NEW YORK – Janine Weber was recently speaking with some 12-year-old girls, and had a question for them: What do you want to be when you grow up?
After a few expected answers, one of them told her, proudly: “I want to be a hockey player.”
Weber smiled. “I think it’s pretty cool that now they can be professional hockey players.”
A native of Austria who attended Providence College, Weber was the first free agent to sign with the four-team National Women’s Hockey League, one of two professional women’s leagues in North America. Her team, the New York Riveters, opens its inaugural season on Sunday in Stamford, Conn., against the Connecticut Whale.
(The afternoon game at Chelsea Pier, CT, is sold out; there are tickets available for the Buffalo Beauts’ debut against the Boston Pride at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 11 at HarborCenter. Manon Rheaume, the first woman to appear in an NHL exhibition game, will drop the first puck.)
There used to be limits to those hockey dreams for young women. They could play in college. They could play for the U.S. women’s national team. But while young men could envision a career in a few dozen pro leagues around the world, including the NHL, the next step for many women after college was rec leagues at best or, at worst, walking away from the game.
The unique thing about the NWHL, in contrast with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, is that young girls can now not only dream of playing at the next level but also get paid for it.
“I think the whole ‘first paid professional hockey league’ thing is why I picked the NWHL,” said Kelly Babstock, a former star at Quinnipiac College who plays for the Whale. “It’s never happened before. I know the money’s not a lot. But it’s a start for women’s hockey, and I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to inspire girls who want to play professionally.”
PAID TO PLAY
Weber’s already made her mark in pro women’s hockey, having scored an overtime goal last season for the Boston Blades to capture the Clarkson Cup, the top prize in the CWHL. But she chose to leave the CWHL for the same reason many other standout players did: The NWHL is the first pro women’s league to pay its players.
“I really liked playing in the CWHL, had a lot of fun on the Blades last season. But I wanted to get paid. And I wanted to stay here in the U.S.,” she said.
For Weber and other internationally born women’s players, getting a salary was a necessity. She had a student visa that allowed her to play in the CWHL despite not making a salary. In order to obtain a work visa, she had to find a paying job as a player. “I had to find something else. So that’s the main reason I switched leagues,” she said.
Money was also a factor for forward Kelli Stack, who joins over a dozen U.S. women’s national team players in the NWHL this season. She took a year off from hockey for financial reasons to work in sales at Pure Hockey, a chain of retail stores.
“For me, it was a big issue,” she said. “It was going to be really hard for me to find a job that could accommodate my schedule.”
Stack, who plays for the Whale, will make $25,000 this season. We know this because the NWHL published its full salary cap numbers on its website, which is something even the NHL doesn’t do.
“Granted, I’m not putting away tons of money in the bank. But it’s enough to live on,” said Stack, who also collects a stipend from the U.S. women’s national team. “It depends on the way you want to live. I have a mortgage to pay, and I don’t know of many other girls that have that. I think they just rent.”
Stack is the NWHL’s highest-paid player. Her national team peers like Meghan Bozek (Buffalo), Brianna Decker (Boston) and Hilary Knight (Boston) make between $22,500 and $22,000.
The Boston Pride had so many national team members that would command a high cap hit, Stack said she intentionally chose elsewhere.
“I want the league to be successful. I want it to be competitive, so I wanted to go to Connecticut and help the team. Give them another strong forward. I didn’t want to go to Boston and load ’em up. They have so many national team players. It’s like, ‘What’s the point in going there if it just wouldn’t make the league as competitive?’ ” said Stack.
“I decided that I’d probably get paid more money if I played in Connecticut versus going to Boston and having the salary cap split between eight national team players. I did them a favor – they all got paid a little bit more.”
Sixteen NWHL players are making $10,000, including Riveters goalie Jenny Scrivens. That salary can be augmented by things like jersey sales, as each player gets 15 percent of the jerseys that bear their names.
The League itself is funded by merchandise sales, donations to the NWHL Foundation and, of course, through ticket sales, the lifeblood of any pro hockey league.
“We’re setting up a foundation in year one that can lead to year two and three,” said Scrivens, whose husband Ben Scrivens is a goalie in the Edmonton Oilers organization.
“My lofty, pie in the sky goal is that we sell out every single game. And to do that, we have to be in the community and inspiring the next generation to play.”
