Game Changers

Dani Rylan and the NWHL have grand plans for women's hockey

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Kelli Stack was 28 years old when she quit. A two-time Olympic hockey silver medalist and one of the most recognizable members on the American national team, Stack didn’t quit because she couldn’t play at the highest levels. Stack wasn’t too old or broken down; she felt she had several good years left.

She stopped playing hockey because she couldn’t afford it.

Stack had recently bought a house and her monthly stipend from the national team didn’t cover her mortgage payment. She needed to get a “real job” and made the decision to put hockey on the backburner.

The United States’ Olympic men’s team doesn’t have that problem. They have NHL salaries to supplement their lifestyle and teams that provide all of the necessities needed to play professionally. Unfortunately for Stack and other members of the women’s national team, unless they were training with the team, that wasn’t a luxury they had at their disposal. In non-Olympic years, Stack was a member of the Boston Blades as part of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), but her paychecks came scarcely under the league’s performance-based model.

That was, until the creation of the National Women’s Hockey League. The first of its kind in North America, the NWHL promised one thing that could be a game-changer: To pay the women to play.

“I just took time off from hockey to work a real job, and once I knew the NWHL was starting I was like, ‘This is unbelievable.’ It literally changed the next four years of my life,” explained Stack during the league’s media day. “I was going to be done playing hockey at the age of 26 knowing that I probably could keep playing for at least another four years, so it just gave me a new motivation, a new hope for hockey.”

The NWHL has an average salary of $15,000 and a salary cap of $270,000 per team. Stack is the highest-paid player in the league at $25,000 for the season.

The league is comprised of four founding teams scattered along the East Coast in what commissioner Dani Rylan considered to be USA Hockey’s most densely populated areas for girl signups. There are two teams in New York, the Buffalo Beauts and New York Riveters, and one team in Boston, the Boston Pride. Stack plays for the CT Whale, which is based out of Stamford, a mere two hours drive from her home.

“I’m in my car for four hours total, I’m on the ice for an hour and a half and you know, I’m not working 9-5, but that is my work day,” Stack says. “So looking at it that way and I’m getting paid to do this? It’s really not that bad when I think about it.”

Prior to the league’s creation, Rylan had looked into an expansion team with the CWHL, which would have extended the league from five teams to at least six. The potential expansion club would have joined the Calgary Inferno, Les Canadiennes, Brampton Thunder and Toronto Furies as well as the only American team, the Blades.

Instead, Rylan opted to form the NWHL and put a competing team in Boston.

“We had negotiated in bringing an expansion team into our league which we thought was essential and we welcomed that and worked with [Rylan] highly,” explained CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress. “We were quite taken back with what happened we were very surprised by it and I don’t know why — you’d have to ask her why she chose a different route — but for us it was like creating one league.”

Having two competing leagues in a sport that’s still trying to gain widespread recognition didn’t come without skepticism.

Early on, questions arose about the NWHL’s staying power. While Rylan has since brought on Dunkin’ Donuts as a corporate sponsor and the New England Sports Network as a broadcaster for Pride games, the league started this season completely funded by private investors.

It’s unclear whether or not the donors, who Rylan prefers not to name, will continue funding the league into the second season, but two large, hockey-centric brands are a step in the right direction in creating a sustainable league.

“I think it says a lot about our stability that we’re building this for the long haul and getting the right brands to support us,” explained Rylan. “ … Obviously there’s the focus on getting more sponsorships and the broadcast deals. NESN is just the New England Sports Net and we have a certain amount of responsibility to our investors. It’s a focus of ours to make sure that we track down the next sponsorship deal.”

The CWHL, which was founded in 2007, found that staying power by working toward a pay-for-play model. However, the way in which they’re getting to that point differs, according to CWHL board member and NHL executive Brian Burke.

“(Our goal) is a sustainable business model that ultimately turns into a league where women are paid professionally and they don’t have to hold outside jobs, even if the dollars aren’t close to equal, but comparable to male athletes that don’t have to work,” Burke explained over the phone. “Their lifestyle and means are covered by what they get paid by pro hockey.”

