Success of Women’s Pro Hockey Needs NHL

I read an article last week where National Hockey League (NHL) Commissioner Gary Bettman said that his league isn’t interested in the women’s game if a viable professional league exists.

I think Bettman and the NHL are passing up on a golden opportunity to build the foundation of a women’s league.

Yes, women do have a league with the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) but it isn’t a solid league. The league has lasted for the past five seasons. The NWHL currently has five teams:  Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters and Minnesota Whitecaps.

In October 2017, the New Jersey Devils partnered with the Riveter to become the first NHL team to partner with an NWHL team. The three-year partnership provides facilities for Riveters games and practices, and assists with sponsorships, marketing, and tickets. The team changed its name to the Metropolitan Riveters and adopted the colors of the Devils. Some Riveters games are broadcast on The One Jersey Network, the Devils’ digital radio station as well. As part of the new affiliation, the Riveters and Devils held a doubleheader at the Prudential Center for the Riveters’ 2017–18 season opener against the Boston Pride followed by the Devils’ game against the Arizona Coyotes.  On May 17, 2019, it was reported that the New Jersey Devils were ending their partnership with the Riveters. With the partnerships dissolved, both teams changed their home venues.

On December 21, 2017, the Buffalo Beauts were acquired by Pegula Sports and Entertainment, owners of the Buffalo Sabres, Rochester Americans, and the Beauts’ arena HarborCenter. The Beauts were the second team to become affiliated with an NHL franchise, following the Metropolitan Riveters and the New Jersey Devils partnership in October, the first NWHL franchise to not be owned by the league and the first team in professional women’s hockey to be owned by an NHL owner. On May 8, 2019, Pegula Sports and Entertainment, the owners of the Buffalo Beauts, relinquished ownership and operations of the team back to the NWHL, but continued to claim rights to the Beauts name as part of the turnover.

These partnerships are crucial to the development of a women’s professional league.  The NWHL is now facing a crisis as over 200 players announced their intent to not participate in any North American professional league due to the lack of health insurance or livable salaries.   These are things that the NHL could step in and subsidize to support the women players.

When the Canadian Women’s Hockey League discontinued operations in May,  the NWHL announced plans for two expansion franchises in Montreal and Toronto and official support from the National Hockey League that makes it one of the NWHL’s biggest financial sponsors. The league was in conversations with all of the current stakeholders and partners within Toronto and Montreal including Les Canadiennes and the Toronto Furies. However, in response to the folding of the CWHL, players from both leagues were dissatisfied in the operation of both the NWHL and CWHL in that neither league provided health insurance or a livable salary. Due to these conditions, over 200 players released a joint statement announcing their intent to not participate in any North American professional league for the 2019–20 season. The NWHL responded with that they are pursuing many more sponsors then in previous years and hoped to increase player salaries and agreed to give players a 50 percent split of revenue on league sponsorship and media deals. On May 20, 2019, the players formed a worker’s union called the Professional Women’s Hockey Player Association (PWHPA) to further push for their stated goals of a league that provides financial and infrastructure resources to players, health insurance, and support to training programs for young female players.

In a league update on May 30, 2019, the NWHL announced that due to no additional investors, the league would not be able to increase to full-time salaries or provide players with health insurance outside of the typical worker’s compensation for injuries, but had come to an agreement to a 50 percent revenue split on all league-wide sponsorship and media deals. In addition, the league also stated they would not be able to add Montreal and Toronto for the 2019–20 season. The league announced a longer 2019–20 season for the teams, going from 16 to 24 games.

The NWHL won’t survive unless the NHL invests in it. After the thrilling Gold Medal win for the USA hockey team in last year’s Olympics, the NHL had perfect timing to skate into support of a women’s pro league.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) has subsidized the women’s game in basketball with the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) which is finishing their (number) season. Although it has lasted, it hasn’t been ideal and a lot of it has to do with the season being played in the summer. It is hard to maintain interest in a sport which is played outside of its normal season. The NHL should work with the NWHL and develop the league. The women’s game is fast and exciting just like the men’s game without the fighting.

A women’s league backed by the NHL should start out with teams in the NHL’s eight strongest cities. They could play some double-headers with the men’s teams. I would also keep the same team name’s as their male counterparts.   Both men and women grow up being a Bruins or Rangers fan.  They could play a 30-36 game schedule and postseason about a month before the men’s playoffs begin.

Now is the time for the NHL to step in during this crucial stage of professional women’s hockey.  If they ice the puck on the women’s game, the future of a women’s professional league could melt.

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