With the first NWHL season coming to a close, maybe Dani Rylan can get some more sleep. Between running the league, serving as general manager of the New York Riveters, giving interviews and playing hockey on Tuesday nights, the 27-year-old founder has been trading an early bedtime for a chance to make history. Through her tenacity and a supportive hockey community, she has created an opportunity for talented athletes all over the world to get paid to play the game that they love.
One year in, Rylan is already looking for ways to improve the league. But since the inception of the NWHL, what have the highlights been so far?
Growing up in Tampa as a Lightning hockey fan, Rylan’s hero was Manon Rhéaume, the first and and only woman to play in an NHL exhibition game. It was only fitting that her hero helped to realize the dream when Rhéaume dropped the puck at the first ever NWHL game last October.
“What Dani created is amazing,” said Rhéaume via email. “This will now give young girls other role models to look up to.”
In December, Rylan landed a major multiyear corporate sponsorship with Dunkin’ Donuts which further solidified the stability of the league. The brand has also agreed to coordinate youth clinics in each of the league’s markets which have helped generate grassroots support from the kids.
“Sports run off of sports broadcasts and sponsorships so to land a deal with such an iconic brand in our first year really just goes to show how far that we’ve come in the work that we have done,” said Rylan.
In January, the Boston Pride and the CWHL’s Les Canadiennes were the first female teams to play in the NHL Winter Classic. Although the game took a scary turn after Boston’s Denna Laing sustained a paralyzing spinal injury, the matchup was hopefully the beginning of a classic rivalry.
For the first season, game attendance has been significant, with an average of 1,000 fans filling the seats per game and thousands more supporters viewing online. For Rylan one of the coolest things is seeing the young girls in the crowd.
“This has not only affected the women who are getting paid to play hockey, but also that next generation who get to dream as big as their brothers.”
The boys get a kick out of it too. At the All-Star Game, Rylan fondly remembers a little 12-year-old boy running around during the fan tally for favorite player shouting “Vote for Madison Packer! Vote for Madison Packer!”
“It’s pretty special that his favorite player isn’t playing for the Rangers or the Islanders,” said Rylan. “She plays for the New York Riveters.”
Even though the league’s season looks like it will wrap up successfully, there are many questions that remain unanswered. For example, the CWHL is another professionally run women’s hockey league with teams across Canada and one in Boston. Even though the players don’t receive a salary, the league has lasted five years. Rylan doesn’t consider the CWHL to be competition, but with two leagues trying to put out the best women’s hockey out there, has she thought of the potential benefit to joining forces?
“That’s the million dollar question that everyone is asking,” said Rylan. “We are trying to figure out what it would look like to be involved with them. There are no answers, only questions right now.”
One of the challenges the league will face moving into its second season is retaining players who are not in their respective national team pools. The top players receive larger paychecks on top of national team/Olympic team stipends. If one of the original goals of the NWHL was to help players transition from college hockey to the real world, perhaps the salaries work out quite nicely. College players are drafted their senior year and are given a full year to find jobs and get established with their new teams. With two practices a week and most games on Sundays, players have time to pursue other full-time careers.
But is the pay adequate for the toll the game can take on their bodies? On average players receive $1,000 per game with the top salary capped at $25,000 per year. That is on par with the pay in men’s minor hockey leagues like the ECHL. Rylan is working for more, noting that she only expects salaries to grow. She also hopes one day to expand to Minnesota where hockey is a popular female sport. But for now, Rylan is just focusing on making the original four teams (Boston, Buffalo, New York and Connecticut) as successful as possible.
This week the NWHL’s first championship playoffs, aka the Isobel Cup, will mark another significant moment in sports history. The Isobel Cup is named after Lady Isobel, the daughter of Lord Stanley. In the early 1900s, Isobel had a burning passion to play hockey. Moved by her love for the ice, her father bought a trophy to be given to best hockey team in Canada and today it is known as the coveted Stanley Cup.
The four teams begin their fight for Isobel with the Buffalo Beauts taking on the Connecticut Whale and the Boston Pride facing the New York Riveters tomorrow night. The Boston Pride comfortably sit in first place with eight U.S. National Team players on their current roster. With a 9-0-1 record, Boston is the favorite to win, but the season’s close should be just as promising as its inauguration.
“It’s been a season of firsts,” said Rylan. “There’s a lot more history to be made.”