Despite 200+ women's hockey players proclaiming their support #ForTheGame and their intention not to play in any North American professional league in the 2019-2020 season, and in spite of several other complications, the National Women's Hockey League has declared its intentions to continue on with the upcoming season as planned. As of June 27, the league and its five member teams have announced 31 player signings.
If you've been living under a rock the last few months: the CWHL folded after the 2018-19 season. A lot's happened since then, including some people calling for the NWHL to shutter so that the NHL could step in; the NWHL Board's approval of investment in two Canadian markets, and the NHL paying a paltry $100,000 to the NWHL in support.
In early May, over 200 women's hockey players at various levels adopted the #ForTheGame mantra, a collective labor action that Zoë discussed further here. The move came on the heels of an NWHL announcement regarding increased salaries and revenue splits, but these seemingly-impressive announcements don't actually amount to a whole lot in the bigger scheme of things.
Days later, Pegula Sports and Entertainment, who had been operating the Buffalo Beauts franchise, announced that it had severed its ties with the NWHL and planned to return operational control of the team to the league. All active Beauts players from the 2018-19 roster with public social media accounts had posted #ForTheGame messages, but PSE's split from the NWHL was reportedly not directly tied to the movement. (More on this in a bit.)
On May 17, the creation of the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association, a non-profit, was announced. For more information, read Kirsten's piece, which includes quotes from former CWHL goaltender and CWHLPA co-chair Liz Knox here.
Just six days later, the NWHL Players' Association announced on LinkedIn that it reached an agreement with the league on a contract that "includes significant improvements to player benefits." The fact that this announcement was made on LinkedIn, rather than being directly distributed to media members, was certainly A Decision.
The announcement expressed increases in per diem, salary cap and minimum salary, but framed these in terms of percentages, rather than looking directly at the numbers – which aren't impressive. The contract also includes an option clause, which states that if a player chooses to terminate their contract, they will be unable to sign in another professional league in North America until September 28, 2020.
All of this combined brings up questions about the NWHL's ethics and concerns about the well-being of the athletes playing in the league, and the labor conditions that those players face should they choose to play in the league.
The Latest Details
The NWHL has since stepped back on its decision to expand to two Canadian markets for the upcoming season, but says it remains open to adding more teams in the future, possibly in the 2020-21 season. Amid all that's happened and continues to happen in the women's hockey world, keeping five teams afloat may be a challenge in and of itself; adding more teams to the mix on such short notice seemed like more of a reactionary move than anything else, and wasn't logically possible or sustainable in such a short timeframe.
Since free agency opened, 31 players have signed with NWHL teams, including 10 rookies. If the NWHL is able to sign enough players to field a five-team league in the fall, it will almost certainly be a very different league than in seasons past. Each team has been allocated a $150,000 salary cap, and players will receive a minimum salary of $4,000. Each player has been allowed to decide whether or not their salary information is released, with the majority electing not to release such information.
Players who have signed on with the league thus far include Kaleigh Fratkin, who will earn $11,000 next season and was vocally anti-#ForTheGame movement; Madison Packer, who will earn $12,000 next season (and is marrying Anya Battaglino, head of the NWHLPA, who was vocally anti-#ForTheGame, this summer); and Amanda Leveille.
The league has also announced its intention to expand the schedule next season, reportedly extending the season to 24 games per team in the 2019-20 season.
What's Going On in Buffalo?
After Pegula Sports & Entertainment severed its ties with the NWHL (in a move that was likely coming for a while), it was assumed that the league regained control of the team and would run the Beauts, just as they had run (and owned) the other teams in the league.
It's important to note a few things here. First of all, PSE never actually owned the Beauts organization. There was no franchise fee; they simply assumed control of the team, and made a strong effort to support women's hockey in doing so. They improved player working conditions by providing locker rooms, ice time, athletic facilities, and team meals. They also made notable improvements to marketing, advertising, game presentation and more. PSE helped turn the Beauts into a model women's hockey franchise - but they never owned them.
As NWHL free agency continued through the month of May, the Beauts remained without any players, or even any administrative staff. With PSE's departure, and, apparently, the departure of GM/coach Cody McCormick, the team didn't even have a general manager until May 28. Mandy Cronin was named to the position, but the team still remained without any players signed for weeks.
On June 14, Pete Perram was named the team's head coach. Later that day, the team finally had its first signing for the 2019-2020 season: captain Corinne Buie. Like several others who have since signed in the NWHL, Buie had previously expressed her support of the #ForTheGame movement, but has since removed those posts on social media.
