The National Women's Hockey League Has Arrived
News broke in April about the formation of a new hockey league, set to drop the puck in October temporally alongside the NHL. It wasn't another one of your local beer leagues creating a new division or another professional league set up to compete with the NHL or become another minor-league tier. It's the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL), a new league set up so that for the first time ever, women can be paid to play the sport they love.
When we last visited women's hockey in this space, David Malinowski assessed the state of the sport in the context of its pinnacle event, the Winter Olympics. Women's hockey was suffering mainly on two fronts: parity and relevance. For as entertaining as the matchups were between the United States and Canada, the fact those two nations finish first and second in almost every tournament ruins the entertainment factor of the non-gold-medal games. And while the Olympics is a brand in itself that draws plenty of eyeballs, women's hockey has very little else outside of the Olympics.
Enter the NWHL
The NWHL becomes another in a long line of women's hockey leagues that have been competing since there were only club and university teams in 1890. Many teams started up and folded through the decades, until a concerted effort to form a women's hockey association began in 1975.1 The current Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL) can trace its history to that Ontario Women's Hockey Association of 1975.
The CWHL allows women's hockey players to play the game by providing the structures for it to thrive. The centrally funded organization handles the logistics, but it does not pay the players to play — at most, it pays them in prize money if they win.
This is where the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) becomes a game changer. When the puck drops on Oct. 11 for the first game between the New York Riveters and Connecticut Whale, the NWHL will become the first women's hockey league to pay its players. They will be operating under a $270,000 salary cap — yes, six figures. They will be providing most, if not all, of the equipment; the players just bring themselves, their skills, and their work ethic.
The NWHL's establishment has already taken a machete to one of the two big problems mentioned earlier: relevance. Since news first broke that the NWHL would become a new thing, more media outlets have started covering the league and women's hockey has unofficially received a record amount of attention considering we are still in July and about to endure the throes of hockey hell known as August. The attention hasn't been solely about fluff pieces merely announcing the presence of the league: Real business has been conducted and is being reported on.
But Will It Work?
Because the NWHL is a North-American-based league, it will take some time to address the second issue of international parity. But a couple of signings show the baby steps being taken that could help the lack of parity in women's hockey. The Riveters signed Japanese goaltender Nana Fujimoto. They also signed the league's first Russian in Lyudmila Belyakova.
These signings in and of themselves don't solve the parity problem. There's still also the not-so-small matter of ensuring that these players thrive in the NWHL environment. The change will happen slowly, in much the same way the NHL went from being a nearly exclusively Canadian league to a merely Canadian-dominated league.
But if Fujimoto and Belyakova succeed in the new league, they will demonstrate the viability of non-North-Americans competing against some of the best women's hockey players in the world. Their success can inspire more talent overseas and improve both the parity that should quell any rumor of taking women's hockey out of the Olympics and the relevance of women's hockey outside of the North American hotbed.
No one understands better the challenges facing the fledgling hockey league than the people in charge. This is the risk they're going to take. But it should provide at least one season where young women can watch the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, and New York Riveters literally live out the dream of playing hockey and getting paid to do it.
This is not the first time someone tried to create a women's hockey league. Even if it fails, the history of women's hockey shows that another group will try again at some point. For now, however, it's time to embrace an historical first: The NWHL will become the first women's hockey league to pay its players to play the game they love.
1On the Edge: Women Making Hockey History by Elizabeth Etue and Megan K. Williams