NWHL expansion an ‘open-ended question,’ decision on additional teams expected in coming weeks

Pump the brakes on the NWHL expansion talk. In a statement released Thursday, the women's league announced it is still weighing its options but is prepared to operate as a five-team league next season barring any changes in the coming weeks.
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Troy Parla

Troy Parla

In the wake of the CWHL’s sudden closure, a move that shocked the hockey world and left many in the primarily Canadian women’s league searching for answers, the NWHL appeared prepared to step in to fill the void next season. In a statement released by the league Thursday afternoon, however, the NWHL indicated that the proposed expansion – which commissioner Dani Rylan suggested would include a team in Toronto and Montreal – could be backburnered.

In the statement, the NWHL said it is planning to target an October launch for the 2019-20 season and that the defending Isobel Cup champion Minnesota Whitecaps, as well as the Founding Four franchises – the Boston Pride, Metropolitan Riveters, Buffalo Beauts and Connecticut Whale – will be returning to the fray. As it pertains to the prospective expansion organizations, though, the NWHL stated that adding teams this season “remains an open-ended question for a few more weeks” and that the league continues to explore its options.

Additionally, the NWHL said that while the investment for two additional clubs has been secured, the league wanted to take its time to “expand properly, as we did in Minnesota,” which requires “time, cooperation and preparation.” The statement continued with the league saying it would “love to have more teams in 2019-20,” but that expansion would need to be revisited ahead of the 2020-21 season barring a “change of heart soon.” At no point in the statement was it ever explicitly expressed that the proposed expansion franchises would play in Toronto, Montreal or other Canadian markets.

It is possible – and plausible – that the change of course on expansion is tied to the decision of more than 200 players to stand together as part of the #ForTheGame movement, which formed not long after the CWHL’s closure. Those involved in the group have since established the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, and members of the PWHPA have stated that they will not play in any professional league this coming season. Included in that group is the vast majority of players who skated in the NWHL next season, including the entire Beauts roster. As such, the talent pool from which the NWHL can draw has thinned out significantly, and with a limited player base for next season, it likely would prove far too difficult for an expansion team to ice the best product possible.

The #ForTheGame movement and creation of the PWHPA hasn’t stopped several teams from signing players during the NWHL’s free agency period, however.

Since mid-May, eight players have put pen to paper on contracts for the 2019-20 NWHL season, including longtime league fixtures Madison Packer, Kaleigh Fratkin and Lexi Bender. The salaries of five of the eight players have been made public, with Bender ($13,000), Packer ($12,000) and Fratkin ($11,000) signing the most lucrative deals. Rookie Jenna Rheault, who signed with the Pride, ranks fourth with a $7,500 salary, while fellow first-year players Tori Sullivan and Christina Putigna will each earn $5,000 next season. All told, the Pride have signed five players. The league’s other four franchises have signed one player each.

With the NWHL’s free agency period set to continue, though, the league did take time to address the PWHPA’s mission statement, though the organization wasn’t mentioned by name. The goal of the PWHPA, as stated on the association website, is the pursuit of “a single, viable women’s professional league in North America,” and the NWHL acknowledged that they would indeed be open to discussing the next steps if such a league was an option.

“If any individuals or groups come forward and declare they are ready to start and invest in a new league where women can receive a substantial full-time salary and medical insurance, we would be ecstatic to have a conversation about a partnership or passing the torch,” the release reads. “We have participated in meetings with stakeholders in hockey and inquired, and to the best of our knowledge no one is putting this forward at this time.”

Until that time comes, though, the NWHL has made clear that intends to continue to operate and pursue an on-time season start in October, when it's likely that five – not six, not seven – teams will hit the ice.

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