HITTING THE ICE
When the NWHL was announced, there was a large defection of players from the CWHL. It created a split of sorts between the two most dominant women’s teams in the world: Many U.S. Olympians went to the NWHL, while many of the Canadian national team players opted to remain in the CWHL.
It wasn’t just an issue of salary; the players sometimes made these calls based on where they train.
Stack hopes that, eventually, the leagues can work together, or potentially merge.
“Hopefully in the next year or two, the leagues can combine, or play a few games against each other. They’re missing out now having the best U.S. players, we’re missing out not having the best Canadian players,” she said.
In the NWHL this season, the Pride appear to be the team to beat, featuring a superstar in Knight as well as familiar names like Decker, Gigi Marvin and Kacey Bellamy.
“The Boston team, they played together. A lot of them were on the Blades last season,” said Weber, who went from the Blades to the NWHL's Riveters. “We’re a new team. We’re going to be a good team. Fast and aggressive.”
Scrivens also has high hopes for New York. “We have a really solid team. It’s interesting – we don’t have a ton of superstar power, but we have a lot of players who were the best on their NCAA teams or the teams that they played on before,” she said.
But the New York goalie said the Whale might be right there with the Pride as the League’s top team, and Stack hopes she’s right.
“People are probably going to underestimate our team a little bit, because we don’t have the big-name players that Boston has,” said the Whale forward.
All these teams have had to find chemistry quickly, with a short preseason and playing in the inaugural season.
“I think we’re all very smart. We have good hockey sense. We’re mature and older,” said Stack. “When you’re on a college team for the first time, there can be a lot of immaturity and catty-ness. On a professional team, 98 percent of the time you’re probably played against or with most of these girls. Once you get on the ice a few times, it comes pretty easily.”
The players are happy to finally get on the ice for meaningful games, and play in front of their fans – and people they hope will become fans.
“Once the games start, more people will get pumped about it. A lot of people don’t know about the league. We have to get them talking about it,” said Babstock.
CREATING NEW HOCKEY FANS
Stack has a dream. One that’s shared by her teammates and peers in the NWHL.
“I want to see the league fill the stands with fans. I know that can be a hard thing to do. Not everyone likes women’s hockey. But what we’re doing is incredible, new and exciting,” she said. “A lot of families will come our games. A lot of young girls.”
Scrivens said selling out every game is her “lofty, pie in the sky goal,” and reaching that goal is contingent on how quickly the NWHL can build a fan base.
“To do that, we have to be in the community and inspired the next generation to play,” he said.
Stack agreed. “Bring friends to the game. Try to get new hockey fans, not people that already watch it. That would be huge.”
The word you hear a lot around the NWHL is “inspire.” That not only goes for young women who pick up a stick for the first time after seeing someone like Hilary Knight score a beautiful goal, but for the fans that want to see this league succeed.
The NWHL players have no delusions about their league. The bold move was to pay players, even with a salary cap and low salaries. Financial stability, and growth, depends entirely on how many fans that can captivate with their play and with their league. No one’s walking through that door with a billion-dollar television contract … although Stack hopes the games are televised in some way.
“It doesn’t have to be prime time. I can be on at 3 in the morning,” she said, laughing.
NWHL fandom is as much social movement as it is being a spectator. It’s as much about recruitment as it is memorizing a roster. And it’s about keeping the names of these teams, players and league out in front of sports fans and media, despite such competition for those eyes.
“The best way to support us is to join the conversation. Engage in social media, connect with other fans. The season tickets and the merchandise, it’ll come,” Scrivens said. “We’re hard-working athletes. We put ourselves through college, and now we’re really grateful for the opportunity to be paid for what we do.”
The players want nothing more than to create new hockey fans in a demographic the NHL has struggled to develop for decades.
“Female hockey fans are definitely an untapped potential, in terms of recruiting fans to the NWHL and the NHL,” said Scrivens. “I’ve heard from women who were never really hockey fans until they saw women can play. They see that by watching the Olympics, seeing players that end up being role models. And we want to expose them to that more than once every four years.
“If a young girl watches an NWHL game, gets hooked, and wants to see a full season, that’s where we succeed.”
Scrivens, for one, is determined to make this new league a success, through all of the challenges the inaugural season presents.
“Stick with us,” she said. “It’s going to be a fun ride.”
For schedules, rosters and ticket information, visit NWHL.co. Puck Daddy will have coverage of both the NWHL and CWHL on a weekly basis; send questions, comments and tips about the leagues to Jen Neale at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MORE FROM YAHOO SPORTS