NWHL announces shortened schedule, Year 3 plans, and possible expansion

The NWHL dropped a few major announcements on Thursday evening that gives a glance into what the league’s plans are going forward.

The biggest change impacts the rest of the regular season and the playoffs. Instead of the regular season ending on April 16, it will now conclude on March 12.

The season bleeding into April was due to a three week league-wide break for national team players to play at World Championships and an increase in the number of regular season games played.

Now the three week break is gone as are 12 regular season games that would have taken place had the playoffs not been moved up. Boston and Buffalo will miss out on four games each while New York and Connecticut will lose two each.

As for the playoffs, they will take place between March 17-19. Biggest change here is compact schedule.

Last year, the Isobel Cup semi-final and final took place over two weekends with each round featuring a best-of-three series.

That’s gone now.

The semi-final and final are single elimination games all in the same weekend. The Isobel Cup final was played at a neutral site in New Jersey last season; however, the league has not indicated if a neutral site would be used again this year.

Per the press release, the change was made at the request of the players.

“The decision was made after discussions with NWHL players, who initially requested this consideration. The original schedule had a three-week break around the time of the World Championships before the regular season ended and playoffs began in late April. This has been changed so the NWHL season can be completed in mid-March.”

(The release also makes note that Anya Battaglino is now the director of the NWHLPA and will be negotiating with the league office for the players in addition to player representatives from each team.)

From the player perspective, it makes complete sense as to why they wanted this in the first place.

Prior to the salary cuts, many players had signed contracts that paid them less per game than a season prior because of the increase game schedule. That per-game amount was stretched out even further with the cut in salary. Now the players will get slightly larger game checks because they won’t have their salaries spread over more games, but it won’t be the full amount they expected at the beginning of the season.

One major downside is the earning opportunity for the players when it comes to game receipt sharing. No games equals no extra money.

Shutting down operations early has its positives and negatives for the league, too.

Like the players, no games means no money coming in. In fact, they’re going to be losing the gate receipts already sold for the 12 cancelled games. The press releases states “complete refunds or exchanges will be issued to fans holding tickets to any games affected by the change.”

As far as benefits, depending on how their contracts are set up with the four home arenas, they could be saving on having to rent ice time for games and practices. The already skeleton crew at the league office can collapse to bare-bones until things start to ramp up for next season.

Yes, next season.

The press release also addressed the return of the league for Year 3. Essentially, they will return to the four cities they’re currently in, and will not fold into the CWHL (as we’ve been saying all along.)

The press release added there being a “… possibility of a few neutral-site games during the regular season in order to promote the league and gauge reaction to prospective expansion franchises. The League is also planning exhibition games against national teams.”

The last sentence above is important.

National team players in both the United States and Canada will be ‘consolidated’ to one city in order to train for the Olympics. Your Hilary Knights and Amanda Kessels of the NWHL will not be in the league for 2017-18.

For those who follow women’s hockey closely, this comes as no surprise. The casual fan might be caught off-guard and it remains to be seen how it impacts interest in the NWHL going forward. There are plenty of outstanding women’s hockey players not on the national team that can take over roster spots. It’s a matter of continuing to draw interest without the superstars.

That leads to the final big announcement. The NWHL finally admits they’re not looking at expansion until – at the earliest – the 2018-19 season.

“We have received interest from several markets and prospective ownership groups, and we will review these options over the next year,” said Commissioner Dani Rylan via press release.

The league memorably teased expansion into Montreal and Toronto after closing out their first year. The decision was met with much criticism and rightfully so. Nothing came of it at all.

With all this news, we were left with one question: does all this indicate the league has enough capital to operate not just for the rest of this year, but for the planned years ahead?

Puck Daddy posed this to the NWHL. A league representative responded via email stating, “We have no further comments at this time.”

It’s a question that had to be asked. Everyone assumed the league was running along just fine until the salary cuts came down. Assuming the NWHL has learned from their mistakes, they’re planning their expenditures appropriately and not over-promising and under-delivering like this season.