NWHL Announces Plan to Expand to 7 Teams

It wasn’t on their immediate radar, not even in their upcoming plans for the next season. But on April 2 the NWHL announced that they would be adding two teams based north of the border to their existing five in the States. Things changed quickly on March 31 when the CWHL stunned the hockey world by announcing they were folding on May 1. 

“We expect to have teams in Toronto and Montreal this upcoming season and will be pursuing opportunities to work with current stakeholders and partners,” said the NWHL’s communications consultant Chris Botta at the onset of a conference call that was originally scheduled to be just an end-of-season media availability for the league’s commissioner Dani Rylan. “We are moving quickly to ensure that those teams have a place to play this fall. In addition, the NHL has made a commitment to us that now makes them one of the NWHL’s biggest financial sponsors.”

Brianna Decker, Hilary Knight, Erika Lawler, Dani Rylan
(L-R) Brianna Decker and Hilary Knight of the Boston Pride, NWHLPA Director Erika Lawler and, NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan pose for a photo before presenting the Isobel Cup for the first time ever in 2016. (Photo Credit: Troy Parla)

Below is a recap of some of the talking points discussed by Rylan as the NWHL prepares for its fifth season, a season that will likely be more interesting and compelling than any of the previous four campaigns.

Roster Impact

With teams being added that opens up more jobs in the NWHL, but it still means that if there are just seven franchises there will be fewer opportunities than there were for women’s hockey players in North America at this time last year. “All of our players have historically signed one-year contracts,” said Rylan. “We have decided to not have a restricted free agency period which we’ve had in the past, allowing for all markets to have an equal opportunity at all of the players available.”

Katie Burt
Katie Burt of the Boston Pride makes a save on Madison Packer of the Metropolitan Riveters. (Photo Credit: Troy Parla)

“It’s always tough when a women’s sports team or league fails. We believe that’s a narrative that we’ve been trying to combat since we launched in 2015,” Rylan went on to say. “It’s a narrative that a lot of women’s leagues have to face. We believe there is a business here and we can’t wait to continue to build our brand and the sport of professional women’s hockey. There’s enough talent out there and we want to do what we can to make sure that those players have a place to play this fall.”

“We have the approval to move on two markets, but that doesn’t mean we’re stopping there.”

Currently, NWHL teams have dressed three lines of forwards, six defenders and two goalies for games. With the addition of teams and players looking for places to play, one option that could happen is an increase in game-day lineups with an additional three forwards per team dressing for games.

Dani Cameranesi
Dani Cameranesi of the Buffalo Beauts attempts a shot in the season opener at Connecticut. (Photo Credit: Matthew Raney)

“We have a lot of things to consider this offseason and that will be on the list,” Rylan replied when asked about that topic. She also added that they have been working closely with the head of the NWHLPA (Anya Battaglino) who has been in contact with players from the CWHL already.

More Games

There was already rumors of an increased number of games from the 16 that had been played by each team for the past two seasons. With the additional teams joining the NWHL that will now definitely happen as the commissioner confirmed on the call.

“We expect to play around 24 games this upcoming season,” said Rylan. With that number, each team will likely play against six different opponents four times apiece, two at home and two on the road. But that could change with the addition of more teams obviously and these are just preliminary ideas/numbers.

Colleen Murphy, Margo Lund
Colleen Murphy of the Connecticut Whale battles Margo Lund of the Minnesota Whitecaps for the puck. (Photo Credit: Matthew Raney)

More Expansion

According to Ryan, despite the success of adding the Whitecaps to the league last offseason there was nothing in the works to add a sixth team this offseason. But that all changed when the CWHL announced their plans.

“Our plans changed immediately,” said the NWHL commissioner. “It was a shock to us (the CWHL announcement). We were collaborating with them about what it would look like to bring our leagues together, so it was definitely news to us.”

“It definitely changed our offseason plans. But with change comes opportunity and even in the last 48 hours we’ve had interest from new expansion markets, new sponsors, new partners. Our board stepping up and saying that we are going to expand – and will have teams in Toronto and Montreal next year – I think that just goes to show how quickly we’ve been moving the last couple of hours and days.”

Rebecca Russo Metropolitan Riveters
Rebecca Russo of the Metropolitan Riveters celebrates after winning the 2018 Isobel Cup. (Photo Credit: Troy Parla)

Rylan also hinted that although the number of teams they are planning for at this current time is seven, that number could grow before free agency begins.

