With repeated calls for one league, the NWHL and CWHL are still on different pages
For all the talk of #OneLeague, it doesn't appear women's hockey is close to a merger.
After a year of progress for both the National Women's Hockey League and Canadian Women's Hockey League, they still don't seem to be on the same page. Despite NHL partnerships, players getting salaries, and banner years for coverage and attendance, the two remain deadlocked in their silent battle.
For some, it's not a bad thing.
"From my perspective, having so many options available to women now is really exciting," said NWHL deputy commissioner Hayley Moore. "It's encouraging for our sport. Going from a short time ago to now, that these women have so many options after college now is so encouraging. I view it as a huge positive. So many leagues out there, we all offer different things."
Reasons for playing in one or the other differ, from location to secondary job prospects, but the reality remains -- all the best players in the world are not in the same place.
"We have two professional leagues right now with the CWHL and NWHL," said Meghan Duggan, the Team USA captain and member of the NWHL's Boston Pride. "A lot of us have spoken about [how] we think it's important to have one league. If we can get those two leagues to work together as one, I think that's important for the sustainability of the sport. Hopefully those conversations can happen and we can figure out how to make that work."
When news broke of the New Jersey Devils partnering with the NWHL's Metropolitan Riveters on Oct. 5, former Team USA player and current Sportsnet analyst Cassie Campbell called for movement toward a merger.
The calls from players for a unified league have been loud as well. Team USA veteran Hilary Knight expressed displeasure with the state of separation and agreed with Campbell in a tweet the same day.
"Both leagues have great players and high-level talent," said Riveters forward Erika Lawler, who previously played for the CWHL's Boston Blades. "You have great teams in both leagues, combining to one would be great. But in the meantime, it's a step-by-step process."
In a welcome change, the two leagues recently joined with the WNBA, WWE, Women's Professional Lacrosse, National Pro Fastpitch and the United States Tennis Association to take the "SheIS" pledge.
Each league took the pledge to "be better, do better," promising to support the women's sports outside of the one they are affiliated with.
"We want to support each other in a very positive way," said CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress. "The CWHL is very happy to be a part of that and be a part of the select group. The other thing that's so positive is together as all these leagues, we can make a difference in viewership and sponsorship and growing the game."
How did we get here?
The only other time the leagues came together was at the 2016 Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, when the Boston Pride faced the CWHL's Les Canadiennes of Montreal. The event almost never happened after the sides fought, and there's been little effort since.
On numerous occasions, the coldness of the two leagues has been on display, if unintentional. According to sources, the NWHL had wanted to set up a meeting of the champions of both leagues, but the CWHL didn't seem interested.
"We've had conversations with the CWHL about the potential of playing maybe one game as a start to see what working together could look like, and there wasn't much interest on that," NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan told the New York Times in late 2017. "We're going to keep asking. I think that would be an amazing event for women's hockey, and I think getting that one in the books would definitely make it easier to have a bigger conversation."
When the CWHL was formed, there weren't many other options for players to continue their post-collegiate careers and it was the only league where the players shared costs. The NWHL was later formed by Rylan after she proposed a team in New York to the CWHL and the deal didn't happen up to speed. When the NWHL started three years ago, it also had the ability to pay its players.
That ability nearly gutted the CWHL. After the majority of top American players skated for the Blades, the salaried NWHL ended up with the majority of that roster across town with the Pride.
The Blades saw attendance plummet, and they've struggled to win a single game over the past two seasons. The Blades had an average attendance of just 88 this season, playing at Larson Rink in Winthrop, Massachusetts. The Pride, on average, sell around 700 tickets to a standing-room-only crowd at Warrior Ice Arena in Brighton, Massachusetts.
One thing the NWHL didn't count on was cash-flow problems and a drop-off in attendance. Rylan believed the league had enough investor capital and sponsorships to fully fund a second season in 2016-17.
She was wrong.
In November of 2016, the NWHL cut salaries in half before reinstating them to two-thirds of the original agreements.
NWHL salaries still have not risen despite partnerships with NHL teams. On the flip side, the CWHL began paying its players at the start of the 2018 season in what Andress described as a stipend. But according to people familiar with both leagues, the NWHL salaries remained higher than the CWHL in 2018.
