Big Plans, Big Questions For New Women's Pro Hockey League

NWHL founder and commissioner Dani Rylan, 27, a former player at Northeastern University, says players in her league will be paid an average of about $15,000 per 18-game season. Courtesy of NWHL

Visitors to the website of the fledgling National Women's Hockey League view a 45-second video that ends with a bold pronouncement in block letters: "History Begins October 2015."

That is when the American answer to the Canadian Women's Hockey League plans to open its inaugural season. Founded by a former women's hockey player at Northeastern University who owns a coffee shop in New York City, the four-team NWHL -- no relation to a previous Canadian-based league with the same name -- claims to address all of the CWHL's deficiencies.

And here's the big one: League founder and commissioner Dani Rylan says players will be paid.

Not a lot -- $10,000 at minimum for the season, with average salaries about $15,000, Rylan said. If that happens, it's a significant step up from the CWHL, which does not pay its players. The league champion Boston Blades went so far as to ask players to contribute $350 each toward the mandatory $35,000 league fee to compete for the Clarkson Cup.

"This is a different business model," Rylan said in a telephone interview from New York. "We're concentrating in the U.S. We did our research and decided there's a different way to do things."

Whether Rylan has the cash and wherewithal to pull this off remains unclear. Rylan said the league will largely rely on donations and sponsorships for revenue, and she already has pledges for most of the money to fund the first season. But except for a travel deal with US Coachways, a charter bus company based in Staten Island, New York, she declined to identify investors or sponsors. Rylan said she spent more than a year soliciting contributions.

"We look forward to announcing all of these when the deals are completely inked," she said.

Until she does, prospective players are wary. In a statement late last month, the CWHL said it would take "all necessary steps and measures to protect its interests," which sounded ominous. No players have publicly committed to the new league, and Rylan would not identify any who may have contacted her.

A player agent who asked not to be identified said he advised his clients to steer clear of the league until Rylan reveals funding details. The four-page prospectus Rylan sent to U.S. national team players and selected others described a $270,000 salary cap per team but offered no details about investors.

The prospectus spelled out the league's four franchises and home rinks: The New York Riveters, out of Twin Rinks Ice Center in East Meadow, New York; the Boston Pride at Allied Veterans Rink in Everett, Massachusetts; the Buffalo Beauts at the HarborCenter in downtown Buffalo; and the Connecticut Whale at Chelsea Piers in Stamford, Connecticut.

(The last one required permission. Rylan said the Baldwin family, former owners of the NHL's Hartford Whalers, OK'd the use of the Whalers name and colors. "All it took was a 45-second phone call," she said.)

Teams will play an 18-game regular season from October through March, one game per week on Saturday or Sunday, plus playoffs. Rylan expects to announce franchise ownership groups later this month. Keeping four teams within driving distance saves on travel expenses, she said. The league will provide health insurance, help with visas for international players, and support a players union so the rank-and-file have a say in the league's operation.

"These are the best athletes in the world, and we need to treat them like that," Rylan said. "To make this as professional as possible, we want to supply them with all the necessities they need to compete at that level. It's a league that focuses on the players, making sure they have the right platform and the right stage to train and prepare themselves for the next Olympics."

Staying sharp between Olympics has been challenging for American and Canadian women's players since the sport joined the Olympic program in 1998. In the U.S., USA Hockey offers occasional camps and limited financial support for post-collegiate players, who mainly fend for themselves until the next pre-Olympics residency camp. Some play in the CWHL, where Boston is the only U.S.-based franchise.

A failed bid to land a CWHL expansion franchise for New York last year -- the league ultimately chose not to expand at all -- set Rylan, 27, on this path. "After going down that road and looking at all the options and meeting with some key people from USA Hockey, I decided the best move for me and for women's hockey would be to do something different," she said.

Rylan took an atypical route into hockey while growing up in Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, where her father worked in marketing for the Tampa Bay Lightning. She learned to skate as a 5-year-old. "We got free passes to go skating one day," she said. "Instead of picking up the figure skates, I picked up the hockey skates, and it's been a love affair ever since."

Hoping to become a television sideline reporter, Rylan earned a broadcast journalism degree in 2010 at Metropolitan State University in Denver, where she skated one season on the men's club team. Transferring to Northeastern for the master's program in sports leadership, Rylan played from 2010 to 2012, contributing three goals and seven assists each season and helping the Huskies win the 2012 Beanpot. She moved to New York after graduation and opened the coffee shop when the NHL lockout delayed an expected job with the NHL Network.

"I'm proof that grassroots works in the game of hockey," Rylan said. "If the Lightning hadn't come to town in 1992, I probably never would have played hockey and I probably wouldn't even be on this phone call right now."

Monday night the league will host a launch party at Chelsea Piers in New York, which Rylan described as a "celebration" for the next step in women's hockey. Whether that step will be taken at all remains to be seen.