This coming weekend, the NWHL and a cast of its all-star talent will head to Nashville to take over Bridgestone Arena. After Saturday’s skills competition, which will feature hardest shot, fastest skater and accuracy shooting events, among others, the NWHL All-Star Game will follow Sunday’s matinee tilt between the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues and provide hockey fans with a unique doubleheader.
Ahead of the festivities, The Hockey News caught up with commissioner Dani Rylan to discuss not just all-star weekend, but the direction the league has gone over the past four seasons, the steps it wants to take in the future and whether or not the success of the expansion Minnesota Whitecaps — on ice and otherwise — could mean further growth sooner rather than later.
The Hockey News: How would you assess the overall health of the league right now?
Dani Rylan: We couldn’t be happier about our trajectory and what we have going on. Really, a remarkable couple of years for professional women’s hockey, in particular the last 15 months and what we’ve been able to do, the deals we’ve been able to close and the interest we’ve been able to generate. In sum, I’d say we’ve never been healthier.
THN: There’s obviously going to be a bit of an Olympic impact, which happens after every cycle. How have you seen that or felt it over the past several months?
DR: There’s no doubt about that. It’s a huge boost in the arm for us. The fact that the US women came back with gold and they’re playing in our league and the general interest and hype surrounding women’s hockey is at a peak. It just makes every conversation easier because we don’t have to sell the product. Everyone who was watching (the gold medal game in Pyeongchang) knows that the quality to play is where it needs to be for a pro league, and the willingness to support that is greater than ever.
THN: Over the past few months and seasons, there have been partnerships forming with NHL clubs. How important are those to the league?
DR: It’s important for both our teams and the league, as well as the NHL teams that we’re working with. I think that we’ve informally been working with a lot of the teams since our first season, whether it’s with youth clinics or other collaborations. Now that we can formalize it and both commit to the same goals and objectives, which is growing the women’s game and advancing the women’s game from the grassroots level all the way on up, is amazing. Obviously, being able to plug into their marketing engine and have a larger stage to put our role models on and our players on is amazing. We’re incredibly grateful for those partnerships that have formed over the past 15 months.
THN: The league is still, relatively speaking, in its infancy. Every burgeoning business inevitably faces hiccups. The wage structure and pay-cuts were a big story years back. How did you get over that hurdle? And how have you come out the other side?
DR: Any startup business needs to make business decisions. Everything had changed between our first season and our second season outside of our player salaries, and we just needed to rightsize that to make sure that we were healthy and could continue to grow. While it was the hardest decision that I’ve ever made as a commissioner, it was definitely the right one because we’re here today and we couldn’t be happier about our trajectory.
THN: One thing that was interesting when the league came in was the salary and contract information. From either a business standpoint or a fan interest standpoint, is there any plan to go back to making salary information public either in the near or not-too-distant future?
DR: It’s not something that we’ve discussed internally, but we’re always open to be transparent and provide the right information to our fans and to the media and also do the right thing for our players.
(Note: Upon request for specifics, the NWHL stated player contracts range between $3,000 and $10,000. Each contract is guaranteed, and paid out across a schedule that consists of two weekly practices and a 16-game regular season. Additional money can be made via the All-Star Game and post-season.)
THN: Going to Nashville seems like a great opportunity for the league, but what went into the decision to play the game in Nashville, which isn’t an NWHL market?
DR: The last two seasons we’ve gone out of market for our All-Star Game — 2017 in Pittsburgh, 2018 in Minneapolis-St. Paul — and just the metrics we were able to draw from those two out of market events made it a desirable tradition that we wanted to carry on. When we were thinking about markets, Nashville came to mind. We want to be some place exciting, some place different, but also in a hockey town. The Predators are so committed to the community and growing the game and educating their fans about the game. When they talk about the game, it’s not just boys and men. It’s the girls and women’s game, as well. They’ve been amazing to work with and have really been committed to this event and hockey in Nashville.
THN: Obviously the Whitecaps coming to the league in Minnesota changes the conversation a bit, but maybe in Pittsburgh and Nashville, what kind of growth have you seen or are you hoping to see after you’ve gone there?
DR: What we learned from our first out of market game in 2017 is that our fanbase is much larger than where we’re geographically located. In the month of February 2017, our fanbase grew 15 percent in that month alone just by going to a new market. And then obviously the result of the All-Star Game in Minnesota was a catalyst in expansion. For this All-Star Game, we’re looking to do the same thing. Maybe not hit similar metrics on fan growth, but if we can get there, that’s amazing. And any little girl that’s introduced to a professional female athlete for the first time, that’s a win for us in Nashville.
THN: Does having Olympians like Shannon Szabados and Lee Stecklein help sell the game to fans and market these players?
DR: That is one of the reasons we exist, to provide these women not only a platform to play, but also a platform to grow their brands. It’s mutual, for sure. The stars in the league are our focus, especially around all-star. It’s a unique opportunity. The skills competition is one of my favorite events. The players can take their helmets off, you can see the smiles on all the faces and how much fun they’re having playing the game. It’s one of the few times women will have their hardest shot recorded and different things like that. The focus is on the stars, having them in one place at one time is really going to be fun for any hockey fan.
THN: You mention personal brand and growing their personal brand. How do you help them do that?
DR: It’s a unique opportunity where everyone is together, we’re heavily relying on our PR and content teams, between the NWHL and the Preds. I think for us it’s an opportunity for them to be themselves as players. It’s 4-on-4, so they can get creative on the ice. It’s high scoring. And like I said, the skills competition, their helmets are off and you see how much fun these players are having and how much this game really means to them. And just to be with other players on other teams, as well. It’s fun to see.
THN: You mentioned earlier the Whitecaps and the All-Star Game being a catalyst to pursue expansion in Minneapolis-St. Paul. That’s a big step forward for the league. Do you see potential for expansion on the horizon? Is that something you’re looking at?
DR: We’re always looking at different opportunities to expand. We’ve circled a few markets that we believe would work very well for an NWHL team. We’re always exploring growth opportunities.
THN: By circling a few markets, would it be accurate to suggest that it’s the ones you’re testing with All-Star Games? Are those test markets?
DR: I believe any out of market game is a good test. Going to Minnesota, we were testing the market and obviously that market doesn’t need much testing. We’re always collecting data and looking to make the right decisions for the league.
THN: The success of the Whitecaps, are you surprised at all with how instantaneous it’s been in Minnesota?
DR: It’s been unbelievable to watch. Not only the fans, but the engagement in the community, how receptive the Wild have been, the partners who have jumped on board, like TRIA. It’s definitely gone better than I expected, and my expectations were pretty high, so that really speaks volumes for what that market means to hockey in general, but specifically the NWHL.
THN: Does that give you more faith in the idea that maybe expansion could come sooner rather than later? Because obviously there seems to be a thirst and a hunger there for more professional women’s hockey.
DR: For sure. I think this was a great study for us in what expansion looks like. It definitely makes us more comfortable when we start thinking about the next market, a little more educated on what it all takes. Minnesota was obviously unique in that the Whitecaps existed as an independent team before we acquired them. But yes, this was a great case study in expansion and does help us wrap our arms around what it would look like to expand again.
THN: If you were to look a couple years down the road, even as few as one or two years, what’s your vision for the NWHL in the near future?
DR: One of the next big steps for us is the need to have a broadcast deal. We have great players, great teams and really a great brand of hockey that deserves a larger platform. So, being able to get more attention and viewership and fans tuning into the game, little girl’s exposed to the game, I think is the next big thing on our list.