After their most difficult off-season yet, the NWHL opens training camp this week ahead of their fifth season. They’ve had to deal with a high-profile boycott, changes in team ownership and loss of NHL affiliation. At one point, there were even calls for the league to fold “for the greater good of the women’s game”. However, NWHL founder and commissioner Dani Rylan and her staff had other ideas.
Not only did they plan to go ahead with a fifth NWHL season, but they also had plans to continue growing the league. They have expanded the league schedule from 16 to 24 games. They have increased player salaries and introduced a 50-50 revenue share. There has also been an emphasis placed on growing the league at a sustainable and smart rate, which incidentally was something the #ForTheGame players cited as one of the reasons for not playing in the league this upcoming season.
Partnerships at the Heart of League Growth
The NWHL has also secured some exciting partnerships again this season. Dunkin’ Donuts returns for a fifth year as a corporate sponsor, which shows the trust they have in the league to continue growing. The league has also secured other partnerships, both with new and returning sponsors. These include NYU Langone Health and Chipwich.
Arguably the most important partnership this season is with the streaming platform, Twitch. The NWHL has signed a three-year deal with Twitch, making them the exclusive live-streaming partner of the league. Not only will all league and playoff games be streamed for free but there will be added opportunities for fan engagement via this platform that will vastly enhance the viewing experience. It is a fantastic opportunity to help the league grow and its importance cannot be overstated.
As the business part of the off-season transitions into the hockey part of the off-season, we will look at the big stories and signings from each team in preparation for Opening Night on October 5th.
The Whitecaps had the perfect inaugural season, playing in front of sold-out arenas on their way to winning the Isobel Cup. The 2019-20 season is looking like it could be more of the same. Minnesota has arguably navigated the mass player boycott better than any other team in the league, with very little change occurring in the organization. They are returning a large amount of their championship-winning team, minus a few notable names like Kendall Coyne Schofield and Lee Stecklein.
They have also added some notable new players to their line-up. Audra Richards was an all-star last season for the Metropolitan Riveters and makes the move back to her home state for the new season. Two-time NCAA champion and former Patty Kazmaier finalist Sydney Baldwin joins the Whitecaps after playing last season in Austria. The signing of Baldwin will help offset the loss of Stecklein on the blueline for Minnesota. The other big off-season acquisition was Nicole Schammel, who was a Patty Kazmaier finalist and top scorer for the University of Minnesota last season. She will bring a real scoring threat to the Whitecaps forward corps.
Where Minnesota had a change-free off-season, the same cannot be said for the Beauts. No team in the league experienced more change than they did, both on and off the ice. The biggest story centered around their ownership, with Pegula Sports & Entertainment handing back ownership of the Beauts to the NWHL. This was a big blow to the Beauts organization. Players often spoke about how the facilities provided by the Beauts organization under the Pegulas were of the highest quality and was a big reason for them signing with the team. With this gone, it appears to the untrained eye that it has had some impact on recruitment for the 2019-20 season.
The Beauts will no longer train and play their home games at the HarborCenter. Instead, they will now be based at Northtown Center in Amherst. They have also had a change behind the bench, with Pete Perram replacing Cody McCormick. It was also announced recently that Rhea Coad would be joining the team as an assistant coach.
Plenty of New Faces in Buffalo This Season
On the ice, only three players return from last year’s team that made it to the Isobel Cup final. Corinne Buie, Kelsey Neumann, and Taylor Accursi are the only players to have played in the NWHL before, let alone for the Beauts. The rest of the team is made up of new faces to the league, with most of them being first-year pros.
There are some really interesting new faces though. Slovakians Lenka Curmova and Iveta Klimasova bring a wealth of international experience to Buffalo. Forward Brooke Stacey spent the end of last season in Sweden and will present a real offensive threat. Megan Delay brings pro experience to the blueline after spending last season with the Markham Thunder of the CWHL.
The Beauts will definitely be an interesting team to watch this season and will start it as a bit of an unknown quantity.
The big off-season news in Boston occurred this week when it was announced that they had been sold to a group of investors led by Miles Arnone. Arnone is a Boston native and a managing partner of Cannon Capital. The Pride becomes the only team in the league to have localized ownership this season, with the rest of the league currently owned by the NWHL.
