I reached National Women's Hockey League Commissioner Dani Rylan via email to talk about her plans for the new league, and some of the recently voiced concerns by the women's hockey fan community.
To many, the "soft launch" on Thursday seemed sudden, but according to Rylan, this particular plan has been in the works for about a year. "We decided to launch now to get the word out there and create awareness. This is also the time of year the top players are looking to make a decision on where to play next year," she said, and in October, there will be four brand new American teams to choose from.
Last summer there were some rumblings about the CWHL that expansion was possible, and Rylan had tried to champion New York City as the ideal expansion location. Eventually, however, the idea became bigger than just a New York team. "It wasn't that it was unsuccessful, but after doing research on the CWHL and other leagues, I felt like there was a better option," Rylan said. Her league's model envisions paying players right out of the gate, whereas the CWHL started with no player salary and was reluctant to expand without having a wage system in place.
This left the only American CWHL team, and many American players looking for a roster spot, in a bit of a limbo. According to an espnW article from last June, CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress favored a midwestern expansion, which would have given the Calgary Inferno some company, but would have also created additional travel costs and concerns for the league in general. So: it seems the expansion plans were stalled before they even got started.
Rylan's NWHL has the four American teams all concentrated within reasonable driving distance, and the marketing and branding efforts so far have been slick and unified. If executed correctly, this will mean real, marketable team rivalries combined with high quality fan interaction. "The marketing is really just a means to communicate the passion involved with the league. The game of hockey has given me so much in my life and made me the person I am today. Marketing to me is just about communicating that passion," Rylan said.
Many fans have taken to Twitter to express concerns about players' interests, available resources, funding, and how the NWHL will compete with the CWHL. When I asked about the skepticism that the women's hockey fan community voiced about the NWHL, Rylan was understanding: "There should be skepticism, that's a natural human reaction. I had issues with the state of women's hockey over the past decade as well." Her dedication, she assures, is to keeping the focus on the players. Regarding protecting players' interests, Rylan disclosed that there will be a NWHL Player's Union to help ensure parity, but also clarified that professionals know that salary will be commensurate with their role: "Competitive athletes understand first liners will get paid more than third liners."
"I know there's a lot to prove," she said, "and I can't wait for puck drop this October."
In the meantime, you should follow the NWHL (@NWHL_) and its four teams on Twitter:
- Boston Pride @TheBostonPride
- New York Riveters @NYRiveters
- Connecticut Whale @CTWhale_NWHL
- Buffalo Beauts @BuffaloBeauts
The CWHL released a statement Thursday night stating that it is "taking all necessary steps and measures to protect its interests." So far, most fans (and Rylan, according to her earlier interview with Puck Daddy's Jen Neale) want to see the CWHL and NWHL coexist. In an era when visible, accessible pro women's hockey is still relatively new, competition between the two leagues seems healthy, but the CWHL's statement is ambiguous at best. Either way, sit back and enjoy the show: pro women's hockey just got a whole lot more interesting.