The NWHL salaries currently average around $5,000 to $7,000, and now the CWHL numbers are "around there," according to people close to the league, but the actual salaries have never been made public.
"We have a long way to go to earn an actual living," said Andress. "I don't think we're coming in expecting to make a living right now, it's a stipend to pay expenses. But we have a long way to go. We're a great team, the players and coaches and general managers and board, we all are heading for the same goal to create roles for women."
According to Moore, whatever the CWHL does is of no concern to the NWHL's mission.
"I try not to worry about what everyone else is doing, but focus on what we really want to provide and keep perfecting that product," said Moore. "We want to provide the best for players in our league and keep moving forward. That's our goal, ensuring we stick to our path and stick to what we believe in to progress the sport, which at the end of the year is all of our goals."
Where do hockey's biggest stars land?
When the U.S. women's national team won Olympic gold in Pyeongchang, South Korea, it shined a bright spotlight on women's hockey. But when new fans ask where to watch the players, the answer is murky. Where Olympic players decide to sign for next season (if they do) could be a factor in which league might get the next upper hand.
Amanda Kessel previous stated she intends to go back to New York (NWHL) next season, but no one has committed yet.
"I plan on coming back to New York and hopefully playing on the @Riveters again." - @AmandaKessel8 talking about what comes next for her after a well-deserved rest and vacation.- Mike Murphy (@DigDeepBSB) March 7, 2018
Was just talking to @elindsay08 about how overlooked her shootout goal in the GMG was. Clutch. #NWHL https://t.co/u2bmD9F8rd
Knight, who won an Isobel Cup with the Boston Pride in their inaugural season, made the surprising choice to sign with Les Canadiennes of the CWHL after the Olympics. Knight originally played with the Boston Blades of the CWHL before the NWHL's emergence, but in a landscape where choosing sides feels like a slight, it was still shocking for many.
Before Knight, there were other NWHL players who jumped to the CWHL. Kelli Stack, Alex Carpenter, Shiann Darkangelo and several others joined the CWHL's two Chinese teams in their first seasons and have lauded the luxury treatment they've gotten with those teams compared to the States. The CWHL teams in China are funded by a hockey ownership group called KRS that was created by Billy Ngok, the founder of China Environmental Energy, in partnership with the Chinese government as a way to build hockey in the country.
"It was a phenomenal year for the Canadian Women's Hockey League," said Andress. "What we accomplished, and kudos belong with each general manager in the seven teams that there was parity there."
Meanwhile, Jess Jones, Sarah Edney and Rebecca Vint all joined the NWHL's Buffalo Beauts after playing in the CWHL for the Markham Thunder.
The two different paths are also worth examining. The CWHL, behind the efforts of Chinese women's national team coach Digit Murphy, has two teams based in China. The NWHL has recently turned toward partnership with the NHL and focused on events in the States, such as facing Team USA in Florida or a neutral-site game in Pittsburgh.
Players are split on the matter, with several, including Pride defender Kaleigh Fratkin, citing the ability to have an option as a positive.
"I think two leagues is a testament to how deep women's hockey is," Fratkin said. "One league means players have the opportunity to play, but it takes away because only so many players can play. Then players are forced to retire. More teams and more spots is a positive."
Others, such as Lawler, are looking forward to the day where the leagues come together.
"I think the sport is taking steps in a great direction," Lawler said. "Eventually, everyone wants to be under the same umbrella. That's everyone's end goal and what the end goal should be. I think with all the talent in one league it would help the quality of the game."
The separation of two pro leagues also leads to a battle for resources. The New Jersey Devils supporting the Riveters, the only women's hockey team in the area, is simple.
Terry and Kim Pegula supporting the Beauts in Buffalo also makes sense, since their ownership group runs the NHL, NFL and pro lacrosse teams in the city. Adding the Beauts means every pro team in Buffalo is under the same ownership umbrella.
For Boston, it's not so simple. If the NHL's Bruins were to step in for the Pride, the Blades would certainly have something say about it.
That segregation will always prevent the sport from being unified.
A two-league universe for women's hockey remains unstable, with one fledgling league focused on five markets, adding the Minnesota Whitecaps, an independent team, on Tuesday, and another with two teams on the other side of the world. Players for either one have only been paid for three years, with the CWHL just beginning to salary players this season.
Something's going to give. It's just a matter of time.