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Will Gamble On Women's Hockey League Pay Off?

Meghan Duggan and seven of her U.S. Olympic teammates jumped from the Canadian Women's Hockey League to the new NWHL. Harry How/Getty Images

The conversations took place by multiple means -- in person, by phone, via text. In the end, eight members of the 2014 U.S. Olympic women's hockey team gambled on their futures, jumping from an established Canadian-based league that doesn't pay its players to an American startup that vows it will.

On Oct. 1, the first paychecks arrived for the fledgling National Women's Hockey League, and gleeful players tweeted photos of themselves holding them up. A few days earlier, the league released season salary figures for the 72 players on its four franchises, ranging from a $10,000 minimum to $25,000 for Connecticut Whale forward Kelli Stack, one of the American Olympians.

The checks generated both a sense of relief -- NWHL founder and commissioner Dani Rylan still hasn't said who provided the seed money to start the league -- and excitement.

"We were in the locker room the other day and one of the girls was like, 'Yo, one of my friends texted me and thought that's what we're getting paid per game,'" said two-time Olympic silver medalist Hilary Knight of the Boston Pride.

"It's funny. Just announcing salaries opened people's eyes. It was like, oh my God, this is a real thing."

After two weeks of exhibition games, the NWHL launched its inaugural regular season on Sunday. The league announced a sellout for the New York Riveters-Whale opener six days in advance, and a capacity crowd of 623 watched the Whale win 4-1 at Chelsea Piers in Stamford, Connecticut. A later game drew better at the larger HarborCenter in Buffalo, with a reported 1,231 on hand as Knight scored the first two goals in Boston's 4-1 victory. The Buffalo crowd, in a building that seats 1,800, exceeded the average attendance of every NCAA Division I team last season except Minnesota (2,037) and Wisconsin (1,922).

The new league began its season a week earlier than the established Canadian Women's Hockey League, which has one U.S. franchise in Boston and four in Canada.

CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress said her league generated $1.8 million in revenue last year, a $600,000 increase over the year before. It paid modest bonuses to the Clarkson Cup champion Boston Blades and is on track to offer salaries in 2016-17.

But that timetable wasn't good enough for Knight, Olympic captain Meghan Duggan and six teammates, who chose to jump leagues together.

"The reason we made the decision to go into the league is because we believed in Dani's vision for women's hockey," said Duggan, of the Buffalo Beauts. "We were willing to take this risk and explore this new option. We think she's created something great. It's a step forward in the world of women's hockey, and we want to be a part of it."

Added Knight: "For us, it was the countless plane rides where we would be sitting in the airport discussing the future of women's hockey, or our current competition schedule, or sitting at the table at training camp, calling one another up, just supporting one another, with the feeling that we can do so much better than what we are doing. If we don't jump into this league, not much is going to change."

The hope, Knight said, is that the new league will force the CWHL to honor its timetable to pay players, or even speed it up.

"It better," Knight said with a laugh.

Secrecy over the NWHL's financing left many potential players uneasy. Hockey Canada discouraged its top players from jumping, fearing the NWHL might fold midseason and leave them nowhere to play. Duggan and Knight said Rylan didn't share details with them, either.

"We certainly asked a lot of those same questions, and we've gotten some roundabout answers," Duggan said.

Rylan, who formed the new league after the CWHL tabled its plan to expand, said her donors asked to remain anonymous. And, she said, potential sponsors wanted to see the league get off the ground before committing resources.

Knight ultimately decided the unknown didn't matter.

"I don't think it's any of my business as long as I'm getting paid and the rest of the girls are getting paid," she said.

Yet the lack of transparency concerns Scott Rosner, the faculty associate director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. Rosner hosts a sports business program on SiriusXM Business Radio.

Rosner said the Women's United Soccer Association, formed after the U.S. World Cup victory in 1999, ultimately failed because initial salaries were too high. The WUSA spent its five-year budget of $40 million in its first year. Though Rosner thinks NWHL salaries are reasonable, costs can escalate quickly.

"This sponsorship thing better be legit, or they're in big trouble," Rosner said. "With any new league, whatever they expect their expenses are going to be, they've grossly underestimated. It's twice what they think it's going to be. They better have a lot of cash on hand."

