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Column: the NWHL Draft is still weird

Sure, Jan.

Al Saniuk

The 2018 NWHL Draft was announced Thursday, Dec. 13.

That’s it, that’s the announcement, because the league’s release carried only slightly more information than the sentence above. Just a date and a time, released a whole six days before the event is due to take place. Beginning at 11 a.m. EST on Dec. 19, the draft will take place across Twitter and Instagram as previous drafts have, over the span of two days.

Wait. Back up. Two days?

Why?

Stretching a five-round draft over two days drains the anticipation right out, thinning a meaty story into a weak broth. The league has drafted 20 players a year since its inception in 2015. It simply isn’t big enough to justify the two-day span.

This isn’t the first time the NWHL has tossed together a marquee event. Remember the Champion’s Cup going from three games in Sweden to one game in New Jersey? The league’s tendency to fly by the seat of its pants was more acceptable in year one than it is in year four.

Enough semantic grousing, though. What’s most troubling here is the draft’s deeper issues that the NWHL opted not to fix.

Lack of transparency

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: women’s hockey has a problem with transparency. Both North American leagues are guilty of this; it’s endemic and shows no sign of resolution.

Case in point? The 2018 NWHL Draft. There’s nothing about eligibility requirements, no prospect lists, nothing about how players can register...nothing. Who can be drafted? Is it still a junior draft that’s essentially meaningless? Are seniors being drafted?

Insert your favorite “shrug” GIF here, because the NWHL isn’t telling.

Lacking a prospect list and a registration method may be due in part to the NWHL navigating the NCAA’s complex and stringent eligibility rules. However, this wouldn’t be an issue if they’d opted to have the 2018 draft outside of college hockey season instead of shoehorning it in right after winter finals week. How hard would it be to say, “Listen, we’re taking a full season to weigh our options, shore up our process, and come up with a long-term solution so we don’t have to keep doing this?”

While the league has published a series of “Prospect Pipeline” articles throughout the season, it’s impossible to glean if those players have actually registered for the 2018 Draft. The pieces focus on the current achievements in college hockey without quotes or perspectives from the players themselves.

By all means, praise these women’s success on the ice, but it’s misleading to tout them as “prospects” without any proof that that’s what they are. It feels like clickbait. Again, this may be due to NCAA restrictions, which, again, would not be an issue if the league held the draft after the season.

Last year’s Isobel Cup champs get the first pick

It’s no secret the Metropolitan Riveters have been downright depressing this year after winning their first championship in April. As such, they’ve been granted the first pick, “based on winning percentage in the first half of the current season, utilizing goal differential as the tiebreaker,” per the NWHL.

Most drafts go by results, giving the first overall pick to those who finished last the year before. Under that logic, the Connecticut Whale should be choosing first. Instead they’re relegated to the second overall pick, which is more than a little head-scratching. Yes, the Riveters are bad, but it’s going to take more than a first-round pick who may or may not ever lace up for them to fix Randy Velischek’s mess.

Treating college hockey as the one true development metric

The North American collegiate sports culture is unique to the continent, and even then the culture can be broken down further in the differences between the American NCAA and Canadian USports. College hockey in North America serves as a developmental springboard for both North American players and an increasing number of internationals, but it’s far from the only way for a player to grow their game.

The NWHL has sought to cultivate a global image from the jump in 2015, but Denisa Křížová of the Czech Republic and Northeastern University is the only international draft pick to ever actually suit up for an NWHL game. Nana Fujimoto, Yekaterina Smolentseva, Tanja Eisenschmid, Yekaterina Pashkevic, Janine Weber, Lyudmila Belyakova, Sojung Shin, Katerina Mrázová, Michelle Löwenhielm, Meeri Räisänen, and Maria Sorokina were all free agent signings.

Meanwhile, the CWHL has been drafting international players for years.

In 2017 the NWHL’s draft required prospective players to “have graduated college or an equivalent.” No international players from outside North America signed in free agency that year. Currently the league’s 2019 Free Agency requirements dictate that players from different leagues enter as free agents, not draft picks:

A screengrab of the NWHL’s 2019 Free Angency Guidelines.

Why? What’s the logic here? Again the word “clickbait” comes to mind, this time with more North America-centric undertones. Think about it: which has more prestige to the average North American hockey fan, a well-known school like University of Minnesota-Duluth or a women’s team up near the Arctic Circle? People tend to follow the familiar and it’s easier for the league to yell “YALE!” or “BOSTON COLLEGE!” instead of trying to spell Örnsköldsvik.

Deputy Commissioner Hayley Moore’s 2017 “Why We Draft” letter emphasizes how the NWHL values draft picks over free agents: “As time goes on, annual turnover is minimized, and (in the future) when multi-year contracts come into play, selection in the NWHL Draft will continue to hold a greater amount of clout.”

Okay. Let’s look at some players who are ineligible for the NWHL’s particular brand of clout:

  • Jenni Hiirikoski, defender. Team Finland’s longtime captain is a two-time Olympic bronze medalist and has been named Best Defender at the World Championships a record six times. She’s the best defender in the world, period.
  • Fanny Rask, forward. A 10-year pro veteran and two-time Olympian with 302 career SDHL points, Rask has been a staple on Sweden’s national team since her U18 days.
Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 11
Team Sweden forward Fanny Rask at the 2018 Olympics.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
  • Alba Gonzalo, goaltender. At 21 years old, Gonzalo’s having a breakout year with HV71 and has played more minutes than any other goalie in the SDHL.
  • Linda Välimäki, forward. Välimäki is a deadly center who’s spent her entire career in her native Finland. Like Hiirikoski, she’s a three-time Olympian with two bronze medals to her name as well as 684 regular-season points in the Naisten Liiga.

It’s worth noting that free agents aren’t treated any differently than draft picks once the season starts. The optics of the NWHL’s logic brings us neatly to one final issue...

Is a draft even necessary?

In reality, neither the NWHL Draft nor the CWHL Draft mean much until the players can make a sustainable living wage playing hockey. The words “first-round NWHL draft pick” don’t yet pay a player’s student loans or utility bills. At this point they’re just words, nice as they may be.

In the future, a draft could be a useful tool to promote parity and balance. However, the current economic reality of professional women’s hockey just isn’t there yet.