(Photo: Supplied by Dani Rylan)
The past two weeks have been a roller coaster ride for Dani Rylan.
The commissioner of the brand new National Women’s Hockey League has put together a business model where women get paid to play hockey – and now she has to make it work.
“The money to pay the players is coming from both sponsors and donors,” said Rylan. “We’re looking for three to five year (financial) commitments.”
And finding those commitments hasn’t been as difficult as she thought it would be.
“Usually the conversations start with, ‘I had no idea this didn’t exist before’ and it turns to ‘this is a no brainer, this is something we want to support’ ,” Rylan expanded. “It’s great when you don’t have to pitch the actual sport itself, and when people know the women’s game is competitive and it’s worth the sponsorship dollars and donations because it is a great sport to watch.”
Rylan knows first hand what a professional female hockey player is looking for, after all. She graduated from Northeastern University in 2012, where she played hockey for two years. She earned 20 career points and was named tri-captain of the team her senior year.
But the last few weeks she has found herself dodging questions about how the NWHL will co-exist with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
“This was never about the CWHL’s U.S. expansion,” said Rylan. “We’re grateful for what the CWHL has done for the sport and it’s just a different model.”
The NWHL is in (mostly) different markets than than the CWHL, after all –the only exception being Boston. The NWHL will plant a team in Boston called the Boston Pride, while the CWHL’s Boston franchise is the Boston Blades.
“Boston is a hockey hotbed and you can look at the college and universities in the area like BU, BC, Northeastern, and Harvard, it’s the best college hockey in the world and a lot of girls and Olympians plant their roots in Boston and train with Mike Boyle in between (seasons), so that’s why we decided on Boston in particular,” she said. “And all the others are nice and close and good viable hockey towns.”
Rylan said she isn’t worried about fighting for players or fans of women’s hockey in Boston.
“There’s enough talent in Boston, there will be enough players to play in two organizations,” she said.
Rylan is also looking for NHL franchises to partner with those NWHL franchises in the area, and she has already approached the NHL about a league-wide partnership.
“I do feel optimistic about an NHL partnership down the road,” she said. “The NHL definitely wants to support women’s hockey, starting at the grassroots level, all the way to professional hockey.”
Rylan–who will be league commissioner and possibly general manager of the New York Riveters–will still only get one vote on the league’s Board of Governors, she said. She discussed also looking at hiring a general manager for the team in the future.
The NWHL is looking to differentiate itself in the way it markets its teams.
“We want to bring the focus to the players,” she said. “They are the best players in the world, so we will have a huge emphasis on marketing and conveying the passion that hockey fans have, and putting the spotlight on the best women’s hockey players in the world.”
The response to the new league has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It just goes to show how excited these markets are for women’s hockey and it makes me excited to put the merchandise out there and get apparel to the fans,” she said.
Rylan described the last two weeks as having been a whirlwind since the league launched.
“It’s been an exciting journey and I’m really excited that this is the next step in women’s hockey, but at the end of the day it’s not about me, it’s about what these women deserve and even though we are paying them it’s not enough. So the goal is to make it a full time, viable job, as opposed to right now it’s a part-time job,” she said.
As for people who read into the NWHL as an American answer to the CWHL, and just another battle of the USA vs Canada rivalry – Rylan dismisses that assumption and anything but true.
“It’s not on my radar at all,” she said.
What is on her radar is expanding in the Midwest, into Minnesota in particular, or even in Canada.
“Minnesota is the center of hockey in America and it’s a great place for hockey so we hope to expand in that direction too,” Rylan explained.
But year number one will be about making the NWHL as successful as possible, before expansion is considered.
“And after that we want to make this successful so it can be a one and only job for these athletes,” she said.
Rylan knows it’s a tough road out there for women’s hockey leagues, but that isn’t deterring her.
When asked what makes the NWHL different than other women’s leagues of the past, Rylan goes back to the business model.
“We’re starting off small. The first thing we got is a bus partnership. We are going to grow when the time is right and I think there’s a lot of thought into the business model and that is what makes it a viable league,” she said.