[Originally written July 2017, when the Premier Hockey Federation, PHF, was called the National Women’s Hockey League, NWHL]
It’s about that time again. With Pittsburgh now looking like a ‘definitely maybe’ for expansion, it’s now time to take a look at the possible candidates that could be joining the Steel City in the NWHL. First up, Washington D.C.
First of all, I will take a look at where we stand in terms of expansion for the league as a whole. It makes sense once again to start with this statement from NWHL commissioner, Dani Rylan, made back in 2016:
“We have received interest from several markets and prospective ownership groups, and we will reviews 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.”
On top of this, the league has already stated that they will be holding games on neutral sites. What this means in terms of how many games and where they will be played is yet to be announced. If Washington, however, is one of these locations to host at least one neutral game, then I would say that their chances for getting a NWHL team are pretty good.
With all of this information I am going to assume that there is an investor with money happy to back a team in Washington D.C. Obviously keeping a professional team running costs a huge amount of money and the idea of turning a profit is only an idea on the horizon at a team’s founding. However, with people having ‘shown interest’, we’ll take this is as a given and look at some of the practical details of a team.
First up is the rink, and there’s a clear choice here. The Kettler Capitals Iceplex centre is the training rink for the NHL’s Washington Capitals, and is already home to a women’s professional sports team in the WNBA’s- Washington Mystics. The rink has a seating capacity of 1,200. This would make it the second largest rink used by the league, behind the Harbor Centre where the Beauts currently play. For me, this is the perfect size for a rink in the NWHL, large enough for growth of the fan base but not so massive that it looks empty on the livestreams.
It’s also important to look at, if any, groundwork that has been laid by others to support a women’s team. The Washington Wolves fulfil this role, similar to the Puffins in Pittsburgh. The Wolves, formed in 1975, compete in the Mid-Atlantic Women’s Hockey League (MAWHL), just like Puffins do. They have had much success at the amateur level, winning several MAWHL titles. This is promising as it shows that there is already women’s hockey, (at some level), in the city, and the fact that it has been around for so long means that they are firmly grounded in the hockey community.
Other than women’s hockey, obviously, the city is home to the Washington Capitals of the NHL. The Capitals sold out their arena for the season, and ranked 11th in attendance across the NHL. It is generally considered a solid NHL franchise, skill wise and financially. Its only shortcoming is the fact that they can’t get past the second round of the playoffs, perhaps a feat that their women’s counterpart could manage. However, maybe a better indicator of whether a NWHL expansion team could work in the city would be to look at the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. The Mystics, founded in 1998, averaged over 7,000 fans a game last season and have been drawing similar numbers for the entirety of their history. This is promising as it shows that people are willing to turn out and watch women play sports, something that has proven difficult for many women’s teams due to, sadly, the stigma surrounding female athletes. Also, with the Mystics having quite the history now, women’s sports teams would hopefully be treated with the respect and time that they deserve within the media rather than as some sort of gimmick which they are sometimes presented as.
Finally, we need to look at how Washington would fit in geographically with the rest of the league. Without Washington, the average distance between teams is 282 miles, while with it included, brings that number up to 307 miles. Not much of a difference there, however, Washington and Boston would be 440 miles away from each other. This raises the idea of having conferences; if Pittsburgh were to get a team as well in the expansion, this becomes a very interesting idea. Washington is within 250 miles of Pittsburgh and New York and so could form one conference, while Boston, Connecticut and Buffalo would form the other conference. However, you could also have New York, Connecticut and Boston form an Atlantic conference and have Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Washington as an inland conference which makes geographical sense as well. How the matches and playoff picture broke down from there would be up to the league as a whole, but adding at least two teams to the picture makes the most the sense to me.
Overall, Washington is pretty much set for an NWHL expansion, and with the addition a Pittsburgh team could make the perfect addition to the league for the fourth season. We’ll have to wait and see where the neutral games for the coming season will be held to see if Washington is in with any shot of getting a team any time soon.