NWHL announces expansion into Canadian cities

Demise of CWHL opens several doors for US-based league

On April 2, the NWHL held a conference call with select members of the media. At the time the call was scheduled, it was to be a wrap-up of the 2018-19 season, which was inarguably the league’s most successful campaign in its brief history.

On March 31, the CWHL announced that it would cease operations as of May 1, 2019. Obviously, the focus of Tuesdays’ call shifted to breaking news items that had taken place in the previous 48 hours.

The call began with league administrator Chris Botta breaking the news that expansion to two markets had been approved. The NWHL will host teams in Montreal and Toronto in the 2019-20 season, rubber-stamping an idea that had unofficially been floated following the 2016 Isobel Cup Final.

“We’ll be pursuing opportunities to work with current stakeholders and partners,” Botta said. “We are moving quickly to ensure those teams have a place to play this fall.”

As questions arose regarding the branding of the team, commissioner Dani Rylan was unsure if the Toronto and Montreal clubs will remain the Furies and Les Canadiennes or if the expansion will require the teams to rebrand. It is also possible that other markets will join the NWHL before the season begins.

Rylan stated that she and the NWHL had been in talks with the CWHL, collaborating to, “bring the leagues together,” however, it was not clear what this would have looked like.

In addition, Botta announced that the NHL has made a commitment to the league that made them one of the biggest financial contributors. Interested parties have since learned that, at this time, this means the NHL has taken all of the money it had budgeted for North American women’s professional hockey ($100,000) and giving it to the NWHL instead of splitting it between the two leagues.

Because of the untimely collapse of the CWHL, the NWHL will not adhere to the restricted/unrestricted free agency rules that had been in place in previous seasons. This opens the door for any of the NWHL teams to target players of interest immediately, without regard to the previous season’s contracting organization.

In this regard, Rylan indicated that the league is also considering the expansion of gameday rosters. Currently, 17 players for each team dress for a game, but this may increase given the number of players set to be added into the pool.

As mentioned, the 2018-19 season saw huge growth for the league. The Minnesota Whitecaps joined the NWHL as the first expansion team, exceeding expectations in many ways, but especially at the bottom line. The team set a record for attendance and was the first club to be profitable for the league.

Because of the growth, the NWHL will seek to increase player salaries this season. Numbers are fuzzy, but reports indicate that players make between $2,500 and $10,000 per season. There was also a stipulation that players would draw revenue in any game that saw attendance over 500, which most teams did on a game-to-game basis. Rylan told the press, “As our revenues grow, we expect to increase player salaries, as well; that is something we were considering this offseason, and something we will continue to explore today.”

The demise of the CWHL has given the US-based league greater opportunity to procure sponsorship revenue. Rylan indicated that conversations with potential sponsors have increased this week, indicating that companies were hesitant to invest in one league or the other because they didn’t want to favor one over the other. If properly tended, these budding relationships could provide a solid base for the NWHL as it continues to grow in its first five seasons.

Aside from sponsorships, the NWHL is engaged with potential owners for at least one of the six league-owned organizations. “We want to, and are pursuing conversations to replicate the deal we have in Buffalo. Kim Pegula and PSE have done an amazing job of making that brand, that market - that team - come to life, and have been rewarded greatly for their investment in women’s hockey. Gary [Bettman, NHL commissioner] and the NHL have blessed us [with the ability] to continue those conversations, and endorses the idea of NHL teams owning NWHL teams.”

The NWHL will also seek to have more games in the upcoming season. The 16 regular season games will become 24, if everything goes according to plan. Either the season will have to start earlier, or the teams will play a more compact schedule, as the league has conceded to end the season prior to the commencement of the annual IIHF World Championships.

The expansion news has garnered conflicting reactions. Several current and former CWHL players have responded to the announcement with their personal thoughts, ranging from lukewarm to outright indignant. It’s understandable - these women have had to deal with a lot over the last 48 hours. It remains to be seen what the expansion actually holds; will the Toronto and Montreal rosters be similar to the CWHL version? Will the NWHL need to recruit outside of the CWHL rosters?

The Montreal Canadiens issued the following statement, which doesn’t offer much insight: “A strong advocate of women’s hockey, the Montreal Canadiens Hockey Club shares the disappointment of many with the decision of the CWHL to discontinue its operations. Through our involvement with Les Canadiennes in recent years, we have been committed to the development and the growth of women’s hockey and we are determined to pursue all opportunities to ensure that talented players can continue to play the game they love.

We recognize the importance of women’s hockey in our country and the passion players have for the game and we value their presence as role models for the next generation of players.”

The news could directly affect the Buffalo Beauts.

Displaced players from a Toronto or Markham roster could find a home in Buffalo. Likewise, if members of the Furies find themselves somehow playing outside of the NWHL, a team in Toronto could be a drain on Buffalo’s players. The Beauts draw heavily from the city’s geographical neighbors, which includes Ontario. Adding another team to the region could prove dangerous for the crowned monarchs of the Queen City.

Still, there is reason to be excited. Whether or not the CWHL players decide to play with the NWHL in their home markets, the fact that investors understand the importance of having representation in these cities demonstrates the impact that the CWHL had, and that the NWHL is continuing to have.

“I...don’t want to forget the great work that Toronto and Montreal have done to build [women’s] hockey in their markets,” Rylan said. Because of today’s news, these historic, storied cities will have the chance to continue that legend.