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Top women’s players vow to shape pro hockey in North America

Canada v United States

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - FEBRUARY 17: Marie-Philip Poulin #29 of Canada shakes hands with Megan Bozek #9 of the United States after a 2-0 Canada win at Little Caesars Arena on February 17, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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ESPOO, Finland (AP) -- Some of the top women’s hockey players in the world are vowing to use their voices to shape the future of the sport in North America after the six-team Canadian Women’s Hockey League announced it is shutting down after 12 seasons at the end of this month.

The CWHL announcement Sunday was followed just two days later by word that the National Women’s Hockey League planned to establish teams in Canada’s two largest cities , Toronto and Montreal, by next season. The NWHL currently has five teams, all in the U.S.

The rapid-fire developments came as players from both leagues gathered in Finland for the world championships, which start Thursday. Eighteen of 23 players on Canada’s roster, six from the U.S., and two each from Finland and Japan played in the CWHL this past season.

Canadian captain Marie-Philip Poulin, a three-time CWHL MVP with Les Canadiennes de Montreal, said the game’s biggest names must form a united front when tournament ends in mid-April.

''When the time comes, we’re going to stick together,’' Poulin told The Canadian Press on Wednesday. ''Obviously there’s going to be two weeks now where we’re going to focus on the world championship. It’s going to be huge for us for the next couple months to come out strong and stick together. Not only Canada, but the U.S., Finland, Sweden, everyone.’'

Calls for one women’s professional league in North America have increased over the last year. One league’s dissolution opens that door, but is women’s hockey ready walk through it?

''I hope so,’' said American forward Hilary Knight, who was Poulin’s linemate in Montreal. ''It’s no secret that resources were getting dispersed between two leagues.’'

For the players who have put time, energy and sweat into their CWHL team, the loss the loss of the league felt like a heavy price to pay.

Canadian forward Brianne Jenner hoisted the Clarkson Cup trophy a week before the CWHL declared its demise . Her Calgary Inferno beat Les Canadiennes 5-2 in Toronto.

''I think the reason we’re all so devastated our league is gone is because we love it so much,’' Jenner said. ''We’re focused on this tournament right now, but certainly as an international player group, we have a lot to think about in the offseason. I think our power comes from being united as a group.’'

The Americans have experience flexing their collective power.

Prior to the 2017 world championship on home ice in Michigan, the U.S. players threatened to boycott the tournament if USA Hockey didn’t provide more financial and competitive support for the national women’s team. They won several concessions from their federation.

''As long as our national team girls, the U.S. and Canada, are sticking together, I think it shows a lot,’' said U.S. forward Brianna Decker, who played for the Inferno this past season. ''I think that what’s we’re striving for is one league. It’s disappointing about the CWHL. They put so much work and effort into growing our sport and growing our game. I hope that something bigger and better (is coming). There obviously is a lot of unknown right now.’'

While the NWHL declared its interest in the Toronto and Montreal markets, the general managers from the six CWHL clubs said in a statement ''there are currently no negotiations occurring between any former CWHL teams and the NWHL.’'

The prospect of losing what the Les Canadiennes have built in Montreal worries Caroline Ouellette. The four-time Olympic gold medalist played for Les Canadiennes before retiring last year and stepping behind the bench. She is one of Canada’s assistant coaches in Espoo.

''The saddest thing for me is thinking about my GM and everything she’s done for 12 years and not knowing what’s going to happen for her,’' Ouellette said. ''I’m know I’m going to keep pushing so we can keep Les Canadiennes in Montreal and keep having the organization that we’ve had.’'

She echoed the need for top players to get involved as soon as possible to get the league they want.

''I think 100% the players know they are the ones holding the power,’' Ouellette said. ''They know the game is going to take the direction that they want it to take.’'