Finally, NWHL lands Minnesota Whitecaps as its first expansion team

Courtesy of Brent Cizek Photography

The Whitecaps plan to pursue former player and U.S. women's national team member Hannah Brandt.

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Jack Brodt stood off to the side of the spacious bar area in Herbie's on the Park, a newish restaurant near the Xcel Energy Center named for the late Herb Brooks. Dark paneled walls, high ceilings and an enormous fireplace gave the room an old-time club feel, brightened by sunlight pouring in the windows.

That's where the National Women's Hockey League announced Tuesday that the Minnesota Whitecaps, the team Brodt and partner Dwayne Schmidgall founded in 2004 so their daughters could play after college, will join the league this fall as its first expansion franchise. The league has an agreement in principle to purchase the Whitecaps, Brodt said. No money will change hands, but the NWHL will own the club and pay for player salaries and travel.

Many details still need to be worked out, including the schedule, where the club will play and the roster. But on Tuesday, Brodt beamed as Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, National Women's Hockey League commissioner Dani Rylan and Jack's daughter Winny Brodt Brown, the Whitecaps captain, took their seats on a dais in front of the fireplace to discuss the deal.

"We always believed this day would come," Rylan said.

Brodt wasn't so sure.

The league sought the Whitecaps from its inaugural season in 2015-16, with travel costs the primary hangup. The four original franchises -- New York/Metropolitan, Connecticut, Boston and Buffalo -- travelled by bus. Adding a Midwest club meant air travel, a significant expense for a start-up league with few sponsors. Rylan always has been vague and guarded about the league's finances, and Tuesday wasn't any different. But she remained confident that the league can generate enough revenue to make it work.

"We have a handful of investors in the league, and we've grown our revenue streams throughout the last three seasons going into our fourth season now," she said. "Developing a league takes a lot of time, patience and resources. We're run the numbers, and we're in a place and a position where we're ready to expand, and we're very excited to do so."

The Whitecaps are well known in Midwest women's hockey circles, having won three Western Women's Hockey League championships from 2009 until the league folded in 2011. In recent years, the team patched together an independent schedule against mainly Division I colleges.

Over the years, its roster featured numerous U.S. Olympic medalists -- Angela Ruggiero, Jennie Schmidgall Potter, Natalie Darwitz, Julie Chu, Hannah Brandt, Kendall Coyne, Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux among them -- as well as many top postgraduate players from Minnesota.

In 2015, the Whitecaps played four exhibition games, two home and two away, against NWHL clubs. Last February, the league held its all-star game at TRIA Rink, the newly opened Minnesota Wild practice facility.

I've always said Minnesota was on our short list. It's always been important for us to work with the Whitecaps and to figure out how to make Minnesota work. We've always wanted to come to this market first.
NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan

A month later, Brodt said he approached Rylan with a proposal for eight games with NWHL clubs, half the league's typical 16-game schedule. Rylan would not discuss the negotiations, but Brodt said Rylan came back with two non-negotiable requirements: The Whitecaps had to play a full 16-game schedule and pay their players. Jamie Spencer, the Wild's executive vice president for business development, soon joined the discussions.

"It's been going on real strong for last eight weeks," Brodt said. "About a week and half ago, I said, 'OK, send us the letter of intent. If we agree to it, I think it's a go.'

"As an opportunity for the girls, I thought this was the thing to do. I didn't want to really do it, but in all fairness, if [Rylan] is paying all the salaries and paying all the expenses, she should have the rights to the Whitecaps."

The Whitecaps management team will remain in place, with Brodt as general manager and head coach. (Schmidgall took a lesser role several years ago.) The Whitecaps will hire assistant coaches and recruit players. The league is negotiating with the Wild to use TRIA Rink as its home. The Wild have no financial stake in the Whitecaps but might offer support in marketing.

NWHL free agency begins June 1; all players in the league last year are available. The Whitecaps plan to pursue Minnesotans such as Hannah Brandt, Lee Stecklein and Dani Cameranesi, all Olympic gold medalists from the United States women's national team. Former University of Minnesota goaltender Amanda Leveille, a Canadian, said Tuesday that she prefers to remain with her current team, the Buffalo Beauts.

It's unclear whether any USWNT players will sign. The NWHL was the first women's pro hockey league to pay its players, but salaries have fallen from $10,000-$25,000 in the first season to $5,000-$7,000 last season. (Rylan said salaries will remain the same as last season.)

Some USWNT players remain irked that the league drastically cut salaries in November 2016, after its second season began. Last season, former NWHL players Alex Carpenter and Megan Bozek signed with Canadian Women's Hockey League clubs after being cut by Team USA. Hilary Knight, the face of the NWHL its first two seasons, joined the CWHL's Les Canadiennes post-Olympics.

Hayley Moore, the NWHL's deputy commissioner and director of player development, said the league had yet to receive a commitment from a USWNT player. "We certainly hope all of them are [coming back]," Moore said. "We're very excited to continue those conversations and continue those relationships."

If none returns, the Whitecaps might have a recruiting advantage, choosing from more than two dozen players on the current roster plus 28 seniors from the state's five Division I women's programs.

"I've always said Minnesota was on our short list," Rylan said. "It's always been important for us to work with the Whitecaps and to figure out how to make Minnesota work. We've always wanted to come to this market first."

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