The National Women’s Hockey League was founded in 2015 with the goal in mind of giving Women hockey players an alternate place to play besides the CWHL, which has since folded. They started with 4 teams, The Boston Pride, The Buffalo Beauts, The Connecticut Whale and The New York Riveters. In the Inaugural season each team would play 18 games followed by a seeded tournament to decide the champion. The Isobel cup, named after Fredrick Stanleys (donor of the Stanley cup) daughter is awarded to the winner of the NWHL playoffs. The Inaugural champions were the Boston Pride. The League stuck with 4 teams until 2018 where they added one more team, the Minnesota White Caps, who would go on to win the Isobel cup in their first season in the league. The NWHL has recently announced that an expansion team based out of Toronto will join the league for the 2020/21 season, bringing them up to 6 teams.
So how did the NWHL become what it is today? In March of 2015 Dani Ryland formed the NWHL. The appeal of the League was that at the time, it would be the only professional women’s hockey league to pay its players. The CWHL was the only other North American based women’s league, but they payed based off bonuses and incentives. The NWHL offered players a salary, each team had a $270,000 salary cap with each player being paid a minimum of $10,000. All players were entitled to 15% of jersey sales as well. While watching the gold medal game in 2014, Dani Ryland decided she was going to create a professional women’s league that could pay its players, she called around, found some investors and the NWHL was formed. In June of 2015 the first NWHL draft would take place with each team selecting 5 college players. Decided by a lottery, the Riveters would win the first overall pick, followed by the Whale, Pride and then the Beauts. On October 11th 2015 the first NWHL game was played in front of a sellout crowd. The game was played between the Riveters and the Whale, who would win the game 4-1.
The Isobel cup that year was decided in a 4 team, best of 3 tournament. Based of the regular season standings the first round put the first place Boston Pride against the last place New York Riveters, Boston would win the series and move on the Isobel cup final to face the Buffalo Beauts who had beat the Connecticut Whale 2-1 in a best of 3. In the final the Boston Pride would beat the Buffao Beauts 2 games to 0 to win the first ever Isobel cup championship. Hillary Knight of the Boston Pride would lead the league that year in points (33) goals (15) and assists (18). To promote women’s hockey, on December 31st 2015, the Boston Pride of the NWHL would play Les Canadiennes of the CWHL to a 1-1 tie. It was the first ever outdoors Women’s game and the first between the CWHL and the NWHL. Their first all-star game was a 4 on 4 format and took place January 24th 2016 in New York. The NWHL was a success for its first year, it attracted many international women’s players over from the CWHL such as Hillary Knight, Meghan Duggan, Brianna Decker and Megan Bozak. At the time, the NWHL was seen as a great alternative to the CWHL as the players were paid.
The following 2 seasons saw the league stay at 4 teams. In 2016/17 the Buffalo Beauts upset the Boston Pride to win the Isobel cup and in 2017/18 the Riveters won the Isobel cup defeating the Buffalo Beauts. In 2018/19 the League would expand to include the privately-owned Minnesota Whitecap, who would win the Isobel cup that year making them the only team to win a NWHL and CWHL championship. The 2019/20 season saw a ton of roster turnover due to the formation of the PWHPA and a ton of players boycotting the NWHL due to ongoing issues within women’s hockey. Even with this happening, the NWHL was able to secure a Twitch streaming deal which did fantastic numbers. The 2019/20 season had to be cut short due to the Covid19 virus and the Isobel cup has not been awarded to this point. On April 22nd 2020, the NWHL announced they would be expanding to Toronto for the 2020/21 season.
On the Surface, the NWHL looks like a league that could work and benefits women’s players, but if you take a deep dive, there is a lot more to it. In Part 2, we will take a look deeper into the NWHL and some of the issues it faced after its first season.