NWHL, new women’s hockey league, promises to pay players

Jen Neale
NWHL

Congratulations, you’ve graduated college! With your degree in hand, you’ve got years of memories and a bag of hockey gear that’s seen its full potential as an NCAA student-athlete. You were a good collegiate hockey player but not, like, national program good. 

What’s next for you? The NHL? NOPE. Overseas? Too complicated. Southern Professional Hockey League? Unlikely, but not impossible.

Oh, forgot to mention: You’re a women’s hockey player.

How about the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL)? That’s an option, but you’re not sure if you can afford it, time and money wise. They don’t pay their players. You’ll have to provide most of your own gear, among other expenses, and somehow work in a full-time job in order to support yourself just to play the game you love.

Looks like your hockey glory days are coming to a beer-league-only end…

At least they were, until now.

Dani Rylan set out to bring a CWHL franchise to her home in New York, but she didn’t stick with that plan. After Rylan, a former Northeastern hockey player, met and had several discussions with retired USA Hockey legend Angela Ruggiero, the two considered creating a paid professional league for women in the U.S.

And thus, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) was born, and set to debut for 2015-16. 

This isn’t an altruistic, fly by the seat of your hockey pants idea. It’s a fully formed business model, similar to the men’s professional leagues, just on a smaller scale.

The league operates as a dual-entity. Part of the business are the league operations, with income coming from sponsors; and the other side is the NWHL Foundation, a charitable wing meant for spreading women’s hockey through grassroots efforts.

All donations to the Foundation are tax deductible.

But the big question, considering the controversies born from the CWHL:

How will the players be paid?

Each of the league’s four teams are given an operating budget for which all players, team staff (coaches, GM, etc.), and other expenses will be paid. The NWHL sets a salary cap for each team at $270,000. Spread evenly across all 18 roster players, it comes to about $15,000 per player; however, like the men’s pro leagues, GM’s are not required to give the same contract to every player. The player is responsible for her own contract negotiations.

Players are treated like employees, where taxes will be withdrawn from their paychecks just like everyone else. It’s meant to be a part-time job, and with this association, the NWHL will be able to work with international players to secure work visas, something the CWHL cannot do.

Something else it’ll do that the CWHL struggles with: Not have their players pay for their own gear.

“Nope, this a professional league. The women will have their equipment provided to them. The equipment, tape, sticks, the necessities to play will be given to them,” said Rylan.

(Rylan, incidentally, sees the NWHL co-existing with the CWHL.)

Starting in May 2015, free agency will begin. Free agents are considered college seniors and any player no longer in college, be it actively playing or not, it’s up to them to find a team and negotiate their contract terms. In June comes the draft for college juniors. The drafted players are given a year to finish their NCAA eligibility while their rights are retained by the team that drafted them, just like the guys. Once they’re done with their NCAA obligations, the women are free to then sign a contract with their team.

Per the NWHL, there are verbal commitments by 20-plus relatively known players; however, the league will announce those who will be joining in the near future.

As for the teams, after pouring over research and identifying the Northeast as the current hotbed for female hockey players, four teams were strategically placed in the areas with the most potential for further growth.

- The Buffalo Beauts

- Boston Pride

- New York Riveters

- Connecticut Whale

Yes, you’re reading that correctly, the Connecticut Whale. Rylan secured the blessing of the Howard Baldwin Jr., head of the Baldwin Sports and Entertainment Group, to use the name and a similar logo to the Hartford Whalers of yore.

The NWHL season stretches from October to March, including preseason and playoffs. Each team plays nine home games and nine away games. The time commitment from the players is two practices a week plus a game when it’s their team’s weekend.

For each market, the home game will be themed (think: military appreciation, cancer awareness, etc.) and heavily marketed to draw as much interest as possible. This keeps the operating costs low, and increases the likelihood of getting more butts in the seats for each game. By ending the season in March, national team players will be able to join their respective squads for tournaments like World Championships. 

Sponsors of the league are going to be key to the early success of the NWHL. Rylan and her compatriots are targeting national sponsors to fund the league as a whole, and local sponsors for the individual teams. The hope is for a larger influx of donations and sponsorships once the players are revealed. She said the league is at about 20 percent through their financial goal.

Rylan isn’t messing around. Aside from the work being done to obtain marquee players, she’s working the phones and boardrooms getting meetings with those who can further the league’s objectives. This includes TV and/or media streaming through major providers, and approaching the NHL about a partnership.

It would be ideal to have those in place by the time the puck drops in October, but Rylan, the future commissioner of the league, is realistic, and is setting a five year plan with goals and objectives for each year of growth.

Money is one of the primary dividing lines that keep women’s sports leagues in the shadows compared to their male counterparts. The NWHL’s goal is simple: showcase the women who are the best at what they do, and pay them for it.

It may not be David Clarkson money, but it’s something, and that’s the start we need. 

Jen Neale is an editor for Puck Daddy. Follower her on Twitter.

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