'We're not going anywhere': NWHL's Dani Rylan bullish on league's future

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NEW YORK -- Dani Rylan believes professional women's hockey should grow and thrive. She doesn't believe that her league needs to be sacrificed for that to happen.

"We're not going anywhere," said Rylan, the commissioner of the National Women's Hockey League, during an hour-long conversation with ESPN last week in Brooklyn. "It's definitely disappointing, to say the least, when the people that you built a business for, or a platform for, feel that destroying that business is the best way forward."

It's been a roller-coaster 18 months for women's hockey. In February 2018, the U.S. national team won Winter Olympic gold for the first time in 20 years, finally overcoming their arch rivals from Canada. In March 2019, the sport was stunned when the Canadian Women's Hockey League folded after 12 seasons, citing a funding gap and an unsound financial model.

That left North American stars like Hilary Knight and Marie-Philip Poulin without a team for the upcoming season, sparking speculation that Canadian and American national team players would flock to the NWHL, where some of them -- like U.S. forward Amanda Kessel -- played last year. Instead, 200 players announced en masse in May that they would not play in a women's professional league this season "until we get the resources that professional women's hockey demands and deserves."

Thus began the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association, which is going on a multi-city exhibition tour this season. They said in a statement: "We cannot make a sustainable living playing in the current state of the professional game. Having no health insurance and making as low as two thousand dollars a season means players can't adequately train and prepare to play at the highest level."

It wasn't hard to connect the dots here. Not only did these players see the NWHL as inadequate, they saw it as an impediment. For years, many of these elite players had expressed a desire to create a single women's pro league that has the support of the National Hockey League, much like the NBA supports the WNBA.

To get that support? The NWHL has to die off like the CWHL did.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has indicated his league has no desire to get into the women's game if a viable pro league exists. "As long as elite women hockey players have professional opportunities, it is not an environment we are prepared to wade into in any formal way," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly reiterated to ESPN when the CWHL folded.

This signal from the NHL has led to this unprecedented moment in pro sports: a coalition of the game's biggest stars withholding their talents from a particular league in the hopes of suffocating it.

Rylan couldn't help but take it personally.

"Yes, I do. And I think there are some players where it hurts a little bit more that they made this decision. Not just hurts me personally, but also the other people in the league who invested in them, who have done a lot to help players grow their brands and grow as hockey players. Maybe that means players that made the national team who weren't in that conversation before," she said.

For Rylan, there's another side to this boycott that hasn't been given the same amount of attention as the desires of the national team stars. This is understandable: Every fight the players have taken up has been a virtuous one, like when they bit the hand of USA Hockey to get the equality they deserved. Our default setting is to side with the players here as well, and that's what many did -- without thinking about the players and fans who still see the NWHL as their hockey home.

"They weren't even mentioned at all," lamented Rylan.

"I think a lot of those players took this as a personal attack. You only have so many years to play professional sports or sports in general. So for there to be a commitment to take a gap year, that sacrifices opportunities for others. It's something that a lot of players in the NWHL thought about, and decided that what was best was to play here."

That includes some players who supported the boycott at first, but eventually decided to return to the league. As an example, Rylan points to Jillian Dempsey, the NWHL's leading career scorer, who returned to captain the Boston Pride.

"Quite a few have flipped. It's been hard for our general managers to leave room for the players that could end the boycott and return to the league. They have conversations with them about being torn, not knowing what to do," she said.

The NWHL attempted to make itself more appealing to players this offseason. For the first time in league history, there's a 50/50 split of league-wide sponsorship and media dollars, with 50 percent going to increasing the players' salary cap. A new stream that falls under that split: a three-year deal with Twitch, which will offer the entire NWHL season on its streaming platform. (Rylan would not disclose the terms of the deal.)

The five-team league will increase its regular-season schedule from 16 to 24 games. Rylan said that player salaries are up 26 percent over last season, and there was also an increase in per diem. Rylan wouldn't offer specifics, but last season the per diem rates increased from $10 to $20 for road games, which was much less than the recognized federal standard of $51.

As in the past, 15 percent of all player-specific merchandise that's sold goes back to that player as a bonus.

