Women’s sports in North America, mainly the U.S., have not enjoyed a whole lot of success historically. The Women’s National Basketball League (WNBA) is probably the most successful professional women’s sports league in the U.S., but there are other leagues that have risen in the past two decades that seek to be where talented female athletes can show off their skills and earn a living competing in the sport they love. One of these leagues is the NWHL, the National Women’s Hockey League.
The NWHL was first formed in 2015 and aimed to provide “strong female role models for the community while fueling the continued growth of the sport and brand of women’s hockey.” The first Founding Teams were the Buffalo Beauts, the Boston Pride, the Connecticut Whale, and the New York, now Metropolitan, Riveters. The Minnesota Whitecaps were added to the league for the 2018-2019 season.
The league was founded by Dani Rylan, a Division I team captain for Northeastern University. She holds a Master’s degree in sports management and acts as the league’s commissioner. She was named to ESPN’s IMPACT 25 list of women making the biggest strides in their sport and their community. In 2017, the NWHL added Hayley Moore as the Deputy Commissioner and Director of Player Development. She is the liaison between the league head office and the teams, guiding the teams in terms of staffing, drafting, scouting, and player development. She is a former player for Brown University where she averaged more than a point a game throughout her career.
The most coveted trophy in the NWHL is the Isobel Cup, named after Isobel Stanley, the daughter of Lord Frederick Arthur Stanley, of the NHL’s Stanley Cup fame. Isobel is credited as being one of the first female hockey players in North America. The first winner of the Isobel Cup was the Boston Pride, who defeated the Buffalo Beauts. The most recent champions are the Whitecaps, who won the Isobel Cup in their inaugural season.
Players in the NWHL are all college graduates and come from all walks of life, with most maintaining other careers outside hockey. Many are business owners, teachers, engineers, and other professionals. Because of this, games are played on the weekends and practices take place after business hours to allow players to continue their outside careers and get the practice in to be competitive.
The NWHL is big on player/fan interaction and progressive actions to make the game more accessible. All players are available after each game to sign autographs and take photos with fans, no matter how long the lines are. Watching games was difficult as the league did not have a television deal, so the NWHL signed a deal with Twitter to broadcast one game a week. Recently, the league signed an exclusive streaming deal with gaming and entertainment service Twitch to broadcast games on their own Twitch channel. This will allow fans to watch from wherever they live, giving the league much needed exposure.
The NWHL has already broken through two large social barriers when it comes to accessibility. In 2016, the league drafted Kelsey Koelzer of Princeton University. She is the first African American athlete to be drafted first in any professional hockey league. The Buffalo Beauts also made a huge step by signing Harrison Browne, the first openly transgender player in any North American professional sports league.
The biggest hurdle for any startup professional sports league is funding. The NWHL has had their share of financial worries, but signing partnerships with NHL teams and attracting corporate sponsors like Dunkin’ Donuts has proven to help the league stay afloat. For a short time, Kim and Terry Pegula, the owners of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres and the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, owned the Beauts fully before deciding to return control of the team to the NWHL in 2019.
With sponsorships, a new way to broadcast games, and a growing interest in women’s sports, the future looks bright for the NWHL. The league will only thrive if people get excited about the product and support their favorite team. While the league is still very small and only located in the northeast U.S., financial stability will lead to expansion across the nation and into Canada. As a fan of hockey and women’s sports, I highly encourage everyone to watch and help spread the word about the NWHL.