Whether she is drumming up support for a charitable cause or providing color commentary on NWHL Cross Ice Pass, Anya Battaglino’s smile, smarts, and solicitude are an important part of the second-year league. So how does this small, bubbly-but-fierce individual react when she learns she must deliver the news of salary cuts to her teammates, her hockey family? You lean in.
The role of the Players’ Association
“I go, ‘Well, you know what, if anyone can take a little lashing it would be me,’” said Battaglino when we caught up with her after the Whale’s weekend sweep of Buffalo and New York earlier this month. She and fellow Connecticut Players’ Association (PA) representative Cydney Roesler were tasked with breaking the news. “As a PA member I was like, ‘Okay, now I’m never gonna sleep again.’”
The NWHL PA includes Battaglino and Roesler from Connecticut, Ashley Johnston and Taylor Holze from New York, Meghan Duggan and Gigi Marvin from Boston, and Emily Pfalzer and Shiann Darkangelo from Buffalo.
In addition to the news of salary cuts, Battaglino and the other PA reps find themselves without an advisory board representative this season. “Now, without a PA rep, like a board member rep — that once was Erika Lawler — it becomes a little bit more challenging. So, as a PA, we’ve had to kind of feel each other out and say, ‘Okay, who’s gonna speak now, butt heads? How are we gonna work through these problems?’”
PA reps and captains have focused on salary cuts, increasing revenue, and keeping teammates from quitting almost nonstop since the November news. “Before [the cuts], you were on the [PA] to see if anyone was going to get a suspension. Or, if we wanna change our bus schedule, that’s a PA rep job,” said Battaglino. “Now it’s, how do you create the glue that keeps people from quitting or keeps the league from going into this turmoil?”
In an effort to move forward, Battaglino and the Whale are focused on what they can do to build up revenue. The team only recently had its first home game, but players and fans alike were on board. Battaglino and her teammates decided to get the information needed to move forward. This is when players like Battaglino having other jobs comes in handy. “I’m a sales person, so I from the top down am giving [my team] sales structure and they’re loving it. They’re like, ‘great, what are we tracking on ticket sales? [Anya], send us out that. What’s the goal for this game? If we hit the goal, how much money do we make?’”
The tracking of ticket sales serves as more than an indicator of how long the autograph line will be after the game. According to Battaglino, players earn commission for ticket sales: “The league has been able to negotiate a deal where, for surplus tickets, the players are getting 100% commission.” The NWHL will continue to offer players 15% commission for official jersey and shirsey sales.
Choppy waters ahead
Despite all this, there will continue to be sleepless nights for the 25-year-old. Two of her teammates, Ivana Bilic and captain Molly Engstrom, have departed the Whale in the past seven days. Including Morgan Fritz-Ward of New York, three total players have left the league since the cuts were announced. Key personnel losses raise questions about the viability of the NWHL. Engstrom stated in her interview with The Ice Garden: trust between the league and its players needs to be repaired. Players and fans alike find themselves searching for indications that relationships are being repaired and trust reestablished.
NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan has promised to provide updates more regularly via the NWHL website. In her December 6 letter, she stated,
“As Madison Packer told the press on Saturday, after two weeks of extensive individual and group conversations about the salary cuts, we have agreed to move forward and keep the dialogue confidential. All I will say is that the NWHL is a small, tight-knit family … a family that together will develop as a strong professional sports league and, yes, a business. As we did with [Morgan Fritz-Ward], we will always support a player’s decision to move on. The players are the lifeblood of our league, and we will do everything in our power to enhance their development as players, be there for them in any way possible and have a league that they can be proud of.”
Repairing relationships and building trust
What will it take to rebuild trust? Commission on tickets sales is a step in the right direction. “The league is making a commitment to try and that’s all [you] need to start building back trust and building back hard work ethic,” said Battaglino.
Battaglino understands the frustration people feel given the state of the league, but she is choosing to lean in. “I respect everyone’s decision, obviously. But, I would be remiss if I did not say I hope everyone learns to lean in a little bit more.” Battaglino added, “if we let [this] take us all the way down the ladder, how long until we get back to where we were? How long until we have an NHL-hosted hockey game against our northern competitors? How long until that happens again?”
A more active role for PA reps is a change Battaglino wants to see moving forward: “My biggest mission right now is to get representation for the players on an advisory level.” The capability to communicate with the body the league consults with for major decisions has the potential to keep players from feeling blindsided, as they did by the announcement of the salary cuts.
Whether that be representation on the advisory board or the opportunity for PA reps to present to the advisory members, Battaglino says more involvement from the players is needed. She wants a voice for players, as opposed to specific answers on investors and business plans. “I just need a cadence moving forward that I can believe in. Because answers to a problem you can’t fix doesn’t give you any kind of clarity.” Instead, being part of the conversation moving forward is something she and other players would like to see.
Lessons learned off the ice
Both Engstrom and Battaglino had an interesting perspective on the narrative of growing the game for the next generation. Engstrom told The Ice Garden, “The argument has been made, ‘Well, we don’t want to give up on the little girls.’ Well, the other side of that is, I never want my little girl to grow up and settle.”
Playing for the next generation, the future draft picks, is heavily touted by most women’s professional leagues. The former Whale captain seems to be asking, is the endgame to increase the opportunities for girls and women in hockey, or in all areas of life? For Battaglino, doing one affects the other. “This is a position for children, and women, and people to expand their horizons,” noted Battaglino. “Maybe a kid doesn’t say, ‘I want to be a professional hockey player’ ... Maybe it just makes them want to be a female professional instead of taking a less confident path through a desk job. Maybe it [makes them say], ‘Hey! I’m gonna stand up and do what I want because I can!’”
Battaglino strongly believes that everyone can benefit from strong female role models, and she can speak from personal experience. When asked how being part of the NWHL will help her reach personal long-term goals, Battaglino stated, “I hope that one day — and this will get very outside, left field, but it’ll all come back, I promise — I hope one day that I can have the strength and the power that my mom has.”
While raising her family, Lori Kelly (Battaglino’s mother) owned and operated a Massachusetts-based party goods store with three locations throughout the state. When the stock market crashed, Kelly lost a lot as a small business owner. She had to sell her business, refinance her house, and reinvent herself as a professional. The opportunities Battaglino was afforded were made possible by her mother’s sacrifices, and that is something she hopes to provide to her children. Like her mother, she hopes to be able to say, “This is what I built for you. This is the life I created for you because I love you so much.”
In hockey, Battaglino sees the potential to pass something along, to make someone else’s road a little less rocky. “I want to be able to say, this is a bow on a great situation, on a strong league, on an entire platform for women to be treated as equals and seen as respectable people.” In 10 years, she envisions a future where a woman will be making millions of dollars to play hockey. “That will be when I look back and say, ‘OK, when I was 25 years old and crying every night because I couldn’t figure out problems, that was worth it.’” She continued, “I want to hand someone a product and say, ‘I didn’t sleep, but it’s done.’”