Q&A with Madison Packer, on NWHL salary cuts and player response [UPDATED]

Thursday evening the news broke that the NWHL would be cutting its player salaries by at least 50 percent in order to keep the lights on through the end of the season. Billed as the first women’s hockey league to offer its players a salary, the NWHL had garnered a lot of support for its stance that women deserve to be paid for their expertise on the ice, just as men are.

The news of salary cuts went over poorly with a number of players, as they had not been consulted in the decision. One such player was Madison Packer, a forward for the New York Riveters. Upon learning the news, Packer helped to organize the player response to the NWHL’s decision to slash salaries without player input. Excelle Sports spoke with her via phone to discuss her reaction to the initial news, get the player side of the reaction and how she feels the league can restore player faith in it moving forward.

It should be noted that Packer’s views are hers alone and do not represent the views of all players in the NWHL.

Kate Cimini for Excelle Sports: Let’s just start with Thursday night. What was your reaction to the news when Dani [Rylan, league founder and commissioner] told you all that you would be losing 50 percent of your salary for the upcoming year.

Madison Packer: Well, that news didn’t actually come from Dani. It came from our coach and general manager, Chad Wiseman.

He called the players in, said to get to the rink about 6:15, that we were going to have a team meeting. Also, the 50 percent number is not accurate. It’s more like 70 percent. [Note: Packer later changed this estimation to 60-65 percent.]

KC: Does that vary by player?

MP: We have a $270,000 salary cap per team. Of the $270,000 I contracted for $15,000, which is about 5 and a half percent of that $270,000. So now we’re getting [a total of] $5,000 per game, [per team]. I’ll make 5.5% of that $5,000. Whatever percentage of that whole salary cap a player was making, they will now make of the $5,000.

KC: That is quite a blow and it does affect everyone incredibly differently. Okay. So, Chad tells you this news. What’s your gut reaction right there?

MP: Uhm….Kind of, ‘Are you kidding me?’ [Laughter] It was very emotional in the locker room. Stretch [Ashley Johnston] obviously knew the news because she was on the call earlier that day with Dani and she was in tears. Wasn’t able to speak for a little bit because it sucks. I’m very emotional, right, because I’m going to lose teammates because of this.

My father is a very successful businessman. I grew up watching him and I’m now involved in his business. For a long time he’s been saying that things at the NWHL don’t make sense. I’ve been watching the process and this summer I was hesitant to sign a contract because there were all these money issues. At one point I asked the question: is the money going to be there? And was told it was.

So they knew this was something; they’ve known this for over a month. It’s not just about cutting people’s salaries; it’s people’s livelihoods that are in jeopardy. The response has just kind of been, “figure it out.” That’s just not how you treat people; that’s not how you treat employees. A lot of media has reported it as “NWHL players are asked to take salary cuts.” But we weren’t asked anything. We were told what was happening and if we weren’t on board…

It’s a lose-lose. If you stay, you get very little of what you were getting before, which was already pretty low. Or you leave and you get nothing. Everyone wants to see the league do well, but at the same time I have to ask myself: at whose expense do I continue on this journey?

[More from Excelle Sports: NWHL players respond to salary cuts]

KC: What did your father point to as warning signs?

MP: Well, we have investors but payroll was late and things like that. We were being told that investors don’t give the league their money until right before the pay period. That’s not an investment, that’s an allowance. Anyone can pull out anytime. The league was getting a lot of bad press. At this point, bad press is better than no press but there was just a lot of chatter about the league losing money and investors. There wasn’t too much positive chatter about any money coming in.

KC: Do you remember how many times payroll was late?

MP: I can’t remember last year, but this year it’s been twice. And we’ve only had three pay periods.

KC: Did you all get together and talk about this yesterday?

MP: On Friday, I organized a phone call between the captains of all four teams. A lot of my teammates, they didn’t really change their minds about playing. They had worries about bills, or whatever but they still wanted to play. Which is admirable and I respect that but I felt differently.  I knew there would be a lot of people–especially among the national team players–who felt the same way that I felt.

We got on the call and talked through things. There were different opinions across the board. Some didn’t want to play, were very angry, just felt like we had been lied to and used and all those other things. That’s when we came up with that statement. [Packer is referring to the statement posted by NWHL players on social media with four requests for the league, moving forward. The statement is linked below.]

KC: How did you all decide on those four points?

MP: We knew that if we didn’t play this weekend that the league would fold. We decided in the end that that wasn’t what we wanted to do. We also don’t want to continue on this journey, wake up in the middle of January and find out that there’s nothing left, and we’re going to have to play free or it’s going to be over. If that’s the case, we want to know now and people can decide to stay and play free, or leave.

