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NWHL’s pay cuts leave questions, could cost league players

The NWHL announced it will cut players’ salaries to preserve its future, though the move has left those players mulling their next move.

Last week the National Women's Hockey League commissioner Dani Rylan shocked players when she announced the league would pay less than half of their individually negotiated contracts. 

Players signed with the league for salaries between $10,000 and $26,000, covering both games and practices; while the NWHL was the first women’s hockey league to pay its players a salary, the amount came to little more than a part-time job. Now, players will only be paid for games played and will earn a fraction of the amount they would have under their previous contracts (the New York Times reports the final cuts at 38%).

"It's stressful," Connecticut Whale forward Kelli Stack said Sunday after facing the New York Riveters in New Jersey, worrying a hair elastic between her fingers. "We have real lives and we have to figure out a way to survive now. In that sense it's definitely stressful."

"It's been tough. It's been frustrating," teammate Sam Faber added, raising one shoulder to resettle her gear bag. "But we love the game. Not to be cliché, but we do. We're trying to come together as a team and continue to play the game we love but it's definitely been frustrating.

Faber bemoaned the blindsiding change, saying, "It's harder for some people but that doesn't make it easy for any. Even me, who has a full-time job."

NWHL cuts players’ salaries to save season

While many players hope to finish the season, the NWHL will have to prepare itself for the possibility that it will see some player losses from this revelation, if not immediately, then at the close of the season.

Some players, who asked to remain anonymous, revealed that there was a definite possibility they had played their last game in the NWHL. 

In a league that runs on fewer than 80 roster players and a small supplemental roster of practice players, every last body on the ice is invaluable. Every single player, from skill to grinder, would be missed. 

Some had loved ones pushing them to refuse the pay cut; still others adopted a wait-and-see attitude and urged others to do the same. Although none had reached a firm decision regarding their future in the league, instead taking their time to gather answers to their concerns and weigh the benefits of both options, the forced pay cuts and the root problem, a lack of transparency regarding league finances, are major concerns for the women of the NWHL. 

Even more worrisome, however, is the specter of more cuts to come. If they agree to these pay cuts, many worry, will it be enough to sustain the league for the rest of the season? Or will they be asked to take another unexpected pay cut, or even play for nothing?

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In an interview with Excelle Sports, New York forward Madison Packer expressed uncertainty regarding the league’s viability. “If players take these pay cuts and somehow figure out a way to survive through the end of the season, then what? Is there money for a season next year? Is there a future for the league? We’re all standing up for something, we’re standing behind this league and we want to see it do well. We don’t want to stand up, pushing something forward that doesn’t have a chance. I want to be sure that I have faith in what I’m fighting for, that what I’m fighting for has a chance.”

After several days had passed, players worked together to draft four points that they felt were basic and reasonable. Among them was a request for proof of health insurance, which the league provided before last weekend’s games, and another for an independent third-party to audit the league's books to assure players the organization will be able to pay players even the pittance to which it had cut their salaries.

The league is in the process of meeting with players to discuss their concerns and try to find a path where both sides can be satisfied by the outcome.

"We're fighting now for what we believe we deserve so the girls who come to our games don't have to do it ten, fifteen years from now," Stack says. "We want a secure league to be in place so when they're out of college they have some place to play." 

Every player who spoke with SI preferred to honor their contract, to train and play with their teammates and finish out the season. That may not be possible for some, might not be probable for others. 

The depleted salary means non-U.S. citizens are in a particular bind. The visas many are on restrict the types of jobs they can take and leave them truly depending on their NWHL salary to pay rent, food and other bills. Although Rylan indicated the league wanted to help them find a way to stay during her press conference last week, she mentioned no clear plan and the NWHL's lack of resources may prevent it from having much effect at all in this area. 

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"It depends on whose parents can help them out, I guess," Riveters defenseman Kaleigh Fratkin said wryly after playing the Whale on Sunday. A Canadian and second-year player who signed a contract with New York for $19,500, Fratkin is now out the majority of that money. Still, though, she remains determined to stay, even if it was going to be a difficult five months. 

Not everyone was so sanguine. 

Riveters forward Tatiana Rafter admitted in an interview Monday with MyWSports that her time in the league might be over. Her new salary would come to less than $700 a month, leaving her unable to pay anything other than her rent. 

Players are speaking out, writing for blogs and websites, looking for sponsors and asking fans to attend games, purchase merchandise and do whatever they can to keep the league afloat. Regardless of pay, the NWHL's talent wants a better quality of communication.

"I think we just want to be respected," Stack said. "We want transparency and we want honesty and I think moving forward, hopefully that relationship with the league continues to foster that. You know, we can put all this behind us and move in a positive direction."