Columnists, Sports

Stick to Sports: The future of the NWHL and women’s pro hockey

The Boston Pride won the Isobel Cup in the NWHL's inaugural season last year. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
The Boston Pride won the Isobel Cup in the NWHL’s inaugural season last year. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

For people who only watch the four major sports leagues, they might be unfamiliar with how it feels to have a league where players are under constant threat of being relocated or teams may get dissolved all together. For example, when the St. Louis Rams and the Seattle Supersonics moved, fan bases were in uproar over the loss of their respective teams.

For a National Women’s Hockey League fan, or any niche sport, that is just the norm.

The NWHL is the first professional hockey league for women that pays its players. It is based entirely in the Northeast, with its four franchises representing New York, Boston, Connecticut and Buffalo.

Ever since the first campaign of the NWHL was completed a year ago, the future of the league has always been up in the air. When the second season began this October, it appeared that the troubles the league once faced may have been put in the past.

That all changed two weeks ago, when it was announced that the league would cut player salaries by 38 percent so it can afford to complete the 2016-2017 season. With average players making $14,000 to $17,000 per year, the decrease in salaries caused doubt regarding whether the NWHL would continue. Yet, despite the drastic cuts, NWHL games are on this weekend.

The following day after the league’s shocking announcement, NWHL players responded. The players accepted the pay cuts, but demanded that the league provide them with proof of valid insurance, investor identifications, third-party audits and an explanation of how league revenues have decreased.

Meanwhile, the players are still waiting for answers from NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan.

The NWHL Players’ Association did not have a say regarding the salary cut, and since there is no collective bargaining agreement mandating what the commissioner can or can’t do, the league has all of the power in this situation.

As a result, the players were taken aback when the salary cuts were announced. Some players heard the news just moments before practicing. While some have considered the possibility that they could no longer afford to play in the league, no one thus far has officially walked away.

The salary cuts were set to be 50 percent before Dunkin’ Donuts gave an additional $50,000 in support, allowing the players to keep 12 percent of their salaries.

The future of professional women’s hockey is questionable at best, but there is still hope. Rylan has said that she expects the league to play at least for the remainder of this season, so there are still several months for the league to increase revenue.

Meanwhile, the NWHL isn’t the only small sports league that is facing trouble. The Arena Football League lost more than half of its teams in an offseason, while Major League Lacrosse is struggling to keep the Rochester Rattlers franchise in upstate New York.

When the Boston Pride take the ice at Warrior Ice Arena Saturday night, it will be their last time playing at home until February. In the interim, players and fans will wait in angst to hear from the league.

What niche leagues like the NWHL mean to fans is that the players play solely for the love of the game. Most of them have other part-time and full-time jobs, but they still make the commitment to themselves, their teammates and the sport.

Hopefully, there is a solution out there that can keep the league financially viable without sacrificing fair compensation for the players.

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