PHF Expansion Watch: Pittsburgh

Opinion PHF

[Originally written February 2017, when the Premier Hockey Federation, PHF, was called the National Women’s Hockey League, NWHL]

After the excitement of the NWHL’s excursion to the city of Pittsburgh in the shape of its annual All-Star game, I decided to have a closer look at the Steel City. Here is some analysis to determine whether it would be possible for the league to put down some more permanent roots in the form of a team.

First of all, is the league even interested in any sort of expansion? It’s been no secret that league commissioner Rylan wants to add to the founding four teams currently competing. At the end of last year’s Isobel Trophy Playoff livestream, there was a strong teaser suggesting the league was looking at Montreal and Toronto as possible cities to move to. However, it’s clear that such a move would be as good as an act of war against the CWHL, which has three teams in those cities already. The offseason came and went and no announcements were made. When the harsh reality of running a professional league was realised, cuts were made and plans for the future were laid out. Rylan made this statement on expansions:

“We have received interest from several markets and prospective ownership groups, and we will review these options over the next year. We’re grateful for their enthusiasm for the NWHL and professional women’s hockey. Women’s hockey is one of the fastest growing sports in North America. Last year alone, USA Hockey saw close to 5% growth in girls’ registration. It’s only a matter of time before we’ll have to expand to accommodate both the talent pool and the fan base.”

She also stated that the soonest expansion teams added would be for the 2018/19 season. However, that isn’t to say that I won’t be looking at several locations before then to weigh up where would be the best option. On that note, I have decided to start with Pittsburgh, as it was strongly hinted that the host for All-Star game would be a location that is in consideration for a team. This would suggest that there is an investor with the money ready to fund a NWHL team in Pittsburgh. Sadly, the money is the most important thing for any team.

Along with money, there are several things that are needed to make a successful team.

First of all, the team will need somewhere to play. Pittsburgh is no stranger to hockey, having had the Pittsburgh Penguins in town for 50 years this year. There is a good strong history and culture of hockey, meaning that there are several rinks which the team could use. The most inviting would be the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex which was host to the All-Star game. It has a capacity of around 500 seats, which would make it the second largest rink the league uses behind Buffalo’s, which can host 1800 fans. Along with the fact that following a highly successful All-Star weekend, there is now some history of the league and the sports centre working together- a solid foundation to build on.

So, with some money and rink to skate on, the next thing would be to fill the rink with fans. Is there a viable market for the NWHL to tap into here? The All-Star game was a sell-out, which is a good start, although obviously, you wouldn’t expect such crowds for regular season games. The Pittsburgh Penguins have drawn a good number of fans, with an average attendance of 18,500- the 10th best attendance stats in the NHL. With the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup last season and being in fine form, the next few years seem like an ideal time to benefit from the hockey fever sweeping Pittsburgh. There is also a good foundation of women’s hockey, with several recreational leagues throughout the city. One of these is the Pittsburgh Puffins, an amateur team founded in 1998 which has competed in the Mid-Atlantic Women’s Hockey League since 2002.

The final thing to consider is how the location fits in with the rest of the league. Being within the USA, unlike Montreal and Toronto, has the benefit that there is no need to cross borders or worry about exchange rates- something which has troubled leagues that operate both in the USA and Canada. However, Pittsburgh would be the furthest inland team within the NWHL, and would increase the average travel distance between teams from 282 miles to 328 miles. That’s a 16% increase, and the teams travelling by coach adds to the cost of time and money to get the players to where they need to be.

Of course, once all of these issues have been solved, we can move on to the more exciting matters of what the team would be called, and what the team colours and logo will be. The name Pittsburgh Puffins works well but is taken, the Pittsburgh Pirates could also be an option. The NWHL has favoured teams named after animals; 3 out of 4 of the teams do so already. So if we go with the alliteration we could end up with any of the following, Pelicans, Polar Bears, Piranhas, or really anything. Then there are the colours; currently the Penguins and Steelers both play in a matching gold and black, which is similar to Boston’s current colour scheme. Would Pittsburgh adopt the gold and black to fit with the rest of the teams or go their own way?

All in all, Pittsburgh is looking like a solid choice for the NWHL to expand to, with the foundations having been laid. With the current statements that have been made regarding expansions, I would have to say that currently, Pittsburgh is looking like the favourite to become the 5th team in the NWHL.

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