Andress says the CWHL offers different forms of compensation while paying workers, which she says is growing the base from which the league can grow.

“We pay our players too we just don’t pay them a salary,” said Andress. “We pay them smaller amounts of dollars and you know, what divides from a professional league, at what amount? We paid the players the last couple of years for winning the Clarkson Cup, for winning the Chairman’s trophy those are increases this year. Next year, you’ll see it increase more.”

Compensation from the CWHL wasn’t enough for some who opted to leave for the NWHL, including Hilary Knight. The Team USA Star has been one of the loudest voices in this fight.

“We’d run into problems where we’d show up to the rink and still have to pay to play and now with the NWHL that’s not an issue. Now we’re getting paid to play and it’s all these little ancillary costs that you don’t even think of that eventually add up.” Knight said while surrounded by fellow NWHL players at media day.

“You know, skate sharpening, tape, paying for parking, gas, all these things that roll under this one umbrella that it takes to play professionally before that are now being taken care of.”

Knight, like Stack, played for the Blades but left to join the NWHL and the Pride.

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The animosity and competition between the two leagues, even though it might not be outwardly spoken, could be a hindrance to the growth of the sport, especially with both leagues vying for the opportunity to work with the NHL.

“That’s the ultimate. The NHL has the biggest hockey fan base, of course, so I think the more we can work together the better it can be,” said Rylan a week after the Pride played Les Canadiennes the weekend of the NHL’s Winter Classic.

“The NHL has always supported us from the start,” said Andress in a separate interview. “Gary Bettman has openly said he supports the CWHL and he supports women’s hockey and he’s standing up and saying it belongs in the Olympics. He’s standing up and saying it belongs in the game of hockey.”

While NHL teams such as the Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens currently help the CWHL member teams, the league hasn’t gotten league-wide support. This opens an opportunity for the NWHL if Bettman likes the business model he sees.

“I think (the NHL will) get behind the model when they believe it’s the right model and I think once they put their stamp of approval on it and believe what they see is a good, viable, long term product that brings not just women’s hockey players to the forefront, but fans of hockey,” women’s hockey legend Angela Ruggiero said.

Ruggiero was a part of the first American women’s ice hockey team, which won gold in Nagano, has worked out with NHL athletes, served as a member of the IOC and most recently served as a member of the IIHF Athletes committee.

She was also part of the first Blades team with the CWHL and helped advise Rylan about aspects of the creation of the league. Now, she’s adamant in pointing out that she’s not directly affiliated with either league. A difference in opinion in how the league was being structured led her to parting ways with Rylan before it got off the ground.

“This is just another vehicle,” Ruggiero said. ” … How do you encourage more participation but also convert more fans? I think that this is very interesting value prop for the NHL right now, how to take this taciturn segment and turn it into NHL fans.”

It remains to be seen whether or not the two-league model will continue into the future and become successful, but the two still have one goal in common: grow the sport of women’s hockey.

“I think the whole two-league thing will probably resolve itself at some point,” said Burke. “In other words, one will survive, the other won’t, they’ll merge, whatever, at some point some of the confusion will get sorted out, but it’s a very slow go.”

And as the NWHL carves out its niche in the hockey world alongside CWHL, Rylan continues to wear multiple hats within the NWHL to ensure the league is a success. Beyond being the league’s founder, she’s serving as the acting commissioner and head disciplinarian, as well as general manager of the Riveters.

“It’s nice to have a pulse on what’s happening on the team level … knowing what the struggles may be for the players and how to correct them,” Rylan said.

However, it’s hard to ignore the notion of a conflict of interest when the league disciplinarian is also a GM overseeing a quarter of the league’s player. While it’s a decision Rylan doesn’t regret, she has said she will look for a new Riveters GM before next season.

It’s  lot for anyone under 30 to take on, but with nearly a full season under her belt she has just one thing to say to the skeptics:

“I would tell them that its okay that they were skeptical, it’s human nature, and I would ask them what they think about the league right now.”