The NWHL, which is the first-ever American women’s professional hockey league to pay its players, has experienced its fair share of ups and downs since the puck first dropped on its inaugural season in October.
The four-team league, consisting of squads from Boston, Buffalo, Connecticut and New York, was founded in March by 28-year-old Dani Rylan, who also serves as the New York Riveters’ general manager.
With an average player salary of $15,000, which is dispersed throughout the league’s six-month, 18-game season, the NWHL currently has a small national footprint, but its sights are set on continued growth.
“It’s really not about gender equality or pay equality,” Rylan said in October. “It’s that these women were so good that they couldn’t be ignored anymore.”
The league, which Rylan has said will play at least one more season, has already signed some of the biggest stars in the sport, such as Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, Kacey Bellamy and Megan Bozek, who all made the move from the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
Ahead of the inaugural NWHL All-Star Weekend on Jan. 23 and 24 at the HarborCenter in Buffalo, N.Y., take a look back at the top storylines of the first half of the season.
The CWHL’s Les Canadiennes and the NWHL’s Boston Pride took part in the NHL’s Winter Classic on Dec. 31, when they met in an interleague game called the Outdoor Women’s Classic at Gillette Stadium. The game marked the first meeting between the two leagues, which are the largest in professional women’s hockey.
“This is an incredible opportunity for women’s sports in general, and especially for women’s professional ice hockey,” Pride goalie Brittany Ott said before the game. “We’ve been really pushing to try to get NHL support for our league and for our sport, and this is really the first true display of the NHL supporting us. This is a great opportunity. I keep saying how exciting it is, but this could really set the stage for women’s professional hockey.”
The game ended in a 1–1 tie.
Denna Laing injury
When Pride forward Denna Laing sustained a spinal injury at the Outdoor Women’s Classic, the NWHL faced a major test: Would her injury be covered by the league’s insurance policy?
Laing, 24, was injured when she crashed head-first into the boards, and now has limited movement in her arms and no feeling in her legs. She remains in a rehabilitation center.
“We have an insurance policy for situations like these. The NWHL covers all players in accordance with state and federal laws,” an NWHL representative told Today’s Slapshot after Laing’s injury.
Along with the financial and emotional assistance she’s received from the league, Laing has also received support from the NHL. The Boston Bruins are planning to donate at least $200,000 to the Denna Laing Fund, which was set up by Laing’s family to help in her recovery.
Dunkin Donuts sponsorship
In December, the NWHL landed its first corporate sponsor when it reached a multi-year agreement with Dunkin’ Donuts.
“The popularity of women’s hockey is rapidly growing and our sponsorship of the National Women’s Hockey League is a perfect way for Dunkin’ Donuts to support this exciting new league,” vice president of the Dunkin’ Brand’s field marketing Tom Manchester said. “Additionally, the founding four franchises are located in key Dunkin’ Donuts markets in the Northeast, and we believe our guests will be excited to learn more about the NWHL and help them make this inaugural season a wonderful success.”
Through the partnership, Dunkin’ Donuts pledged to coordinate youth hockey clinics with each of the league’s four teams during its inaugural season. The brand also entered into a personal services agreement with Buffalo Beauts star Meghan Duggan.
When the season first began in October, the NWHL solely used YouTube’s free streaming service Cross-Ice Pass as its method for broadcasting games.
The league announced in November, however, that it had formed a partnership with NESN to air eight Pride games in the New England market for the remainder of the 2015–16 season. The broadcast deal gave the three other teams the opportunity to be on television when they faced Boston at Harvard’s Bright-Landry Center.
Connecticut Whale defender Molly Engstrom became the first player in league history to be suspended after she delivered an illegal cross-check, and then punched the Beauts’ Duggan in the head on Dec. 6.
Following Engstrom’s suspension, a line brawl took place on Jan. 3 after Madison Packer of the Riveters got tangled up with Kelly Babstock and Brittany Dougherty of the Whale.
Long and Orlando were suspended for the rematch between the Whale and Riveters on Jan. 9.
VIEWFINDER: National Women's Hockey League
The Jan. 3 line brawl not only resulted in the one–game suspensions of Connecticut’s Long and New York’s Orlando, but also in the adjustment of the league’s discipline policies through the creation of a warning system.
“The Player Safety Committee has decided to create a warning system, wherein players who perform illegal actions can be given a ‘warning strike’ or multiple strikes when their actions are not considered suspendible. When a player has received three strikes, they will be called to a player safety hearing and may face supplemental discipline.”
Preceding the warning system, the league initially amended its rule book in December when Riveters forward Taylor Holze was injured after being slammed into the boards by Pride forward Zoe Hickel. During the boarding play, Holze crashed into the bench door as it was in the process of closing.
The hit caused the league to require that bench doors remain closed unless an injured player is attempting to exit the ice, a goalie is being pulled from a game, there is a stoppage in play or between periods.