Erik Wollschlager

For NWHL trailblazers, a tougher road back for year two

The National Women’s Hockey League always felt like more than the sum of its parts in season one. And while there’s no way to measure the entirety of the league’s impact, the NWHL brought influence and inspiration beyond its four home rinks. The promise of a true professional hockey league, where the players would be paid a salary for their performance, awoke the dreams of dozens of women who believed that after college, the only options were to compete for a spot on the National Team roster, head to Europe, or give up on hockey all together.

The 2015-16 season was a measured success. Despite a continual stream of off-ice issues, the league completed their 18-week season, as well as the semi-final and Isobel Cup final series. The players received their paychecks and were able to compete with and against some of the greatest players in the sport of hockey.

A total of 88 players populated the rosters of the four team league—72 full-time players and 16 practice players. Each player had a hand in the success of the NWHL’s historic inaugural season, and because of their passion, effort, and commitment, the league is preparing for their second season with an expanded 22-game schedule.

It has been an exciting offseason for fans as teams have begun to re-sign players, as well as secure the rights to recent NCAA graduates, many of whom were drafted in June of 2015. Because teams have begun to expand the scope of their signings beyond players who took part in the league’s first year, many players who were responsible for the success of premier season are finding it difficult to make their way back onto an NWHL roster.

Buffalo Beauts forward Hayley Williams is among the players who are currently displaced in the league. Williams was a utility forward for Buffalo, filling the center and wing positions on all three of the Beauts’ forward lines. Her involvement with the community in Western New York earned Williams a spot in the NWHL All-Star Game. Hayley took full advantage of the opportunity, scoring Team Knight’s only goal of the game.

Williams appeared in 17 consecutive games for the Beauts before a shoulder injury kept her out of the team’s final game of the season and the first two of Buffalo’s playoff games. Despite her role as one of the team’s most dependable players, Hayley is struggling to find a spot on an NWHL roster.

Hayley Williams has contacted the Beauts, but has no indication she will have spot on the roster. (Photo by Erik Wollschlager)
Hayley Williams has contacted the Beauts, but has no indication she will have spot on the roster. (Photo by Erik Wollschlager)

“After the loss in the championship game, the coaches came into the room and wished us all luck in the future, and that was kind of open-ended—no one really knew what that meant,” Williams told Excelle Sports in an interview at a Buffalo restaurant. “Since then, I have reached out to the team, but I have only really gotten a generic response from Ric (Seiling, general manager of the Beauts.) A teammate (who wishes to be unnamed) received the exact same response.”

Danielle Ward played for the Connecticut Whale in the 2015-16 season. She was one of the team’s most prolific scorers at even strength, and led the Whale in shooting percentage. Ward has had a similar experience when she has contacted Connecticut’s GM, Lisa Giovanelli.

“I have had a little contact with my team [from] last year. They just keep saying, “Give us two more weeks and we should know more,” she explained. “Of course the wait can be frustrating and certainly stressful, but it sounds like I will just have to prove myself at camp and hope a team will pick me up.”

Both Ward and Williams are listed on the roster for the NWHL’s Free Agent Camp, set to take place in Newark, NJ on June 10-12. This will be the first time since the season ended that the players will be taking the ice with women of comparable skill. Ice time has been hard to come by for Williams, who is playing beer league hockey with a Buffalo in order to try to stay sharp.

“It’s really hard,” Williams said. “I want to play my hardest, but it’s kind of frowned upon. The guys are out there to have fun, and I get it. I just have to focus on maintaining good habits. I just got a job at HarborCenter, so I am hoping that I can jump on the ice before and after teams for a few extra minutes to work on my skills. There is a U19 clinic starting soon, so I will be gearing up with them in order to get in some additional time.”

Ward finds herself in a similar predicament, and she tries to squeeze in three skates a week at the rink she works at. A lack of ice time is a common occurrence, though. Beauts’ goaltender Kimberly Sass has spent the offseason coaching as much as possible in order to find ice.

“I have been fortunate enough to coach quite a few goalies at WNY School of Hockey Clinics, so that has kept me on the ice and constantly thinking about how I can improve their game, as well as my own,” Sass said in an email. “As far as playing in game situation, pick up games are a must,” she finished.

The road ahead for women like Sass, Williams, and Ward is fraught with uncertainty. Though their contributions to their teams was substantial, they have had little-to-no direction from the team in regards to what they should improve upon in the offseason. Changes to the roster size have also affected the women’s chances to play in the league’s second season.

 Ward, Sass, and Williams (pictured) have all found coaching to be a way to get extra ice time. (Photo by Erik Wollschlager)
Ward, Sass, and Williams (pictured) have all found coaching to be a way to get extra ice time. (Photo by
Erik Wollschlager)

Sass addressed her situation, and the options available to her. “I have been in contact with [the Beauts’] GM since the season ended and was informed that there will only be 2 paid goaltender positions on each team this year, as well as an unpaid practice goaltender.

“Ideally I would like to stay in Buffalo, as I have a full time job here.  I am faced with a decision to earn a practice goaltender position in Buffalo, to look to the CWHL, or to retire from professional hockey and focus on my career as an architect and artist.”

Williams is considering her options, as well. “I just have to be prepared for whatever might happen. If someone says, ‘You need to be here today and show us what you can do on the ice,’ I need to be ready for that.”

NWHL free agency ends on July 31. The players will have the opportunity to display their talents at the Newark camp, as well as a camp to be held in Buffalo on June 24-26, in hopes that a team will have a spot for them on their roster. With the diminished roster size, and the addition of the women drafted in 2015, there will clearly be several women who will find themselves relegated to the practice roster, or out of the league entirely. Though it would be easy for a player to get caught in a web of negativity, Ward is maintaining a positive mentality, choosing to focus on the importance of the league.

“I am excited to pick up where I left off last season,” Ward said in an email. “It’s also really exciting that the league is becoming more known and gaining attention from fans – especially the young girls who play right now. It’s a lot of fun to play in front of those girls and know that they look up to you and that we are starting the path for them to have this great opportunity in their future.”

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