There was big news in the world of women's hockey today, as a new player appears ready to enter the professional sports scene: the National Women's Hockey League.
Per the NWHL (via Outlook Hockey):
The National Women's Hockey League is the first paid professional women's hockey league in North America. The founding four teams are the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, New York Riveters, playing out of Long Island, and the Connecticut Whale, playing out of Stamford, CT. We will boast the best of the best in women's hockey for 18 games, once a week, from October to February, with two rounds of playoffs to finish the season. We are launching the league on April 13 and our games start in October. Players will be paid and have a say in the rules of the league. We have had interest from many of the greatest players, including several Olympians, both American and Canadian. We have no connection to the CWHL.
The league, the brainchild of former Division I player Dani Rylan, will officially launch on April 13 and hold a draft this summer for college juniors before dropping the puck on the 18-game season this October. With just four teams to start, the reach will be limited - but for those of us outside those lucky "original four" cities, it looks like there are plans to offer a live streaming package.
This is a big deal for women's hockey, and for the growth of hockey in general. Up until now, the only option for elite female players was the CWHL, a Canadian-based league of five teams that is growing in popularity but does not pay their players... at least not yet. Some of the best players in the world have been plying their skills in the CWHL simply to help grow the game and to have a place to play - but in a society where money often equals respectability, getting a paycheck to play is key. And while those paychecks won't be huge (each team will have a salary cap of $270,000, which would probably be just enough to cover the cost of Alex Ovechkin's sticks for a week), that they exist in the first place certainly is.
It's not just the money, though. The NWHL offers what any growing sport needs, and that's another showcase for the game. Last winter we noted that "[a] sport can't grow if people don't have access to it, and for many young girls (both in North America and abroad) the Olympics is their only chance to see women playing hockey." Now there will be another option, with likely some familiar faces from the Olympics but also new ones from all over the country, the next generation of women hockey players - the next generation of heroes.
Of course, this is not to say that the NWHL will be an instant success, or even a success at all. The League will need to proceed cautiously to avoid the same fate as its predecessor, which grew out of the success of women's hockey at the '98 Olympics but folded in 2007. In fact, the professional sports landscape is littered with the corpses of now-defunct leagues, regardless of gender, from the WHA and IHL to women's professional soccer. And hockey in general can be a tough sell in the States as it is; throw in the fact that its women, and it'll be an uphill climb for sure.
To that end, it does seem as if they've gone about this the right way - this is a toe in the water, not a full-on dive, a way to gauge the response and establish a business plan that works before attempting to spread beyond the hockey hotbeds of the Northeast. It will be locally focused but available to watch for anyone interested.
It will be interesting to see how the NHL chooses to partner with the NWHL, or if they do so at all - although the recent partnership between the Canadiens and the Montreal Stars of the CWHL seems to signal that it's something teams would be open to. That kind of partnership could be key to the survival of the NWHL, not only financially but also in terms of gaining visibility.
For now, there's plenty to get excited about - if you want more, be sure to check out the NWHL's site (and the goosebump-inducing teaser video featured there, as well as the awesome team logos) and follow them on Twitter @NWHL_, and explore the great work being done on this subject by others in the hockey community:
- An interview with Dani Rylan (pre-NWHL, as she worked to bring a CWHL team to New York)
- Outlook Hockey, a great site dedicated to women's hockey
- Jen Neale of Puck Daddy with a really nice breakdown of all the details
- Stanley Cup of Chowder offers their take from the spoiled-rotten city of Boston