NWHL: from startup to aggressor in ‘teased’ expansion to Canada

NEW YORK, N.Y. — The NWHL dropping the Canadian expansion tease/bomb at the end of Saturday night’s final broadcast of the Isobel Cup was akin to finding out Bruce Willis was dead all along in “The Sixth Sense”.

(Don’t be mad at me if you haven’t seen a movie that came out in 1999.)

The NWHL’s actions to “tease” their move into the turf of the CWHL, in Toronto and Montreal, is an unofficial declaration of war.

It is no secret the CWHL and NWHL don’t get along. Their players might be friends, but as far as management goes, there is no love lost between the organizations.

The question I kept repeating to myself – why now?

The NWHL successfully completed its first season Saturday night. A huge accomplishment in the eyes of many who thought the league wouldn’t make it past January.

There were many bumps in the road along the way. Why not smooth those out before expanding? Or if you must make a statement move, why not go full out to recruit the US women’s national team heavy Minnesota Whitecaps?

Then it hit me.

The CWHL’s plan all along has been to pay its players an actual salary (not just expenses and in life experiences) by the start of the 2017-18 season. That leaves the NWHL one year to invade the Canadian market place with paid professional women’s hockey.

It is Boston all over again.

The Boston Blades won the CWHL’s Clarkson Cup in 2015. Months later, almost all of the roster players jumped ship for the upstart NWHL; many of them joined the Boston Pride. Compounded by the departure of the head coach and general manager, the franchise was in shambles by the time current GM Krista Patronick took over.

The Blades struggled throughout the season to curry fan favor. At times it felt as if they were abandoned by the Canadian-run league – a point of contention for many of the former Blades players, who were now enjoying regular paychecks for their work in the NWHL.

No one will address this topic on the record. I’m speculating the NWHL is planning for a situation similar to that of what happened in Boston to repeat itself in Canada. Paid hockey comes in and unpaid players go to join it. The bigger the names of the defectors, the more it cripples the CWHL.

In all, it is a shrewd business move by the NWHL that will not win them favors with the established CWHL fanbase or Canadian press.

The weakness of the Canadian dollar is a massive issue. As of publication, $1 USD equals to $0.76 CAD. If a vendor in Canada is going to pay the NWHL in Canadian dollars, the league has to manage for lower returns until the currency stabilizes.

The biggest red flag in this area comes from the NHL – a multibillion dollar organization, not a startup. They are bearish on expanding to Quebec City, despite the built in market, because of the economy.

With the exception of Brampton (a suburb of Toronto), the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadians have publicly invested in their CWHL sister teams. The NWHL has worked with NHL teams on a smaller level, but no team has adopted any of the four teams as a sister organization.

Nationalism will be a huge stumbling block for the NWHL. 

Despite the current NHL standings, the game is Canada’s national sport. They take this incredibly seriously. Could you fathom having to consider leaving your country’s league to join a different one, even if you are being paid, and knowing that you leaving will hurt the league on some level? What, in turn, does this do for any Hockey Canada national team aspirations you might have?

It’s not only the players and coaches. Consider the commerce level, too. Finding cooperating vendors – and sponsors – that are willing to work with this American league that could potentially harm the Canadian one might be more difficult than anticipated. 

We have to wonder what this looks like from the NHL perspective, too. They were proactive in getting both leagues together to work together to get the Women’s Outdoor Classic done. That didn’t get finalized until six days before the event because of quarrels between the two leagues. The NHL has stressed all along the two need to work together to get their backing at mainstream NHL events because they aren’t taking sides.

Having met and spoken with both women’s leagues commissioners multiple times, I can see they are smart, driven, and focused on their league’s success. At this point, it is going to take nothing short of an act of God to get them to work towards forming one league.

With this move Rylan takes the NWHL from plucky startup to full fledged aggressor. From last night’s Isobel Cup:

When asked – in person – for comment, NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan exercised plausible deniability. “I did not see the broadcast,” said Rylan with a grin. “180 women graduated NCAA DI colleges this year and it only makes sense that there’s a place for them to play when they’re done and get paid for being the best at what they do.”

We wanted to make sure we gave equal time to the CWHL. Commissioner Andress responded to our request for comment regarding the NWHL’s broadcast “tease”:

“I am aware of what was speculated on their broadcast last night. However I also know it is strategic of them to do so the day before the Clarkson Cup final.  Today, we all should concentrate on the fans, the players, the teams and the amazing sport we are practicing.

“Its been an incredible growth year for the CWHL, strengthening our bond and partnership with the NHL and we are looking forward to great things ahead. We will continue growing the game, as we’ve been doing for the last eight years. We never expected two leagues, we always wanted to have one league. One league is better, women’s sport in general needs to be together and stick together.”

Kid gloves are officially off from all parties. Both leagues are about to feel the full force of the national media shine their microscope on them as they battle for position.

Should make for an interesting off-season.