The NWHL has announced two more signings for Buffalo since then: goaltender Mariah Fujimagari, and forward Brooke Stacey, who played part of last season in the SDHL.
Then things got really interesting. On or around June 22, the Beauts' social media accounts on both Twitter and Instagram were suddenly deleted. The Beauts' Facebook page remains active, but has not posted anything since May 28.
(Shortly after this article was first posted, two new Buffalo Beauts Twitter accounts were discovered. It seems likes someone is username squatting on potential @s; whether that is actually the NWHL is unclear. They have the same branding as the old account: @Buffalo_Beauts, @NWHLBeauts. The original account, @BuffaloBeauts, is still inactive.)
According to The Buffalo News, Pegula Sports & Entertainment had a verbal agreement to return control of the Beauts to the NWHL; the league has not signed the separation paperwork, and has reportedly made additional financial demands. The Buffalo Beauts word mark had also been transferred on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website as belonging to "Buffalo Beauts Hockey, LLC."
Since PSE still legally holds the rights to the name and intellectual property, the NWHL is unable to use either of those. Thus, the social media accounts were deactivated (or deleted), and the uncertainty clouding the future just got a little deeper. At this point, if the NWHL plans to have a team in Buffalo in the fall, they will have to create a new team name/identity. They also still need to negotiate an agreement to play at Harborcenter, or another rink in the area, which may be more challenging given the situation with PSE, and the NWHL's alleged troubled history with making payments on time.
Amid all the uncertainty, there are still those three players (Buie, Fujimagari, Stacey) signed to play in Buffalo next season. But there are more questions than answers as to what the team around them is going to look like, should there be a team at all.
As of June 27, here are the players signed with each team in the NWHL for the 2019-20 season:
BOSTON: Fratkin, Sullivan, Putigna, Rheault, Bender, Laing, Souliotis, Parker, Dempsey, Brand, Kelly
BUFFALO: Buie, Fujimagari, Stacey
CONNECTICUT: Doyle, Marchin, Broad, Orlando, Brickner, Morisette
METROPOLITAN: Packer, Hutchison, Murphy, Morse
MINNESOTA: Thunstrom, Leveille, Curtis, Schammel, Boulier, White-Lancette, Martinson
What Happens Next?
Although there are more players signing in the NWHL these days, there are still a lot of open roster spots to fill. Both the Whale and Riveters have already held free agent camps; the other three teams have scheduled camps in late July. The Whitecaps will hold a free agent camp at TRIA Rink July 20-21, while the Pride and Buffalo will hold camps July 27-28 at Warrior Ice Arena and Northtown Center, respectively.
Things have been relatively quiet on the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association front, but indications are that these players are working behind the scenes toward something in the aim of bettering the conditions of women's hockey. Most of the players who posted in support of #ForTheGame have not signed in any North American league – though we have seen some sign in Europe – and we'll be keeping a close eye on what happens, or doesn't, in the next few months.
Zoe and Tori Hickel, who both proclaimed their support #ForTheGame, have signed in the SDHL's Linköping. While Tori was already playing in Europe, Zoe spent two seasons each in the NWHL (Boston, Connecticut) and CWHL (Kunlun, Calgary).
Katerina Mrázová and Denisa Křížová have signed with Brynäs IF in Sweden, while Michelle Löwenhielm has signed with HV71. Joining Löwenhielm on HV71 is U.S. Olympian Sidney Morin, who had also previously played overseas. All four proclaimed their support #ForTheGame on social media.
Canadian defender Emma Keenan, fresh out of Clarkson University, signed with the SDHL's Göteborg, while both Canadian gold medalist Jennifer Wakefield and Allie Munroe, former captain at Syracuse, both signed with Djurgården. And yes, all three have posted their support #ForTheGame.
31 players is hardly enough; the NWHL will need many more players to sign before the upcoming season. Either the legal situation with PSE will need to be sorted, or the league will need to create an entirely new identity for the team in Buffalo. In addition to player contracts being signed, the league also needs to work out contracts or agreements for rinks for these teams to play in next season, at least in Buffalo, if not elsewhere.
Following all of that would presumably be a schedule release, ticket information (Whitecaps season tickets are already on sale, with a required non-refundable deposit), additional player signings and coaching announcements, and then, eventually, the hockey season itself, likely in early October. That may seem like a long way away, but in reality, it's already nearly July, and the normal women's hockey season will be here before we know it.
What the NWHL will look like when the hockey season arrives? Well, that's a whole different question that no one has the answer to just yet.