This is a significant development for the Pride and should be a massive benefit to their infrastructure, player development and business as a whole. Arnone met with coach Paul Mara and the players on Monday to outline his plans for the upcoming season.
On the ice, the Pride has returned with a lot of their core players from last season. Star names like Jillian Dempsey, Lexi Bender, and Kaleigh Fratkin all return after playing major roles in Boston a year ago. They will all have leadership roles and be instrumental in the Pride’s success on the ice this year.
There are also a couple of interesting newcomers in the Boston line-up this season. Swedish goaltender Lovisa Selander joins after a stellar NCAA career with RPI and will look to win the starter position in camp. It is not hard to envisage her playing a starring role in Boston this season. The other new face that could make an instant impact is Lexie Laing. She finished her NCAA career as captain of Harvard and looks ready-made for the step up to the pro level.
The Riveters will be looking to be much better next season and they do so with a new head coach behind the bench. Ivo Mocek, from Ostrava in the Czech Republic, is a rookie head coach who is tasked with getting the Riveters back into Isobel Cup contention. Mocek is extremely passionate and energetic and looks to be the perfect coach to help build the Riveters back up.
This off-season has been less than ideal for the Riveters, who saw their partnership with the New Jersey Devils end when the NHL team decided to walk away from the NWHL. They also lost star player Amanda Kessel, who has joined the PWHPA as part of the #ForTheGame movement.
The Riveters were boosted by the return of Madison Packer, however, who has spent her whole career with the organization. Packer is a tenacious player who also puts up points, and will be a key figure in a team full of new faces. Other returnees include defender Rebecca Morse, who returns for the fourth year, as well as Lexi Slattery and Colleen Murphy.
New Players Bring Special Storylines to the League
Of the new faces joining the Riveters, there are two that stand out from the rest. Bulbul Kartanbay becomes the first Kazakh player to sign in the NWHL and with that fulfills a lifelong dream of playing hockey in North America. The 26-year-old spent last season in Calgary in an attempt to land a pro contract and has now finally fulfilled that goal this season. She is not just here to make up the numbers either and could be a real force to reckon with on the ice.
The other player is 36-year-old defender Nichelle Simon. She starred in series nine of “American Ninja Warrior” and also proved herself as a real-life warrior when she beat breast cancer in June 2018. She had previously played college hockey and was preparing to make a comeback to the game upon getting the all-clear, prior to her successful tryout with the Riveters. Two wonderful personal stories will make the Metropolitan Riveters a team to follow this year.
The Whale need a change. After finishing at the bottom for four years in a row, they need a spark. This year, that spark could come in the form of their new coaching team of Colton Orr and Laura Brennan. Orr was one of the toughest and most feared players during his NHL career and will undoubtedly bring that toughness and hard work to his coaching. Laura Brennan is very highly regarded in the Whale organization, having been a player and goalie coach there. Promotion to assistant coach is the next step in her progression.
The team is a mix of new and returning players. Shannon Doyle and Jordan Brickner return for their fifth year whilst Elena Orlando returns for her fourth. Those players, along with Taylor Marchin and Hanna Beattie, will make up the core of this team.
The Whale welcome some interesting new faces to complement the returning players. Kendra Broad returns to North America after splitting the past three years between Sweden and Switzerland and has the potential to put up points in the NWHL. Sonjia Shelly will almost certainly be the starter in goal after a fine NCAA career at St. Lawrence University. Another playing joining after a stellar NCAA career is Yale graduate Emma Vlasic. She looks tailor-made for the step up to professional hockey and will be one to watch this season.
It’s Time to Get Started
Confucius said, “it doesn’t matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop”. This seems particularly appropriate for the NWHL, who have brushed themselves off after a difficult off-season and kept moving on with their goal to provide the best opportunities for professional women’s hockey players. Dani Rylan’s steely determination to see the league continue to grow has helped them navigate these uncertain times so far. Ultimately it is hard to know how the issues in women’s hockey will play out. But one thing is for certain – the NWHL will be back and better than ever for the 2019-20 season.
Feature Image Credit: Photo by Tom Morris