Gabie Figueroa wrapped up her first season with the New York Riveters of the National Women’s Hockey League in early March and, like a good majority of professional female hockey players, she headed back to the office. There’s no off-season for an NWHL player, not completely. The creation of the four-team league in 2015 marked the first time that female hockey players were given a salary to play the sport, but the amount rivals that of a minor league baseball player with each NHWL team given a salary cap of $270,000. The league does not have a maximum player salary, but Figueroa was one of many skaters who who made the league minimum of $10,000 in 2015-16.
For Figueroa, hockey clearly is a part-time job. During the season she has practice twice a week with games every Sunday.
“I think the league is more successful than anyone thought it was going to be in its inaugural year,” says Figueroa, a defenseman for the Riveters, who were named as a nod to the World War II female empowerment icon Rosie the Riveter. Much like Rosie proclaimed "We can do it," players like Figueora showed they can do it all, playing a game they love despite limited financial resources.
“There’s a good path moving forward and I hope one day players won’t have to worry about having to support themselves in the off-season”
A 2014 Princeton graduate, Figueroa earned a degree in structural engineering and supports herself by working as a project engineer overlooking the construction of the world’s largest ice center inside of the Kingsbridge Armory in Bronx, New York.
That’s right: hockey has found its way to her off-ice life.
“It just sort of landed in my lap,” Figueroa says casually. “I started working for Gilbane Building Company and they knew I played hockey and I was put on the project.”
When she starts poring over the blueprints and discussing the massive project, it's clear why she was chosen to be part of it. Her dedication to help bring hockey to a city that sorely lacks adequate rinks for public use is just as important as building a place that will also serve as an arena for the Riveters. Figueroa is literally putting together the ice that she will also play on.
“That’s the end goal,” she says, smiling.
Figueroa has a loyalty to a sport that is necessary for a fledgling league to succeed. During the season, she finished work at 6 p.m., then traveled an hour to Aviator Arena in Brooklyn where the Riveters currently practice and play.
“To go from playing for a Division I school (Princeton) that has great facilities to going to one that doesn’t have the best locker rooms was an adjustment to be honest, but I am so appreciative," she says. "For the longest time college hockey was the end goal but only recently is more possible.”
The NWHL isn't the first to approach this endeavour. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League has been around since 2007 and was once the only option, besides playing overseas, for women who were looking to continue their playing careers. Unlike the NWHL, the CWHL doesn’t currently pay its players a salary (though it plans to begin in 2017) and players get a cut of any league merchandise that is sold bearing their name.
“The NWHL is more into the growing the game but not selfishly. It’s not just about promoting women’s hockey, we are promoting women playing sports,” Figueroa says.
The league has had help from its hockey brethren. In New York, the Islanders offered a free ticket with the purchase of a Riveters package, and the Rangers invited players including Figueroa as special guests for a game.
“We had our jerseys on and here I was at MSG on the concourse with people asking, young girls especially, to take photos with me,” she says. “It was amazing”
Women’s sports as a whole saw a huge boost with the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team winning the World Cup and taking a victory tour across the country with stops at the White House, the Glamour Women of the Year awards, and even on stage at a Taylor Swift concert. After the dust settled, though, economic reality set in and five players including stars Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan, filed a federal complaint against the the U.S. Soccer Federation claiming wage discrimination.
The NWHL in its infancy has nowhere near the exposure of the USWNT, but it does have the potential for a large fan base. Team USA’s battle for hockey gold with rival Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics saw epic ratings with the U.S. falling in overtime.
In fact, the NWHL sold so many jerseys during the first month of its inaugural season that the league couldn’t keep up with the demand.
NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan understands the limitations of what is essentially a startup. As the league grows, the salary cap grows and players paychecks grow.
“Unlike last year, we now have an established product to sell during a six-month off-season. It's challenging to sell a product that doesn't exist yet and even more daunting to do so while in the middle of a season," Rylan said.
The NWHL scored its first corporate sponsor, signing a multi-year deal with Dunkin Donuts, a brand with a long history of relationships with huge franchises including the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, and Chicago Blackhawks. The league also signed on with the New England Sports Network (NESN) and ESPN3 to have its games broadcast on TV and internet platforms.
Figueroa’s newest teammate, Amanda Kessel, just signed a one-year deal with the Riveters worth $26,000. Considered to be one of the best hockey players in the world, Kessel now the highest-paid player in the league. It’s progress, albeit rather small. Players are a long ways from signing multi-million dollar contracts, but as a pro athlete, Figueroa knows this is a pivotal moment for women and hockey.
“It’s a big time for women’s equality. Growing up it was about our brothers potentially making it to the pros and now we can do it," she says.
Spoken like another famous Riveter.