In April, history was promised, and finally the time is here.
On Sunday, all four teams of the National Women’s Hockey League, the first-ever pro league for women, will drop the puck on its inaugural season. The Connecticut Whale will host the New York Riveters in Stamford, Conn., while the Boston Pride will visit the Buffalo Beauts. All four teams feature 18-player rosters stocked with Olympians and collegiate All-Americans with a $270,000 salary cap.
Make no mistake. The NWHL may be a fledgling, but it’s also legit. The teams will play 18 games apiece, all on weekends, with twice-weekly practices. There is a scheduled All-Star weekend (Jan. 23-24), a postseason in March and a draft in June. The league has received funding from private sponsors along with the NWHL Foundation, which directly supports the league as well as girls’ youth hockey. Teams will battle for the Isobel Cup, named for the daughter of the Stanley Cup’s namesake. Not too shabby for an entity that many of its own players weren’t sure they’d get to see.
“I just honestly hoped that it would happen,” said Hilary Knight, a 26-year-old forward for the Pride who has won five World Championship gold medals and a pair of silvers from Olympics in Sochi and Vancouver as a member of the U.S. women's team.
“I didn't necessarily think it would come when I was still playing,” said Whale forward Kelli Stack, a two-time silver medalist with the U.S. in 2010 and 2014. “I figured that we would lay the groundwork and get the conversation started, and then in 20, 30 years, they might start getting paid what we're making [now].”
The 27-year-old Stack is the league’s highest-paid player at $25,000, followed by a number of notable women’s hockey names like Knight, Meghan Duggan, Megan Bozek and Brianna Decker. (In a progressive move, salaries are available through the NWHL’s CapPro site.) The money, while modest by pro sports standards, is supplemented by jersey sales (players receive 15% when someone buys theirs).
For Stack, the paycheck means she has a chance to live her dream, one that was problematic a year ago. Despite being one of the marquee players in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League–which does not pay or provide equipment–Stack had to take a season off and get a “normal job” in order to fund her purchase of a house. Thanks to her newfound hockey wages, plus a stipend from the U.S. Olympic Committee, she’s able to achieve a lifelong goal of playing pro puck.
The money, however, is just one part of what makes the NWHL so special. Among the others is the ability to inspire fans and the next generation of female hockey players, a demographic of which the league’s biggest stars are acutely aware.
“It's going to be great because we're in smaller markets, there's only four teams to begin,” Knight said. “We can really build that intimate fan-player environment that I think all of us enjoy playing in front of, and all the fans enjoy having access to it. But also, I think you look up to these younger fans and when you have that moment with them, you think ‘Oh my gosh, this isn't just about me playing today, it's about them playing for future.’ And to establish something, this brand at this point in time is remarkable.”
Jenny Scrivens gets to see the brand from multiple angles, as a goalie for the Riveters and a member of the NWHL’s communications team.
“I think that we are still sort of a grassroots organization and with the smaller budget for marketing and advertising, we're forced to be a little bit more creative,” she said “And that allows us to interact more with out fans and to try and create a personal connection with our fans. I think that will only help grow the league even more. I've already seen the benefits of having the NWHL, I've been able to speak with girls who are six, seven, eight years old and they can look at my teammates or any of the players in the NWHL and say 'That's what I want to be when I grow up. I have a tangible goal now.’ It's not just some pie-in-the-sky dream. It’s something that's now achievable and it’s a job that allows them to provide for themselves.”
The fan connection is evident in many ways. The league’s Twitter account has 11,400 followers, using a clever mixture of GIFs, snark, rah-rah enthusiasm and player personalities to drive up excitement, and it’s working: When the Riveters and Whale drop the puck and kickstart the league, they’ll do so in front of a sold-out crowd.
“There's a lot of buzz right now around the league and in sports, and it's an exciting time to be a female ice hockey player,” Knight said.
The players hope that excitement is contagious. Among Knight, Scrivens, Stack and their league-mates, there’s a lot of talk about creating new hockey fans and players, making the league sustainable and hope for getting backing from the NHL (Commissioner Gary Bettman told the Associated Press Sports Editors in April, “We encourage it. In the press release we issued, we stated that we are in full support of it.”). There’s an immense amount of pressure to succeed, not just for themselves, but for everyone else on the ice and those who might be in the future.
But all of that will come after Sunday, when history is finally made.