In 2015, after years of development by 28 year old League Commissioner Dani Rylan, the National Women’s Hockey League played their first game. The NWHL was the first professional major league women’s hockey league in the United States since 2007, and was also the first women’s hockey league to actually pay its players. Since then, the league has expanded to five teams from the original four – the Boston Pride, the Buffalo Beauts, the Connecticut Whale, the Metropolitan Riveters, with the Minnesota Whitecaps joining the league in 2018 – and also became the only major women’s hockey league in the US after the 2019 demise of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
In the months since the CWHL’s collapse, the NWHL has strengthened greatly – bringing on major new sponsors like Chipwich (yes, the ice cream sandwich people), signing a contract giving exclusive broadcast rights to online broadcaster Cheddar and expanding their season from 16 games to 24.
Personally, ever since I got into hockey (shortly after the Penguins’ 2016 cup win), I have followed women’s professional hockey just as faithfully – being a dedicated fan of the Toronto Furies of the CWHL prior to 2018 as well as the minor league Pittsburgh Puffins here at home. I have always believed strongly in the importance of gender equality in hockey and professional women’s hockey really is extremely fun to watch, just as much as the NHL, in my view. Star players throughout history like Manon Rheaume and Amanda Kessel have proven to be just as good at the game as men’s players – to the point that Amanda Kessel’s strength over her brother Phil (yes, that Phil Kessel) has become a running joke in itself. Players like Jessica Platt and Harrison Browne have opened the sport to people of varying gender expressions, creating a sport that is truly more welcoming to folks who may not conform with their birth gender (myself included, although, I can barely stand up on the ice at this point).
However, as much as the NWHL is loved and appreciated by their fans, they are still struggling in some regards. A strike by some professional players seeking league-provided healthcare and basic living salaries that began after the dissolution of the CWHL led to a loss of some star players from the league, and a lack of investors prevented planned expansions into Montreal and Toronto this season. The NHL has largely turned a blind eye to the NWHL, with only two teams having partnerships with NHL teams (the Minnesota Whitecaps with the Minnesota Wild and the Boston Pride with the Bruins), down from four last season. NHL Commissioner (and possible demon) Gary Bettman said that they have no plans to enter the market while the NWHL is still in operation, completely nixing any hope of a women’s league supported by the major men’s league, similar to the WNBA.
However, speaking of the WNBA, cases have shown that the more general audience is exposed to women’s sports, the more viewership they gain and the more prosperous they become. The challenge then becomes actually reaching a wider audience, with major sports networks like ESPN unlikely to sign a major broadcast contract with a women’s league like the NWHL. The advent of internet broadcasting does help this significantly, however, still not nearly enough to make up the market share needed to be profitable. As a result, I’ve been simply spreading the word to my friends and family by telling them to just watch a game or two. And those that have done so really enjoy doing so. So I’m using my position here on the opinion page to tell you all to watch them, as well.
I’m sure some of you are reluctant simply because of the lack of a local team. And I understand that, because if there was a Pittsburgh NWHL team, I would certainly be a diehard fan of theirs, just like I am of the Penguins. Both NWHL analysts and most Pittsburgh hockey pundits, however, agree that Pittsburgh is an extremely ripe market for women’s hockey, and the NWHL even held their 2017 All-Star Game at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry. In naming potential NWHL expansion cities, apart from the two Canadian locations that were already announced, Pittsburgh has always been present. So getting a major league women’s hockey team here in Pittsburgh is simply a matter of supporting the NWHL and ensuring they have the level of support they need to expand here in the future.
To end – women’s hockey is a true sport that most folks tend to ignore. But I really do urge everybody reading to check out the NWHL sometime.