[Originally written July 2017, when the Premier Hockey Federation, PHF, was called the National Women’s Hockey League, NWHL]
As summer has now arrived, all eyes are firmly set on ‘Season Three’ of the NWHL. For many this season could be make or break for the league, with many star players away at the Olympics and the CWHL expanding to new horizons, rumouring that they will pay their players. This is going to be a tough season for the NWHL. However, it’s not all doom and gloom- there are many promising announcements being made.
First of all, I must discuss the loss of the key star players as they head off to play for Team USA at the Olympics. These players are “centralised” for training and so will miss the whole of season three. Ten NWHL players have been called up, including Hillary Knight, All-Star MVP Amanda Kessel, and the league’s all-time point scorer, Brianna Decker. Without these big names they may struggle to draw in the more casual fan who isn’t so up to date with women’s hockey.
Despite ten of the biggest names leaving, this may not be as bad as some might think. Seven of these ten players are from the Pride: by far the most dominate team in the league, having a win rate of 85% over the first two years of their history. With their superstars away, there might be some more parity within the league. Don’t get me wrong, they have enough depth to still be competitive, and I would be surprised if they didn’t make the finals again this year, but the other teams should be able to challenge them a little more.
Another huge blow to the NWHL is the growth and expansion of the CWHL. Although this is great for women’s hockey in general, at the end of the day, the two leagues are in direct competition. After the majority of the Boston Blades left the CWHL to join the NWHL, we might be starting to see the beginnings of some of the talent flowing the other way. Keli Stack- formerly of the Connecticut Whale- has signed on with the Kunlun Red Star, the Chinese expansion team of the CWHL. She put up 22 points in 17 games, and is a huge signing for the new side.
Along with this signing, the CWHL has a great chance to capitalize on the growing hockey market in China. They obviously are doing well financially. The transport costs of this expansion alone are going to be hefty, and paired with the rumours that they are going to be paying their players (at least to some extend) this coming season, they look to be doing well.
However, the CWHL aren’t alone in making promising announcements. Women’s hockey as a whole is growing fast and the NWHL is showing signs of benefiting from this. Team Russia will be back to face the Whale, Pride, and Riveters in two games each in the Team Russia Summit Series. It’s very promising to see this relationship between the NWHL and the Russian team continue and flourish.
That is not the only partnership that is continuing. The Pittsburgh Penguins and the NWHL have announced that Pittsburgh will be host to at least one neutral site game and a ‘NHL Girls Youth Cup’, following the sell-out success of this year’s All-Star game. Along with the obvious chance to get a piece of the hockey fever that is sweeping the city following the Penguins’ successful defence of the Stanley Cup, it seems more and more likely that Pittsburgh will be one of the first expansion teams for the NWHL. It will be interesting to see where the other neutral game sites will be as it could give us an idea of where else the NWHL is considering expanding to.
Finally, the last piece of promising news, (for now), is the announcement of a partnership with Twitter. The social media giant will livestream 19 NWHL games across the year, including two of the Team Russia Summit Series and the All-Star game. This goes along with Twitter’s recent announcement of a similar deal with the WNBA, which means that they are looking to really push greater coverage of women’s sports, which is great news for all.
Overall, I would consider there to be more positives than negatives. This is going to be a tough season, for the reasons above combined with the fact that the league hasn’t announced any more major sponsors, (still just Dunkin Donuts). But if the league can make it through this year and is still looking to expand to new markets, I would say that the future is looking pretty bright for the long term survival of the NWHL.