National Women's Hockey League
The National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) is a women's professional ice hockey league located in the United States. The league was established in 2015 with four teams, and has since grown to five teams: the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters, and the Minnesota Whitecaps. The league is the first women's professional hockey league to pay its players.
|Current season, competition or edition:|
|No. of teams||5|
|Headquarters||New York City, New York, U.S.|
|Minnesota Whitecaps (1st title)|
The Isobel Cup, the league's championship trophy, is awarded annually to the league playoff champion at the end of each season. It is named after Lady Isobel Gathorne-Hardy, the daughter of Frederick Stanley, 16th Earl of Derby, donor of the Stanley Cup.
League beginnings and inaugural 2015–16 season
The NWHL was formed by Dani Rylan in March 2015 with an estimated $2.5 million operating budget. It was the first women's professional hockey league to pay its players. Prior to the league's formation, the only choice for top level women's hockey in North America was the Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL), which at the time paid bonuses and incentives but not salaries. The league's inaugural season ran on a salary cap of US$270,000 maximum per team and a $10,000 minimum per player. The players also earn 15% of profits from any NWHL jersey sold with their name on it. The league placed its four original teams in markets where many young girls play ice hockey: the New York City area, Buffalo, and New England.
Commissioner Dani Rylan had not disclosed the league's initial investors or how much had been invested. Canadian Joel Leonoff, CEO of Paysafe Group and father of Connecticut Whale goaltender Jaimie Leonoff, has spoken about his investment in the league, although he declined to reveal the size of his investment.
The inaugural NWHL Draft took place in Boston on June 2015 with each team selecting five collegiate athletes. The league held tryout camps in various locales in Canada, along with an international player camp in Boston. The league attracted many top level United States women's national ice hockey team stars from the CWHL such as Hilary Knight and former Team USA captain Meghan Duggan, top graduating players from the NCAA, and international players.
In December 2015, the league signed their first league-wide sponsorship deal, a multi-year deal with Dunkin' Donuts. On December 31, 2015, the Boston Pride played Montreal's Les Canadiennes of the CWHL to a 1–1 tie in the first Women's Winter Classic (officially the "Outdoor Women's Classic presented by Scotiabank") the day before the 2016 NHL Winter Classic and at the same site, Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. It was the first outdoor professional women's hockey game and the first game between the NWHL and the CWHL.
The 1st NWHL All-Star Game took place on January 24, 2016, in Buffalo, New York. The game featured a 4-on-4 format with Hilary Knight of the Boston Pride and Emily Pfalzer of the Buffalo Beauts serving as team captains. On Saturday March 12, 2016, the Boston Pride became the first Isobel Cup champions with a 3–1 win over the Buffalo Beauts and a 2–0 series win.
Structural changes and NHL partnerships (2016–2019)
On August 4, 2016, the league announced that all four inaugural season jersey designs would be retired and replaced with new uniform designs that were voted upon by fans. Two days prior to this announcement, the league announced a partnership with You Can Play, an organization dedicated to eradicating homophobia in sport. Not only did each team in the league have a You Can Play athlete-ambassador, it would eventually begin to develop a policy with regards to transgender players. This initiative took place in response to the October 7, 2016, announcement that Buffalo Beauts player Harrison Browne was transgender (and the first openly transgender athlete in professional American team sports).
Part way into the league's second season, the NWHL informed its players on November 17, 2016, that they would receive up to a 50% pay cut. This decreased the league player minimums to $5,000 per player. Five weeks later, in an attempt to partially compensate for the salary rollback, the league introduced an incentive program where players from the home team split the revenue generated by tickets sold in excess of 500 after each game. On February 3, 2017, the league announced that the season and playoffs would be shortened to accommodate for the players' participation in the 2017 IIHF World Championships and preparations for the 2018 Olympic teams. In September 2017, the league joined with 16 other international hockey organizations in formally adopting the NHL's Declaration of Principles, with the goal of advancing teaching, policies, and programs to strengthen hockey communities around the world.
In October 2017, the New Jersey Devils of the National Hockey League (NHL) partnered with the Riveters, 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 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 a National Hockey League owner.
On May 15, 2018, the league announced its first expansion franchise, the Minnesota Whitecaps, would join the league for the 2018–19 season. The Whitecaps played in the Western Women's Hockey League (WWHL) in Canada from 2004 to 2011. Following the WWHL's closure, the team played as an independent, playing against college teams and in exhibition games against NWHL teams during the inaugural 2015–16 season. The Whitecaps signed a partnership agreement with the Minnesota Wild, with whom the Whitecaps already had cooperated with as an independent, in the 2018 offseason. The Whitecaps were the second franchise to be privately operated in the NWHL.
After a call for more transparency the league announced they would reveal some of the league investors and their stories over the 2018–19 season. The first league investor to be revealed was Neil Leibman, co-owner of the Texas Rangers of Major League Baseball. The second was announced as Lee Heffernan, a marketing executive.
In January 2019, the Boston Pride and the NHL's Boston Bruins officially became promotional partners, making the Pride the fourth NWHL team associated with an NHL team. During the 2018–19 season, commissioner Rylan stated that the Minnesota Whitecaps were the first NWHL team to turn a profit.
Aftermath of the dissolution of the CWHL (2019–present)
On March 31, 2019, it was announced that the Canadian Women's Hockey League board of directors had decided that the league would discontinue operations effective May 1, 2019. The Toronto Furies and Les Canadiennes organizations announced they intended to continue to operations while the Calgary Inferno announced an intention to do everything in its power to continue women's hockey in Alberta. During the season, NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan had been in talks with the CWHL about the possibility of a single league. In response to the abrupt folding of the CWHL, The Athletic reported that the NWHL was exploring adding teams in Canada to fill the markets left by the CWHL, likely adding Toronto and Montreal teams with the possibility of adding Calgary if a major donor could help with the costs.
