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NWHL carves path forward with addition of Whitecaps

“Back in 2015, if we could have launched in Minnesota, we probably would have.” - Dani Rylan

Mike Murphy

Yesterday, the NWHL went from being a four-team league to a five-team league. The NWHL are owners of the Minnesota Whitecaps, an organization that has been independent and semi-professional for the past several years. But now, as a part of the NWHL, those distinctions have been washed away. The Whitecaps are a professional women’s hockey team.

Naturally, news of the NWHL’s expansion sparks a multitude of questions. How will the league pay for this? What does this mean for the existing four franchises? Who will be on the Whitecaps’ roster and how will travel work? As expected, we came away from yesterday’s news with answers to only some of these questions.

Commissioner Rylan on Expansion

“There’s no doubt about it, we will be flying now,” NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan told The Ice Garden. “I think that a lot of the players with Minnesota roots on our Founding Four clubs are really excited to come back home and play in front of a new fan base and get those games under their belt.

“I think that it’s definitely a different challenge for us — one that we haven’t had to schedule yet, but we’ve had some experience with our All-Star Games and with our exhibition game with the Whitecaps in the very first season,” Rylan continued. “So, we expect the transition to be seamless, but it will be a little bit of a different schedule for next season.”

Despite the new challenge of air travel the NWHL is still planning on having a 16-game season, with each team playing eight home games and eight road games. Whether or not we will see the financial pressure of air travel reduced by weekend doubleheader series like we see in the CWHL remains to be seen.

Rylan also confirmed that the Whitecaps’ roster for the 2018-19 season will have 25-players, the same standard for the rest of the league’s teams. The Whitecaps current active roster lists about 37 players, and there are already current NWHL players who have asked to be on the “short list” to join the team, according to Zone Coverage. The Whitecaps will have to trim down their current team and find players who can commit to a full NWHL season that includes frequent travel to the East Coast.

“I know that all the current Whitecaps are super excited about it, because of all of who have played with the team — whether its been 15 years or two years — know that this is best for the game,” Whitecaps co-captain Winny Brodt-Brown told The Ice Garden. “I think that this is something that the players have wanted, to play for something.”

Winny Brodt-Brown of the Minnesota Whitecaps stepping off the ice after an exhibition game against the New York Riveters in New York in October 2015.
Mike Murphy

Local Talent In the State of Hockey

The Whitecaps will also be able to draw from a seemingly bottomless well of local talent starting this June during free agency. Rylan pointed out that 28 women graduated from Minnesota’s five Division I programs this year and that 28 more will be graduating next year. In the NWHL’s short history we’ve already seen evidence of just how valuable local talent has been to the original four franchises. This year almost half of the Boston Pride’s roster were born in Massachusetts and a lot of the team also attended schools in the state.

That access to local talent and elite players — five players from Team USA’s gold medal winning team in PyeongChang were Whitecaps — has Rylan expecting immediate success for the NWHL’s newest franchise, not unlike the success that the Vegas Golden Knights have enjoyed in the NHL this year.

Riveters captain Ashley Johnston posing with Dani Rylan and Hayley Moore before receiving the Isobel Cup.
Pat McCarthy

As for the involvement of the Minnesota Wild, there’s nothing official in terms of a partnership or collaboration just yet. But it sounds very much like Rylan both hopes and expects for that to change.

“The Wild have done a great job of accepting the Whitecaps for awhile now,” the NWHL Commissioner shared. “We’ve definitely started to build blueprints in our current markets — whether that’s a strategic alliance with the Devils or the full-on ownership that we have with the Pegulas up in Buffalo — so I think that there’s only an opportunity to grow on those things here and we look forward to continuing our conversations with the Wild.”

The next possible collaboration between the NWHL and the Wild could involve figuring out where the Whitecaps will play. Naturally, the TRIA Rink in St. Paul, the location of the 2018 NWHL All-Star Weekend, is a frontrunner. The uncertainty of where the team will play is nothing new to Winny Brown and her teammates; the Whitecaps haven’t had a home game in “probably two to three years.”

The Future Looks Bright

We should have a lot more answers about the team itself on and immediately after June 1; the start of the NWHL’s free agency period. The Whitecaps already have their head coach and general manager in place in co-founder Jack Brodt (Winny’s father), according to the Star Tribune. We also know that the salaries of NWHL players will not increase in year four — which means that Whitecaps players will be making between $5,000 and $7,000.

The NWHL choosing Minnesota as its first market to expand to makes a lot of sense. Rylan’s league now has a foothold in the United States’ two biggest hockey hotbeds. This is a tremendous victory for the NWHL. The Whitecaps, originally founded in 2004, add a unique culture and history to a league that already takes tremendous pride in its identity as a trailblazer in women’s sports.

Regardless of where you stand on the call for #OneLeague, there’s no denying that the NWHL has never been stronger. The addition of the Whitecaps means access to a crucial market, to a new pipeline of talent, and almost certainly to new advertisers and investors.

Bring on the 2018-19 NWHL season.