NWHL free agency deadline looms, USWNT players unsigned

The NWHL could be facing its first labor battle as the deadline for free agency nears a close on Sunday, July 31.

As of the evening of July 30, the league has 17 total spots over four teams left to fill. They could easily fill the paid positions with any number of the unsigned players from the inaugural season, and would have done so by now if it weren’t for players from the US Women’s National Team (USWNT). All 11 returning and three draft picks from the USWNT roster are not under contract.

Waiting until the last hour to sign the USWNT members isn’t something new to the NWHL.

After the league was announced, the players for the USWNT decided to leave the CWHL for the newly formed NWHL that paid it’s players. Free agency closed on August 17 with the NWHL announcing they had filled all their roster spots, but would not disclose any players not previously named. From a league statement: “The NWHL still plans to announce the final team rosters and contract details as soon as the players are ready.”

“Ready” meant freed from the obligations of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL). It took over a month before the issues were resolved and the all the new players announced. The season went on as planned and the heavy USWNT-laden Boston Pride went on to win the inaugural Isobel Cup.

All players, coaches and team management were on one year contracts to get them through the first season. Essentially, everyone started over for Year Two.

The second league year included a shift in responsibility for player contract negotiations from the league’s front office to each team’s general manager. Dani Rylan, NWHL commissioner, described the change in an interview with Puck Daddy in June:

“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.”

To get the league off the ground in Year One, it wasn’t a big leap to assume the NWHL would comply with whatever demands USA Hockey (acting as a surrogate for the players) had of them in order to secure the best players.

Now the general managers of each team are calling a majority of the shots. Based on the changes planned for the league, it appears as if the game has come down to who will blink first – the USWNT or the GMs.

Reported by Kate Cimini in May, the NWHL is expanding their regular season from 18 games to 22 games. This includes the plan for the league to extend play into June with a possible break coming in March. Cimini continues:

[T]he U.S. national team … will have to report to [Olympic selection] camp in June. After IIHF Women’s World Championships in April, players are typically expected to rest and recover, taking time away from hockey until they head to June camp for testing. If players are on the ice, competing for the Isobel Cup until the start of camp they will be tired and significantly behind where they are supposed to be, as June camp typically marks the start of offseason training for national team players.

Today’s Slapshot reached out to USA Hockey to confirm whether or not the NWHL had discussed a schedule change with them.

“We provided the NWHL with our schedule for 2016-17 and have not heard from the league about their plans for the schedule for the upcoming season,” said Reagan Carey, Director of Women’s Hockey at USA Hockey.

That is a heck of a lot of extra hockey for these women, and it’s only going to become more intense as the 2018 Olympics approach.

A point of contention is compensation when the USWNT has to fulfill their obligations to USA Hockey – which will always come first – when they miss practices and games. Under league rules, players who don’t participate in practices and/or games will have their pay docked in order to pay a designated ‘practice player’ to take her place.

The figures of what USA Hockey pays the national team is unknown, but it’s safe to say they aren’t getting whatever Captain America Zach Parise and friends get every time they don the red, white and blue. The women don’t have the financial flexibility to skip USA Hockey events. Even if they did, they would be replaced quickly and have trouble coming back within the fold.

This brings about a theoretical question that could have serious implications: which group needs the other one more?

Prior to the NWHL, about half the USWNT players played in the non-paying CWHL in order to stay in shape between tournaments. The other half of the national team not in college or affiliated with the NWHL play for the independent (and unpaid) Minnesota Whitecaps. Just recently, NWHL 2015 draft picks Hannah Brandt (No. 2 overall) and Kendall Coyne (No. 3 overall) announced they would join the Whitecaps.

There is always the possibility of a mass exodus to Minnesota. Yet, with a majority of the national team residing in the greater New England area, it’s unlikely unless they have ties to Minnesota.

One other very remote scenario would be a return to the CWHL. The Boston Blades team was decimated by the mass exodus of players to the NWHL. If money is not the prime object of the players and staying in competitive form is, why wouldn’t that be an option? (The CWHL’s plan is to start paying a salary in 2017-18.) The regular season starts in mid-October and ends mid-February. With a couple weeks of playoffs added in the CWHL wraps up in mid-March to allow for the [hated] rival Canadian Women’s National Team to begin their training.

Again, the likelihood of this actually happening is almost zero given the way the two sides ended their professional professional relationship nearly a year ago. (Although, the CWHL might like to return the favor to the rival league…)

Should the NWHL lose the players from the USWNT they are taking a serious hit to the star power of the league. Currently without contracts are Amanda Pelkey, Brianna Decker, Gigi Marvin, Hilary Knight, Kacey Bellamy, Zoe Hickel, Emily Pfalzer, Meghan Bozek, Megan Duggan, Kelli Stack, and Shiann Darkangelo. Also available are draft 2015 picks Alex Carpenter (No. 1 overall), Haley Skarupa (No. 5 overall), and Dana Trivigno (No. 13 overall).

In Year One, the NWHL built a healthy and loyal fan base. In the beginning, having the players of this magnitude mattered to get butts in the seats and brought new fans to the women’s game. From there unexpected players emerged as fan favorites; using their dollars to vote of the players listed above, only Bozek (No. 10), Stack (tied-No.6), and Knight (No. 2) produced the highest selling jerseys. Players receive a portion of the profit from the sale of their jerseys.

The league can most definitely move forward without the USWNT if they choose to do so. There are plenty of deserving women who can fill the five spots in Buffalo, three spots in Connecticut, and eight spots in Boston.

The team that’s probably not in the hunt for any of the USWNT players is the New York Riveters. The Rivs have one spot for a skater left to fill on the paid roster and $36,000 in cap space to do it.

They also have an ace up their sleeve in “rookie” Amanda Kessel. You might have heard of her brother Phil. He won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in June.

Lord Stanley.

A photo posted by @amandakessel8 on Jul 17, 2016 at 3:59pm PDT


Kessel’s debut with New York is one of the most anticipated moments in women’s professional hockey. As has been written many times, Kessel could bring the ‘Connor McDavid effect’ to the NWHL, with or without the other star players. Who knows if it would be enough to carry the league should the USWNT players opt not to sign.

What’s most intriguing about Amanda is her ties to USA Hockey.

For the first time since suffering a nearly career ending concussion at the Sochi games Kessel was invited to a USA Hockey hosted event. Also attending the 2016 USA Hockey Women’s National Festival are the national team players without contracts.

Kessel was in college and healing from the concussion in the first year of the NWHL; it wasn’t clear if she’d ever play again. When she finished school, she negotiated her own contract with the Riveters – a stark contrast from her former teammates on the national team. They make decisions as one unit. They left the CWHL as one. They’re waiting to sign new contracts as one.

As women’s hockey continues to grow, head-to-head battles such as this are bound to happen. The league did not return a request for comment on the status of the USWNT contracts. We shouldn’t be surprised to see this go down to the eleventh hour for the second year in a row.

The results, though, are much less predictable this time.