We laid out four requests we felt were basic and pretty reasonable. The league should have no problem providing us with that information if the plan they have now put in motion is true and has a reasonable likelihood of success.

I did reach out to an attorney for advice.

KC: Which point stood out as most important to you personally?

MP: I think it’s a mix of point one and two. I don’t rely on the league’s healthcare but my teammates do and that’s very important to me because I don’t want to see anyone hurt, then find out they don’t have insurance. That’s huge. That ruins people’s lives, so that’s extremely important.

Number two, it’s important to me that an outside source audit the league’s financials, so we can have assurance and not just be told that the money’s there. Know for sure that there’s tangible funds to get us through on this $5,000 plan to the end of the season.

KC: Without Erika Lawler running the NWHLPA, it seems like in organizing the players you’ve taken over some of her duties.

MP: I wouldn’t say that. I just felt that it was to the league’s benefit for us to form 90 different opinions, whatever they might be, and come at them from different angles. And it was in our best interests to come at them as a group. We may hate each other on the ice but at the end of the day we’re all friends and want to see each other do well. I thought it would be better to have us all come together.

You have a lot of powerful people in that group. You look at Knight, Duggan, Decker, the top people from all the teams are typically not always the ones wearing the letters. So if you get that group all standing together, coming forward with a strong statement, you can’t really go against us.

KC: Where do you go from here? Are you waiting for the league’s next move?

MP: Yes. Dani, and whoever else is on the board has that information, our requests and stipulations and those would have to be met in order for us to continue. We’re hoping to hear back by December, during the break we have coming up.

KC: Are all the players willing to abide by the decision made by the captains?

MP: It’s their personal choice. If the league doesn’t agree to those terms, any reasonable individual would recognize that it’s a massive red flag. It’s not really asking that much and if they’re not willing to agree to that, it’s troublesome.

But we are individuals, part of something much bigger than ourselves and if what people decide to do if we’re not given that…it’s not going to be a massive Brexit, with all of us leaving. I’m sure there’s some people that would be willing to stay, so I can’t speak on behalf of them.

KC: Personally for you, if this league ends up not working out, what’s your plan? Where do you go?

MP: I go home. And go to law school next year, retire from the sport. I’m coaching right now, I’ll continue to coach but I coach a team out here. I’m looking to go to law school out here to continue coaching those guys. But as far as my playing career goes, it probably comes to an end.

KC: What is the best possible outcome for you?

MP: I think the best outcome, with everything we have on the table, and I don’t know if this is realistic either, but: the league agrees to the terms and we get to look at things. Maybe this massive pay cut–that sucks for everybody–is enough to get the league through to next year. And they have a good plan in place to keep going.

If players take these pay cuts and somehow figure out a way to survive through the end of the season, then what? Is there money for a season next year? Is there a future for the league? We’re all standing up for something, we’re standing behind this league and we want to see it do well. We don’t want to stand up, pushing something forward that doesn’t have a chance. I want to be sure that I have faith in what I’m fighting for, that what I’m fighting for has a chance.

KC: Lastly, when you look at these potential pay cuts, is the money more important to you in this fight or is the issue of transparency and safety weighing more heavily on your mind?

MP: It’s the lack of transparency. For some players, a smaller salary will be a real issue but for the majority of us that were on the call today, and for me personally, it’s the way we’ve been treated, it’s the way the whole process has been treated.

I don’t think at any point in time Dani Rylan had bad intentions. I don’t think she sat at her desk and said “how can I screw these people over.” She obviously wanted to see the NWHL do well on a business level, and on a personal level she has relationships with people.

At the same time she hasn’t been very forthcoming. I feel she’s been dishonest in a lot of ways, hesitant to answer questions and it’s a business. That’s not the way things can operate. When employees have questions they need to be answered, and they need to be answered truthfully. That’s my biggest frustration. I feel we were lied to, and are being asked to support a corporation that has never had my best interests as an individual at heart.

I didn’t consider at all in July, when I signed the contract, what it would do to my livelihood if the NWHL didn’t have the money to fulfill my contract, or what it would do to my teammates.

UPDATED: Shortly after publication, Dani Rylan provided the following statement concerning the statement issued by NWHL players.

“The players have many concerns and disappointments, and I understand that completely. I deeply appreciate that, despite the emotions of the last two days, they have continued with their preparation for tomorrow’s games in Buffalo and Newark. My colleagues and I have always and will always do everything in our power to build a professional league that the amazing athletes of the NWHL deserve. Despite our setbacks, we have made many positive strides — thanks in large part to our players. Our hope is that we can continue a positive, constructive dialogue with the players over the next two weeks.”

The league also stated there would be no further public comment on the situation at this time.

Edit: This article has been updated to clarify Dani Rylan’s position in the league.

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