Many challenges, few answers for future of women’s hockey
A tumultuous spring has left the future of women’s hockey in North America very much in doubt.
It started on March 31 with the folding of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. On May 2, more than 200 women’s hockey players from the Canadian and U.S. national teams announced that they would not play in any league on the continent this season, demanding a sustainable and more professional league.
Then, on May 8, Pegula Sports and Entertainment told the National Women’s Hockey League that it was handing operational control of the Buffalo Beauts back to the league.
Those developments have left the five-team NWHL, which launched in 2015, in danger of suffering the same fate as the CWHL.
The NHL has said repeatedly that it will not get involved with an existing league and has not changed its position toward starting its own league. The NHL last year provided $50,000 to each women’s league, but Commissioner Gary Bettman has publicly stated his belief that neither the NWHL nor the CWHL had a long-term business plan that could work.
“From the time I’ve come in, I believe the NHL plays a role in the future of the game,” CWHL Commissioner Jayna Hefford said. “I think the league is being very clear that when they do it, it cannot fail as they will take responsibility for it — I do think they have a plan, but they’re holding that pretty tight.”
The Beauts were the only team to share facilities with an NHL counterpart, and sources said that Pegula Sports and Entertainment staffers who traveled with the Beauts often witnessed rec-league-level conditions at away games. That helped lead Kim Pegula to cease the company’s connection with the league.
“Not having skate sharpeners on the bench, having to take my own Uber to a pregame meal or staying at a hotel 45 minutes away from the arena — nothing about that allowed us to be professional,” said Kendall Coyne Schofield, who played for Minnesota in the NWHL last season.
Some NWHL players made as little as $2,500 last season in a league that played a total of 46 games with an average attendance of 954. The league also had no media rights deals and its only multiyear partnership — with Dunkin’ — expired at season’s end, so many players felt the NWHL was never going to be a sustainable operation.
The NWHL tried to quell those fears. On April 30, NWHL founder Dani Rylan held a conference call with more than 100 players to say she felt the league was making progress on new sponsorship and media rights deals, and that it was willing to split that revenue 50/50 with the players. However, according to sources, the players had already decided on their course of action.
The players are now looking to see if there is an opportunity to create a league without the NHL’s involvement. They currently are putting together a board of advisers to advise them on the business opportunities, a group that is expected to be announced soon and likely will include names such as Billie Jean King.
They also are outsourcing a marketing and business study that will provide the players with more research on what would be feasible for a sustainable league.
“It would be easier to have an organization [like the NHL] that knows the ins and outs of our sport, but there are different ways to go about it,” said Hilary Knight, who played in the CWHL and for Team USA. “We don’t know which one that will be yet, but it will be something sustainable.”