According to the director of the NWHL Players’ Association, a new deal with the league is coming that will improve the financial situation of the players - though the road to a liveable wage is still a long one.
“We’re right about at the crossing point to finalizing the deal, which is extremely exciting,” said Anya Battaglino. “We’ve gotten full status as employees of the NWHL, which is huge. There are a lot of benefits for our players in terms of taxation and insurance, in terms of how they’re covered, the capability to function as an employee and really be respected and get the credibility they deserve.”
The players used to be considered contract workers; this new status eases their tax burden, which the league will now share with them. The NWHL also conceded on compensation for meals on the road. Battaglino, who played the past three seasons with the Connecticut Whale, knows first-hand of the struggle.
“A lot of it,” she said, “was ‘hey, this is the grocery store, good luck. Here’s your cash, do what you can.’ ”
That meant one player getting a pizza, another getting sushi and everyone figuring out how to pool it all together on the bus. Breakfast sandwiches from Dunkin Donuts were also a fave. It was all fun, but not necessarily pro caliber.
“Is it really a meal?” Battaglino said. “Is it steak or pasta, is it what you want to be eating? No. Now, we’re getting closer to that.”
The Players’ Association, not surprisingly, is also trying to negotiate a higher salary cap. It currently stands at $100,000 per team, infamously less than the $270,000 it was when the NWHL debuted in 2015-16.
“We’ve got to get closer to a liveable wage,” Battaglino said. “Every day we have to fight, because we’re not even close yet.”
There is plenty of good news surrounding the league, however. The Buffalo Beauts were recently purchased by Kim and Terry Pegula, who also run the NHL’s Sabres, while the NWHL acquired a fifth franchise in the Minnesota Whitecaps for the 2018-19 campaign. Given that the other four teams are clustered in the Northeast, the league won’t exclusively be a bus circuit anymore.
Now, teams will have a flight to Minnesota and play two games in two days. That’s both exciting and daunting for Battaglino, who recalls a lot of weekends like that from her NCAA days with the Boston University Terriers.
“You’re dog-tired by Monday,” she said. “It’ll be a grind, because we’re ladies now.”
Conditioning is a big part of that. Teams typically practise twice a week and the players lift weights when they can, but again: if they made even one-tenth of what a low-level NHLer made, they could put more time into their craft and wouldn’t have to work second jobs, as many do right now.
Another good sign for women’s hockey, however, was that the NWHL and CWHL will return all the Olympians who missed last season to prepare for the Winter Games in Korea, where the Team USA won gold.
“Last year was definitely a proof of concept for both leagues,” Battaglino said. “We heard the product will go down, the fans will go down...and it didn’t. We had a very competitive league and a new (ie different) team won the Isobel Cup. This year, having them all come back is huge.”
So things are looking up. Professional women’s hockey has been under the microscope since the beginning, but Battaglino is still enthusiastic about the future and believes in the product.
“Watch the sport, whether it’s the NWHL or CWHL,” she said. “It’s good hockey and it’s fast-paced. Watch us and I swear you’ll be proud.”