The Hamilton Spectator - - Sports - DONNA SPENCER

SASKA­TOON — Prom­i­nent mem­bers of the U.S. women’s hockey team mov­ing to Canada to play strength­ens spec­u­la­tion that a merger of the top two women’s leagues into one is nigh.

Hi­lary Knight, Bri­anna Decker and Kacey Bel­lamy say their de­ci­sions to play in the Cana­dian Women’s Hockey League this sea­son were per­sonal, not col­lec­tive.

But they’re also not ad­verse to their re­lo­ca­tions strength­en­ing the winds of change blow­ing through women’s hockey.

Both in­terim CWHL com­mis­sioner Jayna Hef­ford and NWHL com­mis­sioner Dani Rylan in­di­cated this year a merger is de­sir­able.

Knight now plays for the Les Cana­di­ennes de Mon­treal. Decker, Bel­lamy and goal­tender Alex Rigsby joined the Cal­gary In­ferno this sea­son. All four were mem­bers of the team that beat Canada in a shootout for Olympic gold in Fe­bru­ary.

When de­fender Me­gan Bozek was re­leased from the U.S. Olympic squad mid­way through last win­ter, she joined the Markham Thun­der and re­mained with the team this sea­son.

The five women pre­vi­ously played in the NWHL when it be­gan in 2015.

“It’s all of our goals to form this one league be­cause we have so many tal­ented play­ers in both leagues,” Bel­lamy said in Saska­toon at the Four Na­tions Cup tour­na­ment.

“Hon­estly, I just think for us go­ing to Cal­gary, Hi­lary went to Mon­treal and Me­gan went to Markham, it’s the sit­u­a­tions we wanted to be in.”

So high-pro­file play­ers from Canada and the U.S., who bat­tled each other tooth and nail for Olympic gold in Pyeongchang, South Korea, a few months ago, are ad­just­ing to each other as team­mates.

Knight in Mon­treal gives Les Cana­di­ennes ar­guably two of the best play­ers in the world with Cana­dian cap­tain Marie-Philip Poulin also on the ros­ter.

“You have the chance to play against each other at the high­est in­ter­na­tional level and now we have the chance to play a whole sea­son to­gether,” Poulin said.

“We can make each other bet­ter. We can push each other to the next level.

“Ob­vi­ously, there’s mu­tual re­spect there in how much we want to grow women’s hockey and that’s how it all starts, play­ing all to­gether in the same league.”

Cana­dian for­wards Re­becca John­ston and Bri­anne Jen­ner now have Decker, Bel­lamy and Rigsby in the In­ferno dress­ing room with them.

“I’ve played against those play­ers for a long time so it’s kind of nice to be on the other side and get to know them as peo­ple,” Jen­ner said. “When you’re on the ice against them, you for­get they’re peo­ple . ...

“We all want the best play­ers play­ing in one league. How that looks is still to be seen. When you’re com­pet­i­tive, you want to play with and against the best.”

The six-team CWHL is in its 12th sea­son. The NWHL has five U.S.-based teams.

The pay in both the CWHL and NWHL re­mains nom­i­nal com­pared to men’s pro leagues, so choos­ing club colours can come down to per­sonal pref­er­ence.

Ed­mon­ton’s Shan­non Sz­aba­dos be­came the first player from the Cana­dian women’s team in the NWHL when the goal­tender signed with the Buf­falo Beauts this sea­son.

She moved to the Ohio home­town of her part­ner Carl Nielsen and Buf­falo is within com­mut­ing dis­tance.

Knight, Decker and Bel­lamy said get­ting to play two games a week­end in­stead of one, and sim­ply a change of scenery in the first sea­son of the Olympic quadrennial, were fac­tors in switch­ing from the NWHL to the CWHL.

“We want one league. I don’t think our de­ci­sion ended up be­ing that rea­son,” Decker said. “That’s our goal though. We want one sup­ported league. That’s how we’re go­ing to be able to sus­tain hav­ing fans.”

Knight in­di­cated there was an­other layer to her de­ci­sion, how­ever: “When you’re think­ing about the fu­ture of the game, I think the CWHL has guarded it the best in terms of a player stand­point.”

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