win the MVP trophy while managing their budget in real time. They continued to up their bids well past the deadline, and even raised their maximum for the trophy to $6,100 CAD, on top of the $750 they’d already spent. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough; they were outbid. The other groups they were in contact with, who were trying to win the Rookie of the Year, Defenceman of the Year, and Coach of the Year trophies, were also outbid.

It’s at least a little disappointing to see that ending after so many donors made clear that they supported the cause. But the need for money in women’s hockey tends to trump pretty much everything else. And it is endlessly frustrating that there is never enough of it. Not to pay the players what their time and efforts are worth. Not to preserve a league, and not to preserve its history. In fact, it’s precisely because there isn’t enough of it that it trumps everything else.

They were just trophies, though. Right? Just hunks of metal with a few names inscribed. 12 years’ worth of standout performances, of goals and grit and sprawling saves and diving blocks, sold to the highest bidder. Maybe they’ll end up together for a few months, on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame. Maybe they’ll sit in someone’s basement. They’re just trophies.

What cannot be neatly displayed in a trophy case or even left to collect dust in someone’s basement is the overwhelming support that Whelan and Book received for this campaign. People cared, enough to put their own money behind it, enough to come together and try and win. They lost. So what? Anyone who’s anyone in hockey has lost something along the way. Probably a lot of games, and probably a lot of trophies, too. Winning is what we all strive for, but it’s almost never the point. The point is to keep going, to forge a different (and better) way forward. Sometimes, it’s enough to be reminded that none of us are going forward alone.

“We’re in a situation where people are literally giving us $10, $15, $20, $25 at a time, but it’s adding up and it was really inspiring in a way, because it’s such a great community when you’re in it,” Book said. “And it’s crazy to see the kind of support that we got, and with that support comes responsibility. When we didn’t win anything, or we didn’t win anything that we wanted, we were worried that people were going to be like, ‘Oh, you failed us,’ or, ‘Oh, what did we give money for?'”

That didn’t happen. Instead, after the auction, even more money came in. And—crucially—Book and Whelan did end up winning the Ouellette jersey, so Montreal’s team could keep it within their collection. It wasn’t an empty-handed effort by any stretch.

Those trophies and other items for sale represented the past, just a slice of the history of women’s hockey. Some of it was excellent, and heartwarming. Some of it was very, very bitter, and heart-wrenching. And the money that Book and Whelan’s campaign raised will still honor the game’s history, by going towards its future: the players. It’s likely they’ll put it to good use soon, too, with nearly 200 women’s hockey players making the statement last Thursday that they’ll be sitting out the upcoming season until there is a better long-term solution in place for professional women’s hockey in North America.

Although they’ve had to shift gears and redirect the money towards the players, Book says not a single donor has approached them and asked for their money back. Donations to the GoFundMe campaign have continued to roll in, and they now have over $9,000 CAD to deliver to the players.

“We’ve got so much support, and the entire women’s hockey community has really demonstrated their buy-in for making something happen, regardless of what that looks like,” Whelan said. “So knowing that that money is still going to have a very direct impact on the future of women’s hockey is definitely a pretty good consolation prize.”

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