Updated: 6:15 p.m. | Posted: 10 a.m.
The Canadian Women's Hockey League's abrupt decision to cease operations leaves North America with one pro women's hockey league, and opens questions regarding the future of the sport on both sides of the border.
"Unfortunately, while the on-ice hockey is exceptional, the business model has proven to be economically unsustainable," the CWHL said in a statement on Sunday.
The decision to shutter the six-team Canadian-based league came a week after a record 175,000 TV viewers tuned in to watch the Clarkson Cup championship game. And it comes four days before the women's world championships are set to begin in Espoo, Finland.
The CWHL, which was established in 2007, did not provide any details behind its decision, which becomes effective on May 1.
One question raised is whether the CWHL's Chinese-based team, Shenzhen, was going to return for the 2019-20 season. Shenzhen joined the league two years ago, and paid the CWHL an annual fee.
Last week, Jakob Kolliker, the new coach of China's national women's team, told China Daily he hoped the nation would form its own league so his players didn't have to travel internationally.
Messages left with CWHL officials, including interim Commissioner Jayna Hefford, were not returned.
Numerous players went to Twitter to post notes expressing their disappointment.
"I'm heartbroken at the news of the CWHL folding," Calgary Inferno forward Brianne Jenner said. "Hard to process this after our most successful season to date. ... We will rebound from this."
Added Canadian national team goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens: "Did not expect news like this morning. Hopefully, the different stakeholders will work together to find a solution and grow the game."
The CWHL's demise leaves the U.S.-based, five-team National Women's Hockey League as the only women's professional league in North America; the Minnesota Whitecaps are part of the NWHL. And the decision re-opens questions as to whether the NHL should step in and create one league with teams on both sides of the border.
In an email to the Associated Press, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly called the CWHL's decision "unfortunate," and added "it shouldn't detract from what the people associated with this initiative have been able to accomplish."
As for the league stepping in to run a women's pro sports league, Daly wrote the NHL's position remains unchanged at this point.
"We recognize the importance of women having options to play the game at the professional level. If those options were to become unavailable in the future, we would certainly consider doing what's necessary to fill that void," Daly wrote. "But that's not the case currently."
Daly's response echoes what NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told the AP in September.
Bettman said he had no interest in forming a third league because he didn't want the NHL "to look like a bully" by pushing the existing leagues out of business. He was also hesitant of the NHL assuming control of the CWHL or NWHL because, as he put it, "we don't believe in their models."
"We need to start on a clean slate," Bettman said.
"If at some point the leagues say, 'We've had enough, we don't see this as a long-term solution, we'd like you to start up and we'll discontinue operations,' then we'll do it. But we're not pushing it," he said. "If we're going to get involved, it cannot fail, which means it has to be on us."
In a statement, NWHL Commissioner and founder Dani Rylan said she was saddened to learn of the news, and assured fans the NWHL is committed to playing next season.
Calling it a priority, Rylan said she has already opened discussions to attract the CWHL's top players to play in the U.S. next season.
The two leagues first discussed the possibility of merging last summer, with Rylan revealing they had follow-up discussions in January, and were scheduled to meet again in April.
"We are sorry to know those talks will not continue," she said.
Starting in 2017-18, the CWHL began paying its players salaries ranging from $2,000 to $10,000, out of a total budget of $3.7 million.
The NWHL was the first to pay players a salary upon being established in 2015.