NWHL to complete playoffs before world championships

The financially troubled National Women's Hockey League will end its season a month early and reduce its Isobel Cup playoffs to single elimination as a concession to players preparing for the U.S. Olympic team selection camp, the league announced Thursday. Playoffs will conclude March 19, which is 12 days before the IIHF World Championships begin in Plymouth, Michigan.

"One of the primary missions of the NWHL is to help women realize Olympic dreams and national team aspirations, so concluding our season prior to the world championships is the right thing to do," NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan said in a statement. "We always want to be supportive of our national team players, so we're glad to have worked something out with the player reps."

The schedule has been an issue for U.S. national team players since last summer, when Rylan proposed extending the season well into April to avoid conflicts with the NCAA basketball and hockey tournaments and perhaps gain greater media exposure for its playoffs. But even with a three-week break for worlds, national teamers said it left them inadequate time to rest and recharge before reporting to Olympic camp in late May.

The 21-game regular season was due to end April 16, with playoffs to follow. The revised schedule means Boston and Buffalo will play 17 games and Connecticut and New York 18. Final standings will be based on point percentage, which means dividing a team's total points by the maximum possible points. Undefeated Boston (11-0) is close to clinching the top seed. The Isobel Cup playoffs, now single games instead of best-of-three series, will be held March 17-19.

"I think the league realized it was going to become very hard for them to restart the season after the world championships," said agent Brant Feldman, who represents two-time Olympian Meghan Duggan of Boston and several past U.S. and Canadian Olympians. "The league just realized, for the betterment of women's hockey, it was best to wrap things up sooner than later."

A clause in the standard NWHL contract allows players to opt out at any time for virtually any reason. Feldman would not comment on whether any players were considering that option if the schedule wasn't shortened.

"The desire to adjust the schedule was taken into careful consideration and discussed at length before determining that this would be the best course of action for everyone -- the players, our league, the national programs and supporters of women's hockey," said Duggan, a member of the NWHL Players' Association. "The players appreciate the NWHL and all of the general managers and coaches working in conjunction with all of the national team players to make this transition today."

The second-year league, the first in North America with salaried women hockey players, has been on shaky financial ground since last November, when it cut salaries by 50 percent without consulting with its players' association. Dunkin' Donuts remains the league's only sponsor. League spokesman Chris Botta said the schedule was changed solely to help the players, since the league will lose revenue from cancelled games.

Yet the league, in the same statement, announced all four franchises will return for the 2017-18 season, in which stars like Hilary Knight, Duggan and Kelli Stack won't play because of Olympic commitments. And expansion may be considered for 2018-19.

"We have received interest from several markets and prospective ownership groups, and we will review these options over the next year," Rylan said. "We're grateful for their enthusiasm for the NWHL and professional women's hockey."

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