Throughout her senior year at the University of Vermont, Amanda Pelkey heard from representatives from the Canadian Women's Hockey League who wanted to keep tabs on her post-collegiate plans. A five-team league founded in 2007 with four franchises in Canada and one in the United States, the CWHL draws some of the best players in the world, and it's no wonder they'd be interested in Pelkey: She finished her college career this past spring as the Catamounts' all-time leading scorer with 49 goals and 56 assists in 127 games.
But Pelkey had another option. A new league -- this one based in the United States -- was gearing up for its inaugural season, and its Boston franchise made her an offer. That league, the National Women's Hockey League, is a startup, which inherently carries with it some risk, but Pelkey says its approach made it difficult to turn it down. Unlike the CWHL, the new American league is providing full equipment to its players. More significantly, unlike in the CWHL, players in the NWHL are paid.
Pelkey weighed her options and discussed the new league with friends in her hockey circle. Ultimately, the chance to make even some money playing hockey was too tempting. That the schedule was set up in such a way that she could work a second job and earn additional income made it impossible to turn down. In June, Pelkey became the first player to sign with the NWHL's Boston Pride and the second player to sign on with the league overall.
But money wasn't the only factor. There's also the appeal of getting in on the ground floor of what organizers hope will be a game-changer for women's hockey. "What's so exciting about it is that we get to be part of the start of history," says Pelkey. "It's nice to know that women can be considered professionals as well."
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After graduating with a degree in broadcast journalism from Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn., in 2010, Dani Rylan began studying for a master's in sports leadership at Northeastern University. While there, she skated on the Huskies hockey team that won the 2012 Beanpot Tournament. Rylan, whose father worked in marketing for the Tampa Bay Lightning, had work lined up at the NHL Network in the summer of 2012, but the coming NHL lockout delayed the job. Instead, that fall she found herself running her own coffee shop in New York's East Harlem neighborhood.
Rylan had also once explored bringing a CWHL team to New York. It didn't pan out, but on the advice of Hockey Hall of Famer Angela Ruggiero, she started researching what it would take to go even bigger and start an entirely new league. "It started out as an idea," she says, "and I vetted it around the hockey community and my hockey network, and everyone thought it was a no-brainer."
The result was the NWHL, which will have four teams when its inaugural season begins Sunday: the Boston Pride, the New York Riveters, the Buffalo Beauts and the Connecticut Whale. (The league's research found that 33 percent of girls' USA Hockey registrations were in the northeast, making it a natural region in which to cluster its teams, though doing so also cuts down on travel expenses.)
Rylan says that starting a new league requires "changing the philosophy behind women's hockey." That means, among other things, paying players. "A lot of people believe in the game," Rylan says, "and understand that these are the best athletes at what they do. Being able to pay the players a salary and provide them with equipment and give them what they need to continue to perform as athletes is really a big step for the game."
The minimum salary for an NWHL player is set at $10,000, and the average salary is expected to be $15,000. The league's teams, with 18 players apiece, will have a salary cap of $270,000. Rylan calls those figures a first step and says that "obviously the big goal is to make this a full-time job in the coming years." For now, though, the league has designed its schedule so that its players can hold other jobs during the season. The Pride, for instance, practice Tuesdays at 7 p.m. and Thursdays at 6 p.m., with all games played on weekends, allowing Pelkey to work as the coach of a girls' junior team in Boston in her off time. The league has a couple of other player-friendly policies, as well: In addition to providing them with equipment, the league will give individual players a cut of the profits from jerseys sold with their names on them.
Rylan, who serves as both league commissioner and general manager of the Riveters, believes the timing is perfect to launch the league, not just because of how the dramatic gold-medal game at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi raised the profile of women's hockey, but also because of this past summer's women's World Cup, in which the U.S. Women's National Team became sporting heroes with their title run.
"When you look at the numbers, they say women peak athletically when they're 27 years old, but a lot of women's hockey careers end when they're done with college," says Rylan. "So there's all that missed opportunity and development. I think that's really one of the other special things about this. Women will now have an opportunity to continue to train at the highest level and reach their athletic peak."
An opportunity to play competitively is especially important for players with Olympic aspirations.
"Being in an American league and being able to play high American competition is going to be awesome," says Pelkey. "After college, even if you are still in the national team program, there's always kind of a doubt of, well, how am I still going to be up to par with playing at the national team level, being prepared for training camps? I know that the NWHL is going to be very organized, and I'm excited to be on a team with highly skilled players that are going to be push me every day."
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Much of the hype around the NWHL's launch has been focused on the fact that it'll pay its players. That raises a fairly obvious question: What is it about this new league's business model that allows it to take such a major step and do what the Canadian league does not?
