The National Women’s Hockey League will celebrate its All-Star Weekend at Warrior Arena in Brighton with a skills challenge Saturday and the game itself Sunday.
At first glance, there’s nothing but positives in store.
For hockey-loving girls and women on hand or watching on Twitch, the event will be joyous, a way to see the best players in the NWHL and maybe inspire a dream about being out on the ice themselves one day.
For the casual observer, the festivities could be seen as a sign of the modest success that the still-young league claims: sponsorships are up, salaries are up a bit, the new Twitch broadcasting deal has resulted in more than 4 million views this season, and there are expansion hopes for a locally owned team in the Toronto area, as well as more local ownership of existing and future teams.
And from the parochial perspective, the weekend will feature the Boston Pride, who are dominating the four other teams in the league, steamrolling to a 20-1 record, an exclamation point to the pioneer status for the first locally owned team — Miles Arnone, managing partner at Framingham’s Cannon Capital, bought them last fall — in the five-year-old league.
Yes, All-Star Weekend should be a blast.
But taking half a step back from the festivities is all it takes to feel the weight of the shackles holding back professional women’s hockey from becoming a thriving and viable North American business proposition.
The very best professional women’s hockey players, most of them on the US and Canadian national teams, will not be in Boston because they belong to the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association. The PWHPA, which is on a barnstorming tour and can barely acknowledge that the NWHL is an actual league, is waiting for the day when the NHL infuses its sport with the big-time outlay of financial support it needs to sustain a “legitimate” professional league, with all the benefits, wages, ice time, facilities, and media coverage it needs.
That probably would mean the NHL taking the reins of professional women’s hockey, and while NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has voiced his doubts about the NWHL’s long-term viability, he is also sensitive to even the perception of the NHL taking sides.
That leaves the NWHL on its own for now, and the league is focusing on the positives.
At least it is taking the plunge and assuming the risk of forging real business ties with sponsors, searching for new investors and the right formula to attract the sizable capital investment it will need for it to begin to rival its much steadier sister organizations, the WNBA and, in soccer, the NWSL and US national team.
Slow and steady, says the NWHL, we’re getting there.
No, you’re not, and no, you won’t, says the PWHPA.
“The No. 1 challenge unquestionably is that today there is a bifurcation as to what’s the best way to go about it,” said Arnone. “You have the NWHL and its approach, and you have the PWHPA and a different approach. That division makes it very hard for sponsors and the NHL and others to support one party or another, because no one wants to get in the middle of that, right?”
The NHL gave the NWHL $100,000 in assistance this season, and in November, the NWHL received a round of equity funding from technology and insurance entrepreneur Andy Scurto.
NWHL teams have a $150,000 salary cap, which is up $50,000 from last season. The league does not share average salary or salary range information, but all the players work full-time jobs outside the rink. Playing an October to March schedule with 24 games and two or three practices a week makes the income the equivalent of a second job – part of the equation the PWHPA wants to flip.
At last week’s NHL All-Star Game in St. Louis, it was PWHPA, not NWHL, players who partook in a Canada-vs.-US exhibition.
Last spring, after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded, Bettman said, “I didn’t believe and don’t believe the current models are sustainable in the long term,” adding that it is the responsibility of NWHL’s investors, not the NHL, to fund the league.
The NWHL, said Bettman, “has its work cut out for them. What we have said is if there is no opportunity for women to play professional hockey, then we would explore what would make sense.”
Dani Rylan, commissioner of the NWHL and a former Northeastern player, is not waiting for the NHL to Venmo funds to the NWHL. She’s intent on finding more local owners, more teams in more cities, with the hope that she can build upon her business model and ultimately grow a league that would rise to the level of professionalism that PWHPA wants.
“We all have a common goal and would love to find a way to work with any stakeholder who believes in that as well,” said Rylan. “Adversity is not something we are strange to. I do look forward and I’m excited for the day when we can run without weights on because I know our team can accomplish a lot.”
In advance of NWHL’s showcase weekend, Jayna Hefford, executive director of the PWHPA, is as diplomatic as she is resolute about the moment.
“We operate with different visions in mind, but we certainly don’t wish anything poorly,” she said. “I’m sure they’ll have a successful event, but it’s just a different direction than we’re going with our players.”
She added that “there needs to be drastic change in women’s professional hockey,” and that the PWHPA has been clear about what it wants and that the players “didn’t want to just play in a league because it was there.”
If the PWHPA members were in the NWHL, it’s no stretch to imagine them taking all of the All-Star berths this weekend. They’re not here, though, but the NWHL still is, which is why it’s conducting its business as if it’s the only show in town.
Which it most definitely is.
NWHL All-Star Game at a glance
When: Saturday (skills challenge, 8 p.m.) and Sunday (All-Star Game, 2:30 p.m.)
Where: Warrior Ice Arena, Brighton