The NWHL Part 2: What Happened

Josh Egan Blog

The first season of the NWHL was a success in most people’s eyes, they drew some attention, had some games on ESPN3 and the Boston Pride entered an agreement to have 8 games broadcast on NESN or NESNplus. The deal was the first of its kind for women’s hockey, many people believed the league was on the rise and offered a real chance for women to play competitive hockey in a league that would support them. They even secured a multi-year deal with Dunkin Doughnuts in their inaugural season. The deal provided some extra cash flow to league, logos on the jerseys and around the rink and sponsored youth hockey programs to get young women into hockey within the communities of the teams. The deal was met with positive responses and was a way for the NWHL to survive because they still needed to pay their players. Going into their second season it would seem the NWHL had enough cash to raise the cap, pay more staff and provide more resources for players. However, that did not happen.

The second season of the NWHL started off with the announcement that they had formed a partnership with You Can Play, an organization with the goal of getting rid of homophobia from sports and including more players in any sport. The NWHL would join the CWHL, NHL and AHL as partners with making hockey inclusive. As part of the partnership each team would get appoint a You Can Play ambassador, host a You Can Play night and actively show support during games and on social media. The partnership was made in response to Harrison Browne announcing that she was a trans-gender athlete, the first openly trans athlete in North American pro sports. On top of all that, The NWHL had moved from ESPN3 to Cheddar TV, an on demand and live streaming service. This was done partway through the second season in the hope to bring more eyes on the game. It would also provide a more stable and consistent stream of the games as the NWHL was having issues with their YouTube stream. All seemed to be going well, the NWHL had some extra cash, the teams and league were making partnerships, they had a new deal to get more eyes on their league and the outpour of support for the league was positive for the most part.

Partway into the 2016/17 season, the NWHL announced that each player would be getting a up to a 50% pay cut, which could take some salaries from $10,000 to just $5000. The pay cut was made in response to the high costs of operating a start up league as well as being able to sustain the longevity of the NWHL. It was believed to be the only option other than folding. Players would be paid on a game to game basis and the players insurance would still be valid. However, this meant players that did not play wouldn’t get paid. The season was already underway so finding alternatives was impossible, players would just have to stick it out for the rest of the season. In a response to this, the NWHL announced an attendance bonus where the teams playing would get 100% of the profits from tickets after the original 500 were sold. Meaning if a game had 650 tickets sold, the 2 teams playing would get the profits from 150 of those. This idea was good in theory but some of the arenas being played at only seating just over 500 people, and most games were not even selling close to that. The Buffalo Beauts were playing in an arena that seated 1800 people, so there was potential for this deal to work. Players and teams were also still receiving 15% of all merchandise sold. The deal was a collaboration effort between the NWHL and NWHLPA to get the players paid but also keep the league afloat. It wasn’t the best solution, but it was a start.

In September of 2017 the NWHL and 16 other international hockey organizations adapted what is called “The NHL’s declaration of principals”. This stated that each league would take the steps to “advancing teaching, policies, and programs to strengthen hockey communities around the world”. It was a good look for the NWHL as it was backed by the Pope and showed they were committed to making the hockey community safer and more inclusive. The league was making steps towards becoming a professional league that could support its players, but they still lacked the funding and resources to be able to do that at the highest level.

In October of 2017, the New Jersey Devils and the newly named Metropolitan Riveters formed a partnership. The Riveters became the first NWHL team to be backed by an NHL club. The 3-year partnership with the Devils gave the Riveters arenas to play and practice, sponsorship help, a marketing boost and ticket sales. The team would change their uniforms to be the same color as the Devils. To kick off the partnership the Devils and Riveters held a double header to start the Riveters season in 2017. Some of their games were played on New Jerseys local station as well as local radio. A couple of months later the Buffalo Beauts were acquired by Pegula Sports and Entertainment, the same family that owns the Buffalo Sabers. This made the Beauts the second team affiliated with an NHL franchise and the first professional women’s hockey team to be owned by an NHL owner. This also marked the first team to be privately owned in the NWHL.

The Minnesota Whitecaps would join the league for the 2018/2019 season. The Whitecaps are a privately-owned professional women’s hockey team who were playing exhibition games against other women’s teams in North America before joining the NWHL. From 2004 to 2011 they were part of the WWHL, but it folded in 2011 making the team homeless. Between 2011 and 2018 they were a privately-owned team playing exhibition and showcase games against other women’s teams. In their Inaugural season they won the Isobel cup, making them the first NWHL team to win a Clarkson cup (2010) and an Isobel cup. The Minnesota Whitecaps signed a deal to partner with the Minnesota Wild of the NHL, making them the third NWHL team to partner with an NHL team.

A call for more transparency in the league was made at the closure of the 2018 season, in response to this the NWHL reveled some of their investors to the public. Neil Leibman, one of the co-owners of the MLBs Texas Rangers was one of the bigger investors. The Boston Pride and Boston Bruins would sign a partnership in early 2019, making the Pride the fourth NWHL team to be backed by an NHL team. Later that season it would be announced that the Minnesota Whitecaps were the first NWHL team to turn a profit. The league seemed to yet again be trending in the right direction, but something was about to change women’s hockey forever. In part 3 we will look at the dissolution of the CWHL and how that changed things in the NWHL.

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