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NWHL expands to Minnesota on the heels of All-Star Game success, Olympic excitement

After a sold-out All-Star Game, Team USA’s Olympic success and with a market chock full of talent, NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan called the 2018-19 campaign the perfect time to welcome the Minnesota Whitecaps as the league’s first expansion franchise.

The NWHL’s Founding Four is getting a fifth.

Amidst speculation the league would be announcing its first expansion team at an event in Saint Paul, Minn., on Tuesday, the NWHL formerly introduced the Minnesota Whitecaps as the league’s fifth franchise. The Whitecaps, who have been in operation since 2004 and continued as an independent organziation for the past several seasons, will enter into the NWHL in time for the 2018-19 campaign, joining the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale and reigning Isobel Cup-champion Metropolitan Riveters.

NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan explained that discussions with the Whitecaps began well before Tuesday’s announcement, however. In fact, the NWHL has had its eye on expanding to Minnesota since the league’s inaugural campaign. Over the past few seasons, the league has tested the waters — exhibition games were played against Minnesota in 2015 and the NWHL All-Star Game was hosted at Saint Paul’s TRIA Rink last season — and the reception and support from the community helped accelerate discussions between the league and Minnesota’s formerly independent women’s team. “We sold out the All-Star Game, had over 500,000 people tune in and watch live on Twitter,” Rylan said. “I think that, combined with the women coming back from the Olympics with gold medals around their necks a couple weeks later, made this the perfect time to expand.”

The NWHL likely couldn’t have picked a better market for their first foray into expansion, either, in terms of both fan support, recognition and a readymade talent pool from which to pluck a roster. The Whitecaps alone have been able to remain viable for 14 seasons and Saint Paul, Minneapolis and the surrounding communities produce waves of talent each year. “When you look at all the data, almost 20 percent of all girls playing hockey in the United States play in the state of Minnesota,” Rylan said. “On top of that, over 28 women are graduating from the five Division I programs this year, which is almost an entire roster of players as it is. The recent grads, year after year, plus the Olympians, like Dani Cameranesi, Hannah Brandt, Lee Stecklein, it’s so important that we provide a league for those women to play in.”

Ideally, the NWHL would have been able to provide this opportunity to those players prior to this campaign, but, Rylan said, it took time for the league to understand what it takes to thrive in the professional sports landscape. The NWHL has, of course, had its rocky moments, including the controversy not long ago when players had their salaries cut as the league faced financial trouble during the 2016-17 campaign. But with those issues seemingly ironed out, the NWHL saw this as the right opportunity for growth. “Learning about our league took time and resources and patience,” Rylan explained. “Being able to look at the opportunity for as long as we have and knowing that it wasn’t right the last three years and it is right now. Our success out here with our All-Star Game and the success of the Olympics really made it a no-brainer to push the accelerator down and make sure we could get this done for this upcoming season.”

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Unlike other major professional leagues such as the NHL where a new member team would be independently bankrolled, the Whitecaps were acquired by the NWHL and will be league-owned for the time being, just as the Founding Four franchises were upon the league’s creation. Rylan knows full well that adding a new team and the salaries that come along with it will add a new wave of expenses for the NWHL, but the league has “run through the numbers” and are of the belief that Minnesota will provide the league with a “viable growth opportunity.”

That doesn’t mean the NWHL won’t attempt to off-load the franchise in the future, potentially to the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. That’s not far-fetched, either, as the Beauts were purchased by Pegula Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Sabres and NFL’s Bills among other Buffalo sporting teams, in December 2017, and the Riveters entered into a “strategic alignment” with the New Jersey Devils ahead of the NWHL’s 2017-18 season. “Being able to plug into the marketing engines of the teams that do it best has had an immediate impact on our two teams with NHL partnership or ownership,” Rylan said. “So, to have that blueprint ready to flip to our current teams and potential new expansion teams, as well, is incredibly valuable and we couldn’t be happier with the two partnerships we have so far and we look forward to continuing our conversations with the Wild.”

For the time being, though, the focus is on the logistics surrounding the Whitecaps’ addition to the NWHL. While Rylan made clear players will be flown to-and-from Minnesota during the season, other decisions are yet to be made, such as where the Whitecaps will select in the upcoming entry draft, what impact a fifth team will have on the schedule — it seems likely the 16-game schedule will increase to 20 games to accommodate another pair of home and road games for each team — and who will work the front office and bench for the expansion franchise. The latter may need to be ironed out sooner rather than later, too, with NWHL free agency set to open on June 1.

“I think it’s important that we focus on making the Whitecaps’ first year in the NWHL as successful as possible,” Rylan said. “But from there we’re excited to continue to look at potential expansion markets and maybe have a mid-west rivalry out here someday.”

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