In March 2016, the first ‘leaked’ National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) emails made their way to the inboxes of several women’s hockey writers. Others followed. They alleged unpaid debts, mismanagement behind the scenes and general chaos for the first-year league.
How did NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan feel about this campaign?
“Someone has a lot of time on their hands to try and undermine the NWHL and all the hard work we’ve put into this league,” she said in an interview with Puck Daddy. “I would much prefer to actually handle a problem someone has with me rather than hear about it through a blog post.”
What a difference a year makes.
In March 2015, the NWHL was introduced to the public as the first paid professional women’s hockey league in North America. The hype and positive public relations collected by the league surged forward into the season.
After finishing a successful first season on the ice, the NWHL has been on the defensive – not just on the PR front, but in the courts, too.
“It’s disturbing, to say the least, to know that someone is actively working to discredit and harm your team,” said Rylan, who hasn’t spoken much about the emails. “We run lean and have a lot of work to do on a daily basis. Personal issues and vendettas have no place in this league, and women’s hockey doesn’t deserve to be made a scapegoat.”
It all starts with that first ‘leaked’ email in March.
An alleged NWHL employee wrote of the league’s inability to pay Bauer for equipment, and included emails primarily between Bauer, Rylan and then-NWHL Chief Operating Officer George Speirs.
After making a donation to the NWHL, Speirs was named COO. He was relieved of his position with the NWHL a month prior to the release of the emails.
The author of the email calls out Rylan for a sundry of issues, including not having investors beyond Speirs and Joel Leonoff. Leonoff, a Canadian businessman, was revealed to be an investor in the NWHL in an interview with espnW. He’s also the father of goaltender Jaimie Leonoff, who played for the Connecticut Whale last season and recently signed a new contract with the New York Riveters. With the exception of the espnW interview, he has stayed out of the spotlight regarding league matters.
When questioned why the league doesn’t quell the speculation and release the names of all investors, Rylan stated, “In accordance with securities laws in the US, we did not release the names of any official investors in the league.” The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulations regarding the disclosure of investors for private companies is vast and dense. Violation of these rules could result in the NWHL and Rylan being labeled as ‘bad actors’ and barred from raising money for any venture in the future.
“We actually have a fantastic Board of Governors,” Rylan continued, “it’s just not listed on our website. All of us on the administrative side want to keep the focus on the players.”
Until this point, many speculated that the league didn’t actually have a Board of Governors because of the lack of information on them. Rylan relayed that the NWHL does not intend to release the names of the governors at this time.
The email alleging Leonoff and Speirs were the only main investors was contradicted a month later when a letter from the attorney of an another alleged investor, Michael Moran, was made public to Meg Linehan of Excelle Sports.
Through his attorney, Moran asked for $200,000 from the league as reimbursement for his investment in the league and salary.
Four days after the letter was published, Moran’s attorney filed a civil suit against Rylan and the NWHL for $650,000 in damages. Based on the details in the lawsuit itself, it appears as if Moran, like Speirs, was given a management position within the league following their investment. Moran claimed to have been the league’s Chief Marketing Officer.
As of June 3, the NWHL has not filed a response in court.
Rylan cannot address the specifics of the suit; however, she adds, “Lawsuits are filed constantly in the United States. A filed lawsuit is not a decision in court and is meaningless at this juncture.
“[The lawsuit] has been deflating and killed some work days where we’d rather be spending time preparing for season two, but we are confident in the lawyers we have retained and feel the pending suit is personal and frivolous.”
A few weeks after the lawsuit was filed, another anonymous email was sent to select women’s hockey writers claiming four league investors were ready to lodge a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for the business practices of the league.
The email included a letter dated April 16 from George Speirs – who had not been with the league since February – acting as intermediary between the NWHL and the investors. Reporting for Excelle Sports, Kate Cimini noted that “of the three investors contacted, all confirmed that none of them had tried to reach out to the NWHL on their own.”
Rylan, 28, needed partners to get the NWHL off the ground as the first women’s pro hockey league in the U.S. to pay its players. But she’s done a lot of reflecting on the partnerships that she made.
“At the beginning, we were in startup mode, where any and all help was welcomed,” she said.
“Unfortunately, some people saw us as a way to further their personal agenda, but their true colors eventually showed. But for every bad egg, we’ve worked with 100 amazing people, and we’re very grateful for that. Our current staff and volunteers are what make this league function, and they’re in this for the right reasons.”
It may have been an oversight by the League that created an opening for those “bad eggs.”
“We spent so much time focusing on making the league good for players that we slacked on typical HR protocols for the office,” said Rylan. “As an early-stage founder, you take help where ever you can get it, but your first thought isn’t to bind someone’s helping hand with red tape.
“We regrettably didn’t have any NDA’s signed by league staff last fall, which is one of the reasons why personal information made it to press without any serious consequences. With our league’s evolution into our sophomore season, the goal is to be much more procedure based.”
The signing of NDAs or ‘non-disclosure agreements’ by a company’s employees are a relatively common practice. Essentially, employees are legally bound not to share inside information with the public for anything outside of doing business – during and after their time of employment. Should the company be able to prove the employee broke this agreement, they can fire the employee with cause and/or sue for damages.
If the anonymous e-mailers are, in fact, current or former NWHL employees and the league can prove it, without an NDA in place they are facing an uphill battle as far as taking action against the individual(s).
