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NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan reflects on first two seasons

Rylan talks about the USWNT boycott, NWHLPA, and looking ahead to season three.

Dani Rylan hands the game puck to MVP Brianne McLaughlin
Michelle Jay

Nobody would disagree that the NWHL has had a roller coaster of a second season. From lawsuits to salary cuts to shortened schedules, the NWHL’s 2016-2017 was on thin ice. Still, one thing remained constant: commissioner Dani Rylan’s belief in the League.

The Ice Garden was able to catch up with Rylan during the Isobel Cup Final on Sunday evening and ask her about the future of the NWHL and her reflections on the first two seasons.

For the players

Rylan dreamed of a paid, professional women’s hockey league that focused on its players’ best interests. As time passed, she took it upon herself to realize her dream and achieve her vision for women’s hockey.

Despite the financial instability that crippled the league this past season, her vision remained on supporting the players.

Her player-first mentality did not waver when the US Women’s National Team announced their boycott of the World Championships. Rylan took the initiative to showcase the league’s support in pre-game ceremonies during the Isobel Cup Final.

“What [the national team players] believe in and what they stand for is what we believe in as well,” said Rylan. “We want to be there to support them, and to have an opportunity to do something special like [the ceremony] and involve the players on their team, who also support them, was something that we thought was important.”

The League has also supported more than its current players. For instance, though Harrison Browne officially retired after raising the Isobel Cup this season, he will have a place on the league’s advisory board next season.

“It hasn’t just been the jobs that were created on the ice, but it’s the jobs outside them as well: officials, writers, reporters, coaching staff, even game day staff,” said Rylan. “It’s really been great to see that those opportunities were kind of spurred by the league.”

The future of the league

The plans for the third season are already underway, Rylan said. The league is committed to its four original franchises, but will also continue to experiment elsewhere. Rylan commented that the sold-out All-Star Game in Pittsburgh increased their social media fanbase by 15% in one month, so bringing the show on the road is something the league is interested in continuing to do (though we don’t yet know where that will be).

“We’re looking to schedule a few different satellite games throughout the season and maybe test a few new markets .... We’ve been modeling the women’s hockey fanbase for a while now, and it’s bigger than just the Northeast, so we want to bring the best of the best to different cities wherever we can,” stated Rylan.

However, there are important questions to answer in the off-season. The financial stability of the league is still in flux, and the salary cap for the players is an elephant in the room.

“We don’t know yet,” answered Rylan when asked about next year’s salary cap. “That’s going to be one of the things that’s addressed this off-season.”

Still, Rylan remains optimistic and excited about the League’s potential future with different sponsors.

“We’re constantly having conversations [with sponsors] and hope to have some exciting announcements before next year. .... A lot of potential partners or sponsors have said, ‘Well, we’ll wait until you have a year or two of experience under your belt,’ and now we do. We’re excited to get those guys back on the phone and say, ‘let’s do a deal.’”

Summer plans

Though the second NWHL season is over, what happens in the summer will be critical for the league as it starts prepping for its third year. A player who will help make those decisions is Anya Battaglino, the recently appointed head of the NWHLPA. Rylan had nothing but good things to say about Battaglino as she has stepped into her new role.

“It’s been amazing. We launched the league with a PA and we always thought it was important to have that, for the players to have a voice,” said Rylan. “When there were more things to be discussed, having a point person to deliver the message was vital and she stepped in and took over and kept running. It’s been really great to have her there.”

Battaglino and other players will continue to have a voice this summer, said Rylan. Though she said there were “no updates” on the requests made by players after the salary cuts, it is inevitably something weighing on fans’ and players’ minds. Currently, there are two NWHLPA reps on each team that work with Battaglino, but that will shift a bit this summer. Several of the player reps are on the US national team and will likely leave the league for a year once centralization for the Olympics starts.

“We’ve always had two player PA reps on each team, even throughout the entire season before Anya stepped in as a director,” said Rylan. “But through the offseason, we’ll have a committee as well with player influencers.”

Though she did not elaborate on any of the specifics, Rylan did confirm that this committee was separate from the NWHLPA reps.

What the committee ends up doing this summer will be crucial to developing player/league relationships that may have been strained in a rather tumultuous second season. Rylan also mentioned, for example, that there is still not a formal CBA for the league. While creating a formal CBA may be a bit unrealistic for the league going into its third season, negotiating with the league about contracts or salaries may be responsibilities the committee has going forward.

Living the dream

Rylan’s optimism and determination has driven the NWHL from creation to the end of its second season. Regardless of the challenges that have arisen, her confidence in the success of the league has not faltered.

“It’s being bold and taking risks and hearing ‘no’ a thousand times and being able to wake up the next day and ask again,” said Rylan. “It’s having laser focus and knowing what you want to do and developing thick skin along the way, but just having that focus and going after what you want and believing in it.”

The journey has not been easy for Rylan and the League, but she will continue to live her dream.

“It’s another year in the books,” she added. “I think the whole season has been a win. It gives us a better platform and springboard to go into season three.”