TORONTO (Reuters) - The sudden demise of the Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL) has left the future of women's professional hockey in North America in disarray with many of the world's best players without a club team to play for.
The CWHL, which was founded in 2007, is one of two women's professional leagues in North America and consensus was they could not thrive as separate entities even as popularity of the women's game has been rising in recent years.
"It was overkill," Ken Wong, a marketing professor at the Smith School of Business at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, told Reuters.
"This is a very limited, not just pool of talent but pool of fans. So to split them up two ways like that made no sense at all."
The CWHL has four teams based in Canada, one in the United States and another in China, where it was hoping to grow the women's game ahead of the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
According to the league, a record 175,000 tuned in to watch its championship game last week in Toronto where a crowd of nearly 5,000 were on hand as Calgary beat Montreal for the Clarkson Cup.
The CWHL, which boasts some of the game's biggest names in Canada's Marie-Philip Poulin and American Hilary Knight, operates as a centrally funded, nonprofit enterprise but said its business model has proven to be economically unsustainable.
It will cease operations effective May 1.
In the wake of Sunday's announcement, several Canadian players, including two-times Olympic gold medalist Poulin, posted the same statement on their social media accounts.
"The only thing stronger than the initial shock of the news, was the force felt by every single one of the players immediately coming together," the statement read.
"We know what we have is not enough. We want to build a better future for ourselves and for generations of women to come. That begins now."
The decision leaves the five-team National Women's Hockey League, founded in 2015 and based exclusively in the United States, as the only professional hockey option for women in North America.
The news also rekindled the oft-talked about discussion about a merger between the CWHL and NWHL, with the latter offering perhaps some reassuring words to players affected by the shutdown of the Canadian league.
"We will pursue all opportunities to ensure the best players in Canada have a place to play," NWHL Founder and Commissioner Dani Rylan said. "Those conversations have started already and have quickly become a priority."
Players, and even the commissioners, from both leagues have previously said a single women's professional league in North America would be best for the sport.
Many pundits have suggested the ideal outcome for women's hockey in North America would be if the National Hockey League, home to the top men's players, provided its infrastructure, marketing and branding to unite the two leagues.
But the NHL, which has previously said it was hesitant on assuming control over either league because it does not believe in their models, said it still has no plans to get involved.
"As long as there is a women's professional league existing and providing professional opportunities to elite women hockey players, we have no intention of weighing into this space," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told Reuters in an email.
"That doesn't mean we won't be supportive, but there is no need to take a leading role. Professional opportunities still exist for the best women hockey players."
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)