Rylan recognizes this and the impact it has on her business reputation going forward.
“We’ve all worked on developing a tough skin this season, myself included,” said Rylan. “From the beginning, many have questioned why I’m doing this and whether I’m qualified, but I’m confident in my abilities and our core team to make this business successful.”
When we last left the NWHL on the ice, it was March and the Boston Pride had just won the inaugural Isobel Cup.
At the end broadcast the league dropped a bombshell on viewers. It showed a graphic with the current teams labeled on a map and two NWHL logos on Toronto and Montreal. At the time, Rylan played coy and continues to do so.
“It’s an exciting time for women’s hockey and if this year has taught us anything, it is that there’s a demand for it,” stated Rylan. “The market will continue to grow with the talent the NCAA, CIS, and international universities continue to produce … what is certain to us is that four teams alone will not satisfy the demand.”
No plans to expand have been released by the league.
From there the four team league is essentially starting over. All players, coaches and general managers signed one year contracts to get through the first season.
All four general managers are in place for the teams and the coaching staffs are nearly complete.
Rylan looks to create a different dynamic between the league office and the front offices of teams for Year Two.
“There will be a shift of responsibility from the league to team management,” said Rylan. “This will allow us time to think long term and work on the bigger picture at headquarters, and implement league wide initiatives to evolve as fast as the game.
“One of the biggest public misconceptions was that our GM’s and their job responsibilities mirrored their NHL counterparts. Personally, I think each was essentially a CEO of their respective team last season. Going forward, we’d like to see each team acting as a fairly independent operation under the league’s umbrella. This is the first step of establishing up a successful franchise, with individual team ownership in mind in the near future.”
The focus now turns to filling the team rosters.
The salary cap for the league remains unchanged from year one at $270,000. The biggest change comes in roster size. In the inaugural year, each team carried 18 paid players (15 skaters and 3 goalies) and four non-salaried skaters termed ‘practice players.’ In Year Two, the paid number of players went down to 17 total (15 skaters and 2 goalies) with six practice players (5 skaters and 1 goalie).
To align themselves somewhat with the NHL, the league introduced a restricted free agency period in the month of April. General managers were restricted to negotiate only with those players that were on their roster from the previous season. Additionally, they had this period to sign 2015 draft prospects before they became free agents on May 1. The NWHL also added a ‘draft tax’ for teams who sign draft picks of other franchises.
The number of players under contract as of June 3 are: Boston Pride 1 goalie, 5 skaters; Buffalo Beauts 1 goalie, 8 skaters; Connecticut Whale 1 goalie, 7 skaters; and New York Riveters 1 goalie, 10 skaters.
On the first day of unrestricted free agency, the league as a whole scored a massive win by signing Amanda Kessel to a league-high $26,000 contract with the New York Riveters. Kessel, sister of Phil, was highly sought after by both women’s leagues because of her potential to deliver the ‘Connor McDavid effect’ to the team and league she joined.
After suffering a concussion at the Olympics in Sochi, her career appeared to be over. She was out of play at the national team and NCAA level for nearly a year and a half; however, she returned late in her senior year to help lift Minnesota to a national championship. Kessel saw the NWHL as a way to stay competitive post-college as she strives to make her way back on to the US Women’s National Team (USWNT).
It’s those USWNT players everyone seems to be waiting on. Of the 11 national team players who participated in the league the first season none of them have resigned with the league as of yet – including poster-woman for the NWHL, Hilary Knight. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, though. It took until the end of free agency plus a couple days last season to get the women signed to a team.
National team players were integral in getting the league off the ground in year one. That’s built in marketing the league couldn’t buy. Now they’re established, and fans know who they are. That attracts even more talent to fill the ranks.
“Of course we want [the USWNT] to play, but there were 180 women who graduated from NCAA D1 schools this year and many of them would thrive in this league,” said Rylan. “We had over 200 players register for our free agent camps this summer in Newark, Buffalo, and Boston. The women’s hockey world isn’t just about the Olympics anymore, and we’re glad that players now have the option to get paid and highlight their talent more than once every four years.”
“Our real concern is the number of spots that remain for the amount of talent that hasn’t signed,” added Rylan. We have recent graduates, league veterans, and international players looking to sign with our teams, and our worst fear is this becoming a sad game of musical chairs and someone is left without a spot.”
All things considered that’s a good problem to have.
“No one ever said this was going to be easy, said Rylan. “Yes, I regret a few hires … I made If my public perception is affected in the process, that’s fine and expected, it comes with the territory … Fortunately, we are allowed to learn and get better.
“I am also proud of the exceptionally talented people that I have trusted and brought on board. They have been here since day one and they do this for all the right reasons. They are at every single game and easily put in 100-plus hours a week and have been since last Spring.
“What is more, they are also the smartest people I know. Dedicated, trustworthy, hardworking, brilliant staff. You simply do not see this much cumulative brainpower and passion working together in most workplaces. And the NWHL has assembled these people in one room under one cause. That’s pretty goddamn special and I am unequivocally proud of what we’ve accomplished and will continue to accomplish.”
And Rylan is dedicated to seeing where it all goes.
“As a team we have barely scratched the surface. The future, from my vantage point, is exceedingly bright.”