Rylan declined to say much about the league's finances. She says the league has private investors who have been with it from the beginning, but wouldn't say either who those investors are or how much they've put up. Rylan does, however, point out a unique structure: The league (which owns all four individual teams) is "a hybrid entity" that's split into two parts: the for-profit NWHL (or the league itself) and the non-profit NWHL Foundation, which people can donate to.
The non-profit arm of the league, however, kicks money over to the for-profit arm. Rylan says using this money to get the league off the ground is consistent with the foundation's mission, and indeed, the foundation's web page reads in part that it "provides long-range financial support for the NWHL and promotes the growth of women's hockey." Money from the foundation, for instance, can be used for things like ice time for teams' practices. Rylan says this money helps with everything except players' salaries.
Beyond that unusual set-up, though, not much is known about the league's finances. Rylan says the league doesn't have any major sponsors, but hopes that some will join on for the second season, if the first one is successful. As of early October, the league had no television deals in place (though it says games will be streamed online for a fee). The league sells merchandise and, of course, tickets, but those are just a piece of the revenue pie. Pelkey says Rylan didn't mention specifics when discussing the league's stability to players, either. "Dani didn't tell us exactly where the money's coming from," she says, adding, "She made us feel comfortable with her answer."
That money from investors, however, could be critical. Gabriella Fundaro, who writes about women's hockey for the website At Even Strength, says she thinks it could be years before the league breaks even.
"I think that women's hockey can be a successful sport, and that it can draw fans, and that you can turn profits off of it," says Fundaro. "I don't think it's going to happen immediately. I think that it is going to be more of a long-term type thing, and hopefully the commitment will still be there for that to happen." Indeed, though Rylan won't reveal specifics about the league's finances, she says they're planning for the long-term.
As Fundaro sees it, the key is surviving the startup phase and putting the league in a position to make money down the line. "I don't necessarily know if we'll see the return on that right away, like within the first few years, if they can stick it out," Fundaro says. Or to put it another way: The league is betting on itself that it'll eventually make money after it proves itself to fans and sponsors alike.
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Rylan says her goal isn't to put the CWHL out of business, and, perhaps out of diplomacy, says there's a place for both leagues: "We're grateful for what they've done for women's hockey to date, providing the only post-collegiate option in North America. Change is difficult, and we'd definitely love to coexist with them and continue to grow the game."
But she also says she wants the NWHL to be the best women's hockey league in the world -- something that would require wresting that title away from the Canadian league that's gotten a head start building credibility.
Whether the NWHL achieves that goal will depend in part on the quality of play in the new league, and that in turn will depend on the players the league can attract. During a signing spree in late September, several high-profile players who have played in the CWHL signed on with the American league. Hilary Knight, one of the best and most recognizable players in women's hockey, signed with Boston and scored the new league considerable attention in doing so. Meanwhile, several of her teammates from the 2014 U.S. Olympic team joined the NWHL, as well: Megan Bozek and Meghan Duggan signed with Buffalo, while Kelli Stack signed with Connecticut. In all, seven members of the team that represented the United States in Sochi have signed on with the league.
"For them to finally have those big names is going to hopefully go a long way for them," says Fundaro. "One of the concerns is that the level of play in the league might not be so high to start, which is kind of expected I guess for a first-year league."
Per a league spokesperson, there are ten players currently on NWHL rosters with Olympic experience, including Japanese goalie Nana Fujimoto and Russian forward Yekaterina Smolentseva. Missing from NWHL rosters, however, are any players from Team Canada. It's not necessarily a case of Canadian players supporting their home country's league out of a sense of hockey patriotism, either. Melody Davidson, the general manager of Hockey Canada's women's team programs, has said she's warned Team Canada members about the new, still-unproven league. Via Hockey Now:
"The biggest thing I told our players is it is great there are two different leagues, but I'm not sure we have the depth for that. What happens if that league doesn't make it? If you don't play then you can't make our teams," said Davidson.
"The second piece is this league [CWHL] has worked hard for them to give them places to play and then you just want to jump ship? And jump ship so quickly? If the league [NWHL] doesn't work, what are they going to do? We want them playing and playing in a good environment. If they aren't playing they are hurting themselves and actually in violation of their contract with us that says they will play in a competitive environment through the season."
In other words, just as the NWHL must prove itself to sponsors, it must also prove itself to be sufficiently stable and competitive to those who may one day join its rosters, especially since that in women's hockey, two countries' national teams -- Canada and the United States -- are head and shoulders above the rest of the world.
For now, though, Rylan says it's important to stick with the philosophies the league was founded on. "I'm not too far removed from my playing career, so from day one there's been a heavy emphasis on making this a player-centered league," she says. "And it'll remain that way indefinitely."