Digit Murphy, the former Boston Blades coach and long a proponent of paying players, fears Rylan may have been too ambitious.

"What it tells me is, you have a very inexperienced young group of people trying to go out and do the right thing," Murphy said. "Part of the issue is, it's come pretty far with what they know about. They know about technology. They know about Twitter followers, they know about Facebook, they know about using Hilary, they know about public relations and newspaper articles. But the crux of the issue right now is, will people watch women's hockey? And the answer right now is, not at a rate that will sustain salaries of the players. That's the simple answer right there."

The key, Murphy said, will be establishing reliable sources of revenue other than ticket sales, such as partnerships with major corporations. Murphy believes the CWHL is on that path. Last month, the CWHL announced marketing deals for its Toronto and Montreal franchises with the NHL teams in those cities. It also added four major new sponsors, including Toyota and the Insurance Board of Canada.

But Andress said her league, organized as a nonprofit, is also committed to increasing attendance. Last year's games drew 600 to 700 fans on average. The goal this year, she said, is 700 to 800.

"Fan base, ticket sales, that pays the players," Andress said. "Sponsorship dollars are phenomenal. Fundraising dollars are right there and excellent. But at the end of the day, what drives all major sports is the fan. The fan pays the dollars on merchandising. The fan pays the dollar on tickets. That's what we're after. We've increased it every year."

Four-time U.S. Olympian and Hockey Hall of Famer Angela Ruggiero -- who discussed the NWHL with Rylan months ago but has no current connection to the league -- views it from multiple perspectives: as a postgraduate player who struggled to find acceptable competition between Olympic cycles, and as a 2014 graduate of the Harvard Business School.

"It's a real interesting blend of for-profit and nonprofit," she said. "The players are able to be paid through a nonprofit structure. They're great ambassadors for the sport and will be involved in the community. On the for-profit side, ask me how any minor league baseball team has been able to succeed without being the New York Yankees. They start somewhere. They start small.

"I think that's what Dani has done well. She hasn't been too aggressive. There have been a lot of women's leagues that were too aggressive in the initial stages and blew through their money very quickly. She's trying to find partnerships. How do we leverage existing facilities, existing teams and existing sponsors that care about women's hockey?"

Rylan said multiple benefactors have paid for all the league's ice time, the second-biggest expense after player payroll. And she negotiated a deal with a bus company for transportation. The franchises are all within driving distance. For now.

Even before the season began, Rylan said she was open to expansion next season if this one succeeds financially. Both Ryan and Andress have their eyes on the Minnesota Whitecaps, an independent Minneapolis team left orphaned when the Western Women's Hockey League disbanded in 2011.

This year's edition, featuring U.S. Olympians Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux and Anne Schleper, traveled east on Oct. 3 and 4 for exhibition games with Connecticut and New York, and will host the Pride for two exhibitions in early December.

"When we think of expanding down the line, it's somewhere we definitely want to go," Rylan said. "We want to start building that alliance and that relationship as soon as we can."

Whether women's hockey is deep enough to support nine teams across two leagues -- 10 if you count the Whitecaps -- remains to be seen. Murphy noted that two players from college club teams made NWHL rosters.

Current college seniors drafted by the NWHL, such as Minnesota forward Hannah Brandt, will be watching the league closely (college players who have completed their junior years are eligible for the NWHL draft).

"It will be interesting to see how it does and how successful it is," said Brandt. "I'll probably talk to some of the girls that are in it and see if it's good or not, or whatever. I'll take my time making a decision, but I'm looking forward to paying attention to it."

The NWHL has already accomplished one thing. Players will receive 15 percent on sales of their jerseys, and Andress said her league is finalizing a similar arrangement.

Ultimately, Knight and Duggan believe the leagues will merge, and all players will be paid.

"I know our league will be high quality," Knight said. "I'm just hoping that at one point the two leagues work together. But really, the situation we have down in Boston -- the Canadian players on the CWHL team, and the U.S. players on the NWHL team -- wouldn't it be great if they could all compete together on the same team? It would elevate the sport."