On April 2, 2019, the NWHL announced plans for two expansion franchises in Montreal and Toronto and official support from the National Hockey League to make 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. 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 were 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.
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. 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.
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 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. In September 2019, the Boston Pride were purchased by a group of investors led by Miles Arnone.
|Team||City||Primary arena||Head coach||Isobel Cups||Runners-up||Joined||NHL partner|
|Boston Pride||Boston, Massachusetts||Warrior Ice Arena||Paul Mara||1||1||2015||Boston Bruins|
|Buffalo Beauts||Amherst, New York||Northtown Center||Pete Perram||1||3||2015|
|Connecticut Whale||Danbury, Connecticut||Danbury Ice Arena||Colton Orr||0||0||2015|
|Metropolitan Riveters||Monmouth Junction, New Jersey||ProSkate Ice Arena||Ivo Mocek||1||0||2015|
|Minnesota Whitecaps||Saint Paul, Minnesota||TRIA Rink||Jack Brodt
The inaugural NWHL Draft took place in Boston on June 20, with each team selecting five collegiate players. The draft order was decided on June 8 by lottery: the New York Riveters to pick first, followed by the Connecticut Whale, the Boston Pride, and the Buffalo Beauts. The first overall pick by the Riveters was Boston College graduate Alex Carpenter, the 2015 winner of the Patty Kazmaier Award for the most outstanding player in NCAA women's hockey, and the daughter of National Hockey League All-Star Bobby Carpenter. The other first round picks included University of Minnesota forward Hannah Brandt by Connecticut, Northeastern University forward Kendall Coyne by Boston, and University of Wisconsin defenseman Courtney Burke by Buffalo.
The first game in league history occurred on October 11, 2015, a sell-out match between the New York Riveters and Connecticut Whale. Manon Rheaume dropped the puck in the ceremonial opening faceoff before the game. The first goal in league history was scored by Jessica Koizumi of the Connecticut Whale during the team's 4–1 win.
The same four teams returned for the second season. Prior to the first game of the season, Harrison Browne of the Buffalo Beauts made the declaration that he was a transgender athlete. The 2nd NWHL All-Star Game was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a rumored expansion market. Amanda Kessel and Kelley Steadman were named as All-Star captains. Kessel scored the first hat trick in NWHL All-Star history and was named Star of the Night by ESPN's SportsCenter. Brianna Decker finished the season as the league's top scorer and was named NWHL Most Valuable Player (MVP). The Buffalo Beauts, who finished in third place in the shortened season, upset the league-leading Boston Pride in the Isobel Cup, broadcast online by ABC News. The Beauts were honored at a Buffalo Sabres game later that month.
The same four teams returned for the third season, all in the same primary home arenas for the first time. Buffalo played their home opener at Bill Gray's Regional Iceplex in the suburbs of Rochester and there was also one neutral-site game in Pittsburgh. The Metropolitan Riveters won the Isobel Cup defeating the Buffalo Beauts.
The league expanded to five teams with the inclusion of the formerly independent Minnesota Whitecaps. The Champions Cup was played between the NWHL's 2018 Isobel Cup champion Metropolitan Riveters and the Swedish Women's Hockey League (SDHL) 2018 champion Luleå HF at Hobey Baker Memorial Rink in Princeton, New Jersey. Luleå defeated the Riveters 4–2. The Whitecaps won the Isobel Cup over the Buffalo Beauts in their first season in the league.
Isobel Cup championship
The Isobel Cup, the league's championship trophy, is awarded annually to the league playoff champion at the end of each season. It is named after Lady Isobel Gathorne-Hardy, the daughter of Frederick Stanley, 16th Earl of Derby, the namesake of the Stanley Cup. The front of the trophy is engraved with "The Lady Isobel Gathorne-Hardy Cup 1875–1963. This Cup, shall be awarded annually to the greatest professional women's hockey team in North America. All who pursue this Cup, pursue a dream; a dream born with Isobel, that shall never die. EST. 2016." The Boston Pride won the inaugural championship in 2016. The Buffalo Beauts have earned the most appearances in an Isobel Cup Final with four straight appearances from 2016 to 2019, winning in 2017.
As of May 2018, NWHL games are available on Cheddar, with games streamed live and on demand via Sling TV, Amazon, Twitter, and Facebook Live. The league also streams and archives some games on its YouTube channel for free. The service is dubbed The Cross-Ice Pass. Some archived matches are also available.
During the inaugural season, some games were shown on ESPN3. The league's flagship franchise, the Boston Pride, became the first women's hockey team to enter a regular broadcasting agreement with a regional sports network, with 8 of its 18 games presented on either NESN or NESNplus during the league's inaugural season. In 2016, third-party broadcasts moved from ESPN3 to Cheddar. On March 16, 2017, the league announced that ABC News' website would provide live streaming coverage of the 2017 Isobel Cup Playoffs. On June 20, 2017 it was announced that the NWHL had made a deal with Twitter to live stream 16 regular season games, one game a week (billed as the "Twitter NWHL Game of the Week") plus the All Star Game and the NWHL/Team Russia Summit Series for the 2017–18 season. As part of the partnership with the New Jersey Devils in October 2017, some Riveters games are broadcast on The One Jersey Network, the Devils' digital radio station.
On September 5, 2019, the NWHL announced that they would begin broadcasting games on the video game streaming service Twitch. In a three-year deal, the service will stream every game during the regular season and the Isobel Cup Playoffs. Players will get 50% of all revenue from the Twitch agreement above and beyond their contracted salaries.
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