Learning curve is catching up with fledgling NWHL

Just shy of four months into their inaugural season, the National Women’s Hockey League seems to have grown out of adorable infancy and right into their awkward middle school years.

It starts at the top.

Dani Rylan wears two hats. She is the commissioner of the NWHL and the general manager of the New York Riveters. 

Kate Cimini of Today’s Slapshot reported Rylan entered into a “secret dressing-room meeting with players of the Whale” back in mid-November:

“The GM at the time, Harry Rosenholtz, was on vacation. The head coach, Jake Mastel, was not allowed into the room.

“It had come to her attention that some of the players were unhappy with the way their coach was running practices and games, Rylan said in that meeting. She was aware their head coach was the least-qualified of all the coaches in the league and for that she was sorry. If the team wasn’t doing so well, she would fire him immediately, Rylan told players, but since the Whale was 4-0, she would wait until the end of the season to let him go.

“Mastel was next door and heard every word.

“Rosenholtz has since resigned the GM position, which occurred when, per a source, Rylan refused to apologize for her actions.”

News of Mastel’s resignation came late Thursday night. The league responded the following morning acknowledging the resignation and announcing the hiring of new coach, Heather Linstad.

As Cimini goes on to state in her article:

“Technically, Rylan is well within her rights to fire any of the coaches in the league. After all, she hired them and the league – which she funded and of which she is the commissioner – still owns all four franchises, unlike the NHL, where franchises are separately owned and the commissioner has to answer to a Board of Governors, which the NWHL does not have either … Rylan is GM of the Riveters, in addition to her duties as commissioner. Meeting with the players of a different team and discussing personnel issues is at best bad optics.”

Earlier in the season, Rylan’s involvement in the disciplinary panel established for on-ice incidents came into question. As a new league with limited resources, unlike the NHL, it’s not unreasonable to think the commissioner would have input on discipline; however, when Elena Orlando from Rylan’s Riveters came up for a supplemental discipline hearing, Rylan remained on the panel. It’s an inherent conflict of interest the league cannot escape from.

Rylan has said that she will relinquish the role of GM at the end of the season.

Sports Business Journal quoted Rylan as saying she became a GM in the first place because “It is our first year, and I want to keep the budget down to make sure that the message is the same with all of our organizations. It is one less person to train, one less person to pay.” 

Rylan is running a brand new league and has a massive learning curve to attend to. The league has limited resources, as she states above, she’s the GM to save money. Business wise, it makes sense; however, in the wake of the report on the Whale, undercuts the credibility of Rylan in the court of public opinion, providing ammunition for the ‘pro-CWHL, anti-NWHL’ faction.

When contacted for comment on Cimini’s story and questioning the possibility of Rylan leaving her GM position before the end of the season, NWHL PR replied via email with, “The National Women’s Hockey League does not comment on stories based entirely off of unnamed sources.”

They do have a point in that Cimini’s article comes from unnamed sources, as do most stories that pull back the curtain. 

Another lingering question is the role the NWHL Players Association plays in all of this. Traditionally, the PA is an independent body acting as an advocate for the players, acting as a check and balance to the league. When all of this was happening with Connecticut, where was the PA? Puck Daddy reached out to NWHLPA Director Erika Lawler for comment. As of publication, she has not responded.

To be clear, we aren’t saying Rylan is corrupt with power. Far from it.

She has made incredible strides for women’s professional hockey. The fact the league still has the lights on, when many, many detractors said they wouldn’t make it into the New Year, is remarkable. Adding streaming through NESN and ESPN plus the sponsorship of Dunkin’ Donuts is a huge triumph. She is constantly looking to improve her league’s standing and is front and center when it comes to publicizing the league.

The issue, which is Rylan’s issue by virtue of being commissioner, is transparency.

In the beginning, the NWHL strived to be a transparent organization by publishing the player salaries. From that point on the transparency has been selective and that’s part of the learning curve.

Other examples aside from those directly concerning Rylan above:

• The NWHL has published and pulled the rulebook from its website.

• A trade was made despite Rylan saying there would be no trades in the inaugural season.

• As Cimini mentioned, there is no Board of Governors, at least that we know of, that puts the league in check.

• The involvement of USA Hockey in the contract negotiations of players leaving the CWHL for the NWHL.

• The departure of other staff members within the league, outside of the coaching and GM carousel in Connecticut.

One area the public shouldn’t feel entitled to know is the financing of the league. Like where the startup money came from (and there are some AMAZING rumors out there), or for how long and for how much the ESPN, NESN, Dunkin, etc. sponsorships are for. It’s a private company. They are not obliged to release that information.

Would it go a long way to the goal of transparency? Sure, but it’s not required. The CWHL doesn’t release the exact dollars received from the NHL clubs it partners with. Why should the NWHL be any different?

Expectations for the league’s first season to be perfect are unrealistic. It goes to show that even the best PR and marketing in the world wears off after time and the real world catches up.