Have We Seen the Last of the NWHL?

It’s been just over 72 hours since over 200 female hockey players from across the world posted, in unison, that they would sit out from playing in any North American women’s hockey league until there was one cohesive, sustainable league. They also cited the lack of healthcare and far too low wages as issues they want fixed before playing again.

Even though it’s only been three days, a lot has happened. The count of Riveters who have posted the message is up to 12, effectively leaving the team without a single goalie. Only nine players who started on the team last season appear to be returning.

As far as the other four NWHL teams go, the Boston Pride would be left with five players. The entire Buffalo Beauts roster has spoken out saying they will not play. Both the Whitecaps and the Whale would have 17 players to form a team. Of course, these teams could fill roster spots with new willing players but the likelihood of that happening is extremely low. This is without even considering the two Canadian expansion teams promised this season by the NWHL.

The NWHL, as it stands, can not operate come this October. The players in question are hoping to have their boycott needs met in order to make the season run, but they have quite a few hurdles to jump over before that can happen.

One being the unclear nature of the requests of the #ForTheGame boycott. Anya Battaglino, the director of the NWHLPA and former Connecticut Whale player (who also happens to be engaged to Riveters forward Madison Packer), spoke out quickly on Twitter to answer questions and voice her opinions.

She pushed the salary increase that she was preparing for the upcoming season. In an interview with The Ice Garden, she revealed that she was not informed beforehand of this movement, and stated she wants to better educate the players so they know what they are talking about and can understand what they want. It makes sense, you can’t simply say you want more money without identifying a salary threshold you would like to meet.

Battaglino brought up herself how this league is ran and operated essentially the same as the NHL, just without NHL backing. It’s a topic that most of these players and fans of women’s hockey have hinted around for a long time. The idea that the NHL should be pushing full speed ahead at funding and providing resources for a successful women’s hockey league in North America. Riveters forward, Amanda Kessel, spoke on this with CBC’s As It Happens on Thursday and stated the league needs a good partner, and cited the NHL as a potential source.

As it stands, the NHL support seems very superficial. They have given $100,000 per season to North American women’s hockey for the past five years, holding back with Bettman’s claims that he will be more invested once there is one league instead of two competing leagues. Now that the CWHL has folded, it still appears that the NHL has turned a blind eye to helping the NWHL.

The NHL has also had four teams partner with four NWHL teams relating to their geographic location. It is how we ended up here with the New Jersey Devils partnering with the Metropolitan Riveters. The Boston Pride was the latest team to partner with their NHL counterpart, the Bruins. Since that partnership, the Pride sold out every home game they played thus proving that the exposure brought from the partnership did make a difference.

Along with that, the Minnesota Whitecaps who were quickly aligned with the Wild, sold out every single home game they played in their inaugural season while going on to be first time Isobel Cup champions and turning a profit their first year in the league. To say that it isn’t a profitable game because women are playing it is simply false.

In fact, it shows how that equation is actually reversed. Many people tend to think that women’s sports aren’t marketable and investing in them will equate to a loss. As we’ve seen with sports like NCAA softball, which is given more media exposure than its counterpart in NCAA baseball, it is actually the fourth highest profitable college sport behind the obvious football, men’s basketball, and baseball.

Given the same exposure, it is not hard to think that a professional women’s hockey league could garner the same attention and profit. Especially when the USA and Canadian national teams have consistently broken viewership and attendance records during international play.

Interestingly enough, in 2016 the NHL trademarked the title ‘WNHL,’ which they just had an extension granted in March of 2019. When filed, the NHL stated they would consider starting a league for women if there were no alternatives.

Putting these things together, one could draw a conclusion that the NHL is waiting for all North American leagues to fail before they take over themselves with a league, presumably the WNHL, that they are in full control of. If you’re a fan of the NHL, then you know a league run by Gary Bettman isn’t always the best product put out there. A large reason why the CWHL and NWHL had always butted heads is because of the hesitation to hand over control completely to the NHL. The CWHL board seemed to like that idea, while the NWHL did not.

If the NHL doesn’t step up with its role in the success of the NWHL and meet the needs of these players, or allow it to fold completely before starting fresh with their own league, it is very likely that we have seen the demise of the NWHL.

Photo by Bess Adler for The New York Times

If you ask me personally, as a lifelong fan of hockey but also as a woman, the NHL over the past decade has not helped the progression of women’s hockey because it’s the right thing to do. They’ve offered the bare minimum out of obligation to seem inclusive. These women aren’t asking for millions of dollars in contracts. They aren’t asking to fork over 50 percent of the pie when the men are generating the revenue.

They are simply asking for a chance to be taken seriously and to get eyes on their sport. The NHL would not be forced to throw millions of dollars into a league that is going to fail. They would have to consider that given the same investments as the NHL was when it was three teams shuffling around Canada, or when men’s leagues like the WHA or the recent AAF pop up garnering millions of dollars of investments only to fold or be bought out in less than a decade, a women’s league can and will thrive.

These women are just asking to get the same benefit of the doubt that men are, and itching to prove them wrong when they can take those investments and turn them into success.

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