TIG Round Table: How to save the Blades

If moving to Worcester can’t save the Blades franchise, what will?

Outside of an updated logo and a fun new Twitter hashtag, not much has changed for the Blades since their relocation from Boston to Worcester. At the CWHL’s holiday break, the CWHL’s only American franchise is (still) in last place in the standings. Worcester is still searching for their first win of the season and are still, clearly, struggling to recruit local talent because of the presence of the NWHL’s Boston Pride.

The Blades have had four coaches in the last three seasons and, by the optics, have had trouble filling the bleachers. The CWHL has attendance numbers for four of the Blades’ six home games this season. The average attendance for those four Blades’ home games is 121 people.

Blades coach Paul Kennedy building for the future

The bottom line is that as long as the Pride are in Boston, the CWHL is going to have a hard time making a franchise work in the state of Massachusetts. Which is why members of The Ice Garden’s staff have joined together for a round table discussion on how to save the Blades.

Sydney Kuntz | @sydneykz12 - I think that relocating them is the only option for keeping the team at this point. They need to be in a city that doesn’t currently have a professional women’s team, but definitely has established hockey culture. Detroit, Rochester— just somewhere that isn’t in Massachusetts.

Robyn | @robyn_jftc - I do agree with Sydney that moving is the best option but they’re still pretty bad because the CWHL basically ignores them.

Move them, but more importantly infuse the team with talent and promote the heck out of the team. The team is basically dead and they need actual players and at least some who are close to being the very best in their sport.

If they can stop being SO bad, I think it’ll be easier to attract an audience and grow the team’s following. But then they need to pay attention to and nurture the team so it’ll flourish.

Erica Ayala | @elindsay08 - ”They say if you love something, let it go ...”

I do think you can have a team in the same state ... I just don’t know that Worcester was the right place/market for hockey. But, it’s more than location, it’s marketing.

William Whyte | @wwhyte - The CWHL has a lot to offer ambitious players — more Olympians, more games per season, more glamorous locations to travel to (and Calgary). This season has shown that the U.S. National Team players are happy to move to the CWHL for the right opportunity. So the quick fix is easy-on-paper: pay more than the NWHL, find a credible coach, welcome back the players who previously left for the NWHL, and make Boston the NWHL’s problem rather than the CWHL’s.

But that’s not realistic. And so when we talk about saving the Blades, we need to ask what the Blades are for. It felt like the Blades were kept going by the CWHL on the assumption that the NWHL would collapse soon and the CWHL would then be able to offer the top U.S. players a place to play and the top Canadian players a chance to play against top U.S. competition. That doesn’t seem as likely as it did two years ago (although maybe it is! We have literally no idea how stable the NWHL is), but if the point of the Blades is basically to keep seats warm for the huge numbers of top quality players in and around Boston, then they don’t need saving, they’re serving their current purpose.

Likewise, the CWHL has sometimes indicated that its function isn’t just to grow the game but to provide a place for post-college players to play at a high level; if the Blades are a service mainly to their current players, they’re fine as they are and don’t need fixing. But if the point of the Blades is to be a viable team with their own market, it feels like it would be easiest for everyone to move them to Ottawa and be done with it. Just don’t call them the Lady Senators.

Mike Lopez | @OOSMuppet - Relocate them to Winnipeg or Regina to give the Inferno a geographic rival. This gives the Blades a better opportunity to get local talent and grow the brand.

Michelle Jay | @michellejay3 - Honestly it’s no secret that something needs to be done for/with the Blades. But I’m hesitant to say fold them and lose another 25 - 40 roster spots for women’s hockey, especially since the CWHL folded a team this off season. I also struggle to point to the NWHL as the catalyst for all of the problems as the Blades’ off ice struggles started even before the newer league gutted the team of talent.

So what to do...I think moving to Worcester was a good step. The team needed to not compete with the Pride for fans, and being in Worcester opens up a whole new and different fan base. However, one has to wonder how that impacted the long time players who were living and working in Boston. The drive isn’t great and if the games and practices are an hour each way, that will have an impact. They’ve also had an uptick in local media coverage as the Worcester-based media has embraced them, even though some of them have little knowledge.

More than any other team, I think they need to partner with a local men’s team. They have started to do so with the ECHL’s Railers. Tapping into the already existing fan base who are familiar with a family-friendly hockey environment (especially compared to the NHL) would do them well. I’d love to see Railers players supporting the team — going to games, wearing gear, tweeting about them.

Mike Murphy | @DigDeepBSB - One needs only look at the records of the CWHL’s other teams against the Blades since the NWHL’s first season to understand that there’s a problem here. The Blades’ woes have devastated the parity of the CWHL and that problem has only been exacerbated after the league’s expansion into China.

If the CWHL is committed to having a franchise south of the border, they need to find a market and a talent pool that the NWHL hasn’t tapped into yet. An American city near the Great Lakes makes a lot of sense geographically for the CWHL. Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago would all be intriguing candidates. Alternatively, the CWHL could admit defeat and move the Blades franchise to another major Canadian city like Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa, or Winnipeg.

Nathan Vaughan | @BOSWHKYBlog - How do you save the Blades? In a few words you don’t. The league has been slowly killing them since long before the NWHL was a factor. The Blades back then relied on the fact that they had the most concentrated national team talent in the league and an elite coach in Digit Murphy, with zero support from the league and even sometimes the league actively sabotaging them. Now they have neither of those positives and haven’t had a consistent home in years which has destroyed any previous fan base they had built. Add in the fact that they are now in Worcester, while in the same state it’s a world away for people living in Boston with or without cars. In an area that is so saturated with sports even top level women’s hockey, see the Pride and the Beanpot schools, there is little reason to trek halfway across the state to pay more money to see a team that can’t score a goal.

If the league really wanted to keep an American footprint in the Hub of Hockey then they need to invest in them and help them secure a good rink for a long term in the city of Boston and get a coach that can steal back some elite talent. Until that happens this team will languish despite some great efforts from players that are really giving their all.

The likely solution is a move to another Canadian market probably near Alberta to give the Inferno short travel. I could see Quebec getting even more love. My personal preference would be a team in the Maritimes. My ancestors would be happy and it still leaves the league with a footprint east of Montreal.

Eleni Demestihas | @strongforecheck - I think if the Blades are going to survive they need to a big-time overhaul. A legitimate partnership with the Railers will go a long way (in terms of advertising and so on), but a lot of the problem is the product on the ice. They simple can’t keep up with the rest of the CWHL, so it’s no surprise that their games are so often so empty. This isn’t a knock on the players, it’s about the league needing to invest in the team if they’re committed to keeping the team around. They need a coach that’s familiar with the league and the team, where it’s been and where it needs to go.

They need to overhaul their draft process too. They got two great rookie goalies, but have no defensive core at all. Drafting defensemen from good D-III programs in the area or the newly DI Holy Cross would be a great way to shore up their roster. They have forwards who can score, they just can’t get out of their own zone, so focusing their next draft on puck-moving defenders would make a big difference. So would not being afraid to pick DIII local players over DI players from schools and places so far away that they’re unlikely to want to move to or play in Worcester, which there has been some of, but not enough.