In theory, this would be a spot where not having star players like Kessel hurts the NWHL. But Rylan points out that Metropolitan Riveters forward Audra Richards, now with Minnesota, led the league in merch sales last season and was never a member of the national team. She also notes that despite the PWHPA "gap year" boycott, season ticket renewals were up over last season.

"Fans believe in the teams and in the league and in pro women's hockey," said Rylan.

But the boycott did have an effect on the league's sponsorship opportunities. "Some brands decided to put a hold on support altogether just based on the unknowns. Conversations changed during the summer," she said. "It wasn't the summer that we expected. We can say that for sure."

That cruel summer goes beyond the players' decision to sit out and the ramifications of that call. Plans for potential NWHL Canadian expansion were put on hold. The Buffalo Beauts and the Metropolitan Riveters both had to find new homes. In the case of the latter, the New Jersey Devils ended their partnership with the team and would no longer offer them ice time in their practice rink facility, where the Riveters played home games and the league held its Isobel Cup championship.

In the case of Buffalo, the NWHL took control of the team when the Pegula family -- owners of the Sabres and Bills -- relinquished control of the team to the NWHL.

"They decided that it didn't work for them, so we took the Beauts back," said Rylan, without elaboration.

The NWHL currently owns and operates its five teams, but is working with the Sports Advisory Group to find independent owners for each franchise. That group has worked with a variety of minor leagues to connect teams and ownership.

The financial speed bumps over the last five years created a sense of concern about the NWHL's future. Yes, it was the first women's pro hockey league to pay its players, but the lowest salary in the league last season was a paltry $2,500. While salaries were respectable in the early years, in 2016 the NWHL slashed salaries by 50 percent midseason in an effort to stay "financially viable." Throughout its existence, a lack of transparency in the league's finances was a sticking point for many players.

But Rylan said she believes in what the NHWL is building.

"We're going into our fifth season. To have the people that you're building it for take such a strong stance against it, it's tough. But we're only going to continue to build. We want to be the league that they're proud of. At the end of the day, we want what they want, too. We want a strong future for women's hockey. We want a strong, viable league with the best players participating," she said.

Getting those players to believe in Rylan's product again is another story, especially when they believe the only path to a thriving women's league is stepping over the NWHL's burial plot while moving toward a partnership with the NHL.

"We've certainly seen a lot of the NHL's statements that have mentioned they would be prepared to step in if there is no viable option for women's ice hockey in North America," 2018 Olympic gold medalist Meghan Duggan told ESPN earlier this year. "If that opportunity presents itself, I trust that they have a vision as well. If you look at what history tells us, it's that startup women's leagues are very successful when they're connected to an existing league. That's true throughout Europe, in women's soccer, the WNBA, and the NWSL with their support from U.S. Soccer. That's part of what we're looking for."

Rylan sees it differently.

"Don't get me wrong: We love the NHL. We love the support that we get from them," she said, in reference to the $100,000 the league is expected to invest in the NWHL this season. "But we don't believe that women's hockey needs the NHL, or men's teams, to prove that women's professional hockey is viable."

But she isn't slamming the door.

"If the NHL really wants to start a league, we can talk about what that looks like," she said. "We think there's an opportunity to all work together and make a better league."

Rylan said she's spoken to the NHL about a women's league in the last few months. "Everything that Gary has said to the media, he's said to us: He has no intention of starting a league," she said.

"I think there's a chance to get all of the stakeholders around a table and figure out how to do this together."

The problem, according to Rylan, is that it's near impossible to do that when one of the stakeholders isn't interested in a seat at that table.

"We've gone to [the boycotting players] many times to sit down and have conversations. They've refused to communicate with us at all. There have been no demands -- only what we've read through the media. They've not come to us and said that they want anything," she said.

It could be that they don't want anything from the NWHL, which is why they're skipping this season instead of playing in Rylan's league. The messaging on the NWHL from stars like Kendall Coyne Schofield, who played for the Minnesota Whitecaps last season, would indicate that: "At the end of the day, the product we were receiving wasn't the best product in the world," she said.

But Rylan sees their decision to pull back instead of working with the NWHL to better that product as counterproductive. "We could argue that the growth of the game has slowed because of this," she said.

"I think the question for the players taking the gap year is what happens next year. Because, like I said, we're not going anywhere."