Roughly 2,500 paying fans were in attendance at Ottawa's Canadian Tire Centre on Sunday for the Canadian Women's Hockey League final, the Clarkson Cup. But the players themselves were not getting paid -- at least not a salary.

Since the league's formation in 2007, the five-team league has never paid its players.

It recently began covering players' expenses, including travel, meals on the road, health insurance, ice rental, uniform costs and some equipment. But this has not always been the case.

The league is facing increased pressure after the National Women's Hockey League, which launched last April, offered to pay its players a minimum of $10,000. The average salary is $15,000 and top salaries can receive a maximum of $25,000.

But CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress says its players are compensated through awards, incentives and other unspecified funds for the season. And despite criticism about the lack of formal salaries, Andress insists the league's players are, in fact, paid.

"People always classify, or define a payment, by a set amount. So is a professional league saying that we're paying our players … $5,000 a year? Or is it like the NHL where they're paying them $1.2 million a year? Does it make you professional when I'm paying you this much and another league (is) paying you this much?" Andress told CTV in a phone interview.

"But I always say to people, 'We're paying our players. We're not paying them as much as other leagues, but we are starting to pay our players.' Do we intend to increase our payments? Absolutely. Do we intend for one day when they don't have to work? Absolutely."

Andress said the league has budgeted to provide salaries by the 2017-18 season, though she did not disclose the amount. She estimated it would cost roughly $2 million a year.

She said that the goal is to put together a plan that is sustainable for the league, and said more details will likely follow within the year.

"Consistent and long-term for us is the key, so when we start to pay our players it will increase every year and continue to increase until it actually is when they don’t have to have a (side) job," she said.

Andress also stressed that the CWHL supports its players by providing them with job opportunities once their hockey careers have come to an end.

She proudly pointed to the fact that several of the CWHL's five teams – the Calgary Inferno, Brampton Thunder, Boston Blades, Toronto Furies and Les Canadiennes -- have general managers who played in the league, and that former players can be found among the league's ranks in operations, scouting and communications.

"There's all these job opportunities that we've created for women that might not get the experience in a non-traditional jobs, and our women are paid, but more importantly we have young girls that have these wonderful athletes to look up at and to aspire to (be)," she said.

"And 10 years from now, when a girl is born some place ... when they say I want to play hockey as a professional, or i want to be commissioner, or I want to be GM, then we provided that for them, that they can have that dream."

Andress also said the CWHL helps players develop a "brand,” which allows most players to “make more money than we could ever pay them."

When asked why the league's hasn't been able to offer its players a salary during its eight-year run, Andress said they have to fill arenas and, more importantly, attract sponsors to increase the bottom line.

"Could it go faster? Sure, yeah, it could faster," she said.

But Andress insists the league's future is bright. She said a new "revenue source" will be announced Sunday, and another is set to follow in the next few months.

She noted that the league had its "best year ever" in terms of attendance, with most games seeing 500 to 700 fans. More than 7,000 fans turned up for the CWHL All-Star at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto earlier this year.

The CWHL also signed a four-deal with Sportsnet in 2014, to broadcast four games a season.

Andress said each of the games this season had more than 100,000 viewers, and the league is now looking to expand the initial agreement.

"As the fan base grows, the broadcasting deals, the media deals, the sponsorship deals grow too because we're now creating a fan base. We're actually creating a following; there's a target audience we're after and we're now seeing that audience come on board," she said.

She said the league initially started with $100,000 and now it has $1.8 million coming in through sponsorships and other various streams.

Three CWHL teams – Les Canadiennes, the Inferno and the Furies – have also partnered with their NHL counterparts in their respective cities.

Andress said their support has been "outstanding," and said the league also gets the opportunity to sit down with the NHL every year.

‘One league is better’

She shot down the notion that the NHL should provide direct funding to the CWHL, like the NBA, which spent millions keeping the WNBA afloat during the mid-2000s.

"Did they do the right thing? Absolutely. But if you look at it … from the business side they'll tell you they would never do that again," she said of the NBA support.

Andress also hopes the future of women's hockey in North America is carried by a single league. She said the NWHL's commissioner, Dani Rylan, initially approached the CWHL about expansion, but decided to go a different route.

"We never expected to have two leagues. We always expected to have one league," she said. "One league is better. Women's sport needs to be together."

But ultimately, Andress said the CWHL’s future is in the hands of its fans, and promises newcomers will catch "probably the best hockey” they’ll ever see during the Clarkson Cup on Sunday.