“We had not planned to expand for this upcoming season. However we are having conversations at this point about expansion and we expect those conversations to continue as well as every other business conversation that we’ve been having,” said Rylan.

“Just because we have seven now doesn’t mean we are stuck at seven. We’re still exploring all opportunities for this upcoming year.”

Minnesota Whitecaps
The Minnesota Whitecaps celebrate their win during a game in Boston. (Photo Credit: Michelle Jay)

NHL Involvement 

The NHL has long stated that it didn’t want to choose between supporting the two leagues. That has been their stance basically since the NWHL’s inception in 2015. But they also didn’t stand in the way of teams like the New Jersey Devils, Boston Bruins, and Minnesota Wild becoming strategic partners with the Metropolitan Riveters, the Boston Pride, and the Minnesota Whitecaps respectively.

As commissioner of a professional league, Rylan is in contact with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman quite often, and after the stunning news that the CWHL dropped just over 48 hours ago she reached out to her counterpart. 

Jordan Juron
Jordan Juron of the Buffalo Beauts celebrates after scoring her first NWHL goal. (Photo Credit: Matthew Raney)

“Those conversations started almost immediately after we learned the news, and I met with Gary yesterday (April 1),” replied Rylan. “They’re now one of the biggest financial sponsors for our league. As our revenues grow we expect to raise our player salaries as well. That is something we had been looking to do this offseason. I did initiate this contact but we are in communication frequently.”

The Buffalo Model

Ask any player on the Buffalo Beauts and they will tell you that since the team has been purchased by the Pegulas they have been treated like first-class athletes and receiving what pro athletes need – from ice-time to public/social promotions and everything in between. They are the standard of what every NWHL team should be and have, and hopefully, we see more of that in the near future.

Taylor Accursi
Taylor Accursi of the Buffalo Beauts. (Photo Credit: Troy Parla)

“We want to and are pursuing conversations to replicate the deal that we have in Buffalo,” Rylan said. “They have done an amazing job making that brand, that market, and that team come to life and have been rewarded greatly for their investment in women’s hockey.”

“Gary and the NHL have blessed us to continue those conversations and endorses the idea of NHL teams owning NWHL teams. That is very much part of our business model.”

Investors on the Horizon 

“I think we are watching our model come to life,” replied Rylan when asked if there was more confidence in the league’s model more than ever. “We believe in this model since we launched it on day one. We’re taking steps in the right direction to watch things come to life.”

Amy Menke
Amy Menke of the Minnesota Whitecaps. (Photo Credit: Troy Parla)

Last summer they added the Minnesota Whitecaps and all they did was sell out all eight home games plus two playoff games. Oh, and they won the Isobel Cup too. Granted they were an established team, that had deep roots in the State of Hockey but other franchises like Boston and Buffalo saw an increase in attendance and visibility with the financial support and partnerships formed in those cities.

“I don’t want to forget the great work that Toronto and Montreal have done to build hockey in their markets. We’re looking, first and foremost, for a place for those players to play,” said Rylan. “But also looking to grow those businesses in those markets. I think one of the exciting things for us is that we’ve been able to watch our business grow, and the beliefs in our brands, our players, and the quality of the product on the ice.”

Kateřina Mrázová Connecticut Whale
The Connecticut Whale’s Kateřina Mrázová posing with the puck from her first NWHL goal. (Photo provided courtesy of Kateřina Mrázová).

“It’s been interesting to see the conversations evolve. We had felt like there had been (some) interest to invest in women’s hockey, but a confusion in the marketplace with two leagues to choose from; hesitation from many stakeholders and brands as to which league to choose/not wanting to make the wrong choice,” Rylan said. “Now that there is one league there has been a lot of interest.”

Game Changer

“We became pretty interesting in the last 48 hours,” she added. “We expect those conversations to continue and it will be a very busy offseason.”

NWHL schedule
The Boston Pride’s Blake Bolden hoists the Isobel Cup. Photo courtesy NWHL

As of now, it appears it won’t be the CWHL franchises joining the NWHL, but rather starting new franchises in those cities. That is one of the many topics that the commissioner will be dealing with as the league prepares for a new adventure. It should be quite an interesting summer for women’s hockey fans, and players.

For now, at least, it appears as we will have one league that houses some of the best players in the world on its ice and that is what most people wanted as an Endgame right? The best players playing against one another in a singular league that has some financial support from the NHL and partnerships with or ownership of individual franchises.