The Golden Age of Professional Women’s Hockey
Three of the CWHL’s teams—the Montreal Stars, the Calgary Inferno, and the Toronto Furies—have partnerships with NHL counterparts. In late May, Rylan told Sports Illustrated that she had been in contact with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
“He definitely wants the women’s game to grow, and he supports the grassroots level all the way to the pros. I definitely believe you have to have some thick skin to be a commissioner, and I’ve definitely taken some bumps and bruises just even in the short span of my career here. So I think I’ll learn a lot from Gary and definitely grow.”
The NWHL held its first-ever entry draft in Boston on June 20. Selected first overall by the New York Riveters was Boston College forward Alex Carpenter, this year’s recipient of the Patty Kazmaier Award. Her father, former Boston Bruin and Peabody native Bobby Carpenter, made history in 1981 as the first America-born player selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft. But he only went third overall.
Nearly half of the players drafted in the first round played for Beanpot colleges: Carpenter, Kendall Coyne (No. 3, Northeastern), Haley Skarupa, (No. 5, BC), Taunton’s Michelle Picard (No. 6, Harvard), Emerance Maschmeyer (No. 7, Harvard), Sarah Lefort (No. 8, Boston University), Lexi Bender (No. 11, BC), Dana Trivigno (No. 13, BC), and Miye D’Oench (No. 15, Harvard).
“When you pick four hockey cities to start a league, Boston is almost a no-brainer,” Rylan says, noting that New England and New York account for a third of USA Hockey registrations. “It didn’t take much to think that Boston would be a great fit for the NWHL.”
The feedback is already rolling in.
“A lot of the inspiration comes from the messages throughout the day I get from parents or players who say, ‘This is great. My daughter can now look up to someone.’ It can be a bad day at the office, and getting one of those letters makes everything better,” Rylan says. “That’s definitely a large part of the plan, to build this from the ground up. Getting women’s hockey in front of more girls so they can dream of being a pro athlete and can look up to these positive role models.”
Each NWHL team has a salary cap of $270,000, and each player can make between $10,000 and $25,000. The teams will generate revenue from sponsorships and jersey sales, of which each player will retain 15 percent of those bearing her name. The league will maintain ownership of its Founding Four in Year 1, but will explore sales in the future. In July, the NWHL announced the winners of its jersey design contest. The winners—Tabitha Hummel, Emily Scherer, Brooks Freeman, and Gabrielle Schofield—were all women.
“Ten years from now, I think I’d like to see the NWHL as a recognized professional sport and a platform for the best players in the world to continue playing after college and between Olympic years.”
The temperature and the cell service is equally inhospitable inside Ristuccia Arena, tempting even the most ardent supporters of women’s hockey to step outside into the muggy May haze and fire off a few texts before returning to the cold, hard benches. At a table in the lobby, players check in and pick up white and black practice jerseys and a couple pieces of fruit.
“Are those good bananas? They should be. They’re organic,” says Ristuccia general manager Bob Rotondo. “They were the only ones that weren’t green. Could you imagine? Walking into Market Basket and seeing a whole row of green bananas?”
It’s the first day of the Boston Pride’s training camp, and Rontondo, GM for nearly a decade, seems to know everyone. Nineteen years ago, he helped found the Northeast Women’s Hockey League, which later became the Boston Shamrocks.
“David Flint, the women’s coach at Northeastern, called me and asked me if I would contact Dani Rylan. So I contacted her and she told me what she was doing, and I said I’d be more than happy to help out,” he says. “So they’re going to skate and practice in the other rink we have in Everett, Allied Veterans Arena. And I believe they’re going to play their games at Harvard, and if they don’t play them at Harvard, they’ll play them down there [in Everett.] That’s tentative, like everything is. Up in the air.”
A few dozen spectators dot the stands and watch as the Pride run battle and corner drills. Former CWHL and collegiate teammates gather in clusters, puffs of fog emanating from the cages of their helmets where a few smiles can be seen. The head coaches of three of the four NWHL teams are men: NCAA D-III champion Jake Mastel (Whale), former NHLer Chad Wiseman (Riveters), and 2014 U.S. Women’s Olympic Team assistant coach Bobby Jay (Pride). Head coaching duties for the Beauts will be shared between Northeastern alum and Nagano gold medalist Shelley Looney and longtime Buffalo Sabres forward Ric Seiling.
“My skating is probably my biggest positive factor that I can showcase,” says University of Vermont alum Amanda Pelkey when the first day of training camp is over. At 5-foot-3, the scrum towers over the 22-year-old in flip-flops. “I think most of us are a little rusty, so today, just getting the rust off is what I was trying to showcase,” she laughs.
Pelkey says she always intended to continue her playing career after her four years with the Catamounts. Had the NWHL not come along, she would have joined the Blades. Then Rylan got to her.
“Dani and her crew did a really good job spreading the word, getting it out there,” Pelkey says. “And everyone, of course, grabbed onto it and really looked at this plan and was like, ‘Wow, this is really legit.’ They laid it out. They answered every question that you would ever think to ask about a league.”
The reporters disperse. Rotondo asks Pelkey if she’s sticking around for the second day of tryouts. She can’t—she has her grandmother’s 80th birthday party to attend. A month later, Pelkey becomes the first player signed by the Pride.
“We’re looking for a great team unit, really,” Pride general manager Hayley Moore says. “The basis of today was to bring all the players together and just get a lot of energy on the ice. But ultimately I would like to have a well-rounded team with a lot of different contributing players.”
Rylan had known Moore for a while and contacted her, and drew upon her experience and contacts in the Massachusetts hockey community: “Then it just spiraled from there. We were able to see what her vision was. The more I found out, the more I wanted to be involved. And now, here I am.”
After graduating Brown University in 2008 and before playing for the Boston Blades, Moore spent one season in Swiss Women’s Elite League, which also pays its players—not enough, as Moore eventually returned to the states. But it was something, and it meant everything.
“When I graduated, there weren’t these opportunities for players, and I’m just so happy to be a part of it and be able to offer that, because I know I would’ve appreciated it,” Moore says. “It’s a dream, just like any male hockey player has the dream to go to the NHL, now every female can have the dream to go to the NWHL.”
The 28-year-old GM says the Pride will seek a partnership with the Boston Bruins while relying on youth and community outreach to drive local fans to Everett, including a youth showcase before a Pride game.
“One of the greatest benefits of being in Boston is that hockey’s a sport that’s highly regarded, and there are so many schools, there are so many professional teams in the area, and hockey-wise, we know we’ll have a great fanbase—not only with the college and professional teams in the area, but with the youth programs,” Moore says. “So we’re looking to give those girls a dream and something to look forward to in their future.”
On October 11, the four teams of the NWHL will begin their season-long pursuit of the Isobel Cup, named after Canada’s Lady Isobel Gathorne-Hardy, daughter of Lord Stanley of Preston. Isobel, like many young women at the time, developed a fanatical passion for hockey in the sport’s infancy, after she and her father first watched hockey in person at the 1889 Winter Carnival in Montreal. She and her brothers convinced Lord Stanley to purchase a silver rose bowl and present it annually to the best amateur team in Canada. The “Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup” became the Stanley Cup.
Women and hockey have been indelibly linked since the sport’s inception. Now, as the sport enters a golden age of competition, it’s only fitting that it’s recognized.