Battaglino on her new role and the future of the NWHL

On Thursday, the NWHL released a statement with several pieces of news, one being that Anya Battaglino would take over as director of the NWHL Players’ Association (NWHLPA). In the league press release, Commissioner Dani Rylan stated, “I look forward to collaborating with Anya and all of the player reps on our vision for next season and beyond. The input of the players is vital to everything we do.”

Battaglino hit the ground running, hopping on a NWHLPA call and sending out emails (including one to set up this interview) the same day she assumed her new role. The next day, after punching the clock at her job in sales, she spoke with The Ice Garden. Battaglino exuded a firm confidence in her ongoing crusade to see the league survive and have players’ voices be heard.

Taking the initiative

Since news of the salary cuts, Battaglino has continued to advocate that a new director for the NWHLPA be named. She was adamant that a replacement should be the first priority. As a response, Rylan offered a suggestion. “Dani said, ‘It could be a player if you thought that was the right fit.’ I got off the call and I thought to myself, ‘If it could be a player, it could be me,’” said Battaglino.

She went to the other seven PA reps to announce her interest in the vacant role. With the support of her peers, Battaglino put her name in the running, and that was that. Although appointments to leadership are often celebrated, one must wonder what new obstacles the Connecticut Whale defenseman will face in her front-office role.

Third-party perspective

The NWHL has encountered struggles with investors, players, and even media in its short existence. From lawsuits to salary cuts, Rylan herself is often in the hot seat. The latest news of the shortened season was no different.

The decision to shorten the second NWHL season was based on the IIHF Women’s World Championships tournament. Brant Feldman of AGM Sport Management represents Meghan Duggan of the USA National Team (and also of the Boston Pride). He has often taken to social media to advocate for NWHL players, mainly those on the national team. When the announcement of the shortened season came out, Feldman offered his perspective to the media.

In a phone conversation with The Ice Garden, Feldman shared his delight that the league finally agreed to a shortened season. “I’m glad that the NWHL finally made an adjustment ... this is a topic that we discussed in the summertime.” Feldman shared that it was suggested the preseason games against Team Russia and local colleges be scrapped in favor of beginning the regular season earlier. However, that did not come to fruition. “At the time, Dani and her general managers weren’t interested in that,” said Feldman.

The concern with the NWHL schedule had to do with the lack of rest for players who compete on the international stage. “For any player that went to the U.S. National Festival... their season began in August.” Other national teams have also competed in a variety of tournaments and qualifiers leading up to the IIHF Women’s World Championships. Returning to close out the NWHL season would offer little rest before the final camps to determine Olympic rosters.

In the end, the league and the players came to an agreement to conclude the season prior to the World Championships taking place next month in Michigan.

A future without the U.S. national team?

On Thursday, the NWHL also announced the league will return for a third season. However, it will do so without national team players. The U.S Women’s Hockey Team will centralize later in the year to prepare for the 2018 Olympics.  “Although we will miss the Olympians and can’t wait to cheer them on, we have a great season in store for 2017-18 with the Pride, Beauts, Whale, and Riveters,” stated Rylan in the press release. Can the league draw fans without Hilary Knight and Amanda Kessel, the main foci for NWHL marketing in the first and second season, respectively? Battaglino thinks so.

“If you look at the New York Riveters in the games that Kessel was hurt, I think that [is] a testament to the product that can be put out on the ice without Olympians,” said Battaglino. While the Riveters are the team with the fewest Team USA players, and will likely lose Kessel next season, it also is worth noting they will be without Korean goaltender Sojung Shin (1-2 record and a .898 save percentage) and, potentially Austrian forward Janine Weber (7 goals and 8 assists in 14 games).

“Without the Olympians,” continued Battaglino, “we’ll obviously miss those big names. But, do I think new names will arise? Yes, because I think [women’s hockey] is that good.”

The competition level has increased since the last season, and if the league can sustain itself, there will be even more talent coming out of college and elsewhere to fill vacant roster spots. Yet, operation without the presumed marketing draw of Olympians the year after midseason salary cuts might be difficult.

Additionally, there is no guarantee that current players, or even the Olympians after the third season, will return. “The NWHL announced what they are going to be doing, but there’s a lot of time between now and then,” said Feldman, when asked if the U.S. national teams players will return after the PyeongChang Games. “The NWHL has to show that they are financially viable.”

Rebuilding trust

Others have also implied that, while Battaglino has a special relationship with fans, players, and the media alike, she might not be equipped to review negotiations without a legal background. For a league that continues to navigate choppy waters, the questions about Rylan, the league, and now Battaglino are warranted. However, the new PA director is unfazed.

Battaglino feels strongly that the NWHLPA should have legal counsel and an adviser to help players navigate through the decision-making process. “The NWHLPA is going to start having the support, or I hope to include some type of legal counsel,” the new NWHLPA director stated.

However, legal representation is not the only thing needed. “I hope to build a level of transparency and trust, where we don’t question the answers that come from the league, or that come from me,” said Battaglino. The trust will be hard to come by, as players too are among the stakeholders with grievances with the league. Anya Battaglino — the Go Pro-wearing, color commentating, social media slaying player — has a very positive brand and association. The NWHL has more mixed reviews.

By seeking the role of director, Battaglino is no longer just a player: she now has a more direct responsibility to execute NWHL directives. Can Battaglino marry her knack for communication with a league struggling for connection and transparency? Will she be a welcomed addition, or another target?

“I’m not sure; I don’t know,” she replied honestly. “My hope is that people can get behind the messages that I’m bringing forth and say, ‘I believe in that, I like the way that was articulated to me, and I feel like when I respond to that, [Anya] hears me.’”

When Battaglino decided to pursue the role of NWHLPA director, she immediately thought of when her predecessor delivered the news of coaching changes to the Connecticut Whale last season. “I remember the pain on [Erika Lawler’s] face delivering such a hard message,” said Battaglino. That is why, for her, constant communication is key to ushering the NWHLPA and the league forward. In a statement to the players, Battaglino wrote, “Can I fix every problem that comes across my desk? No, I really can’t. But can I promise you I’m going to work my hardest to do so? Yeah. I won’t always have the right answer, but I always will be advocating and fighting, and trying.”

Anya’s new mantra

In December, Battaglino jokingly told us her future memoir would be entitled I Didn’t Sleep, but It’s Done. If that is the title, the first chapter is Never Hear ‘No.’ Battaglino and her colleagues continue to fight through the struggles of a young league. “No one in the league heard ‘no.’  It was hard, it was terrible, it was awful, and none of them ever stopped.”

The grit the players showed has begun to pay dividends in the NWHL hierarchy. Battaglino continued, “The part that I want to make sure is crystal clear is that this is the biggest step forward the players have had all year. Getting their name recognized and heard at the top level of the league is the biggest step forward the players have had in a very long time.

“This is a bright light, and I’m honored that I get to represent that, but it’s so much bigger than myself, it’s so much bigger than what I can do personally ... that’s why I’m so excited and so honored to step into this role — it’s for them.”

It’s for the players now, and those to come. When asked what she wants the rookie class of 2020-21 to have because of the current NWHLPA, Battaglino replied, “I want that rookie to have security. I want that rookie to have a nice apartment that they can afford. I want them to be able to pay their bills ... in high school they watched the league absolutely struggle, and I want them to stand up and be proud of what they’re doing ... and instantly have a level of gravitas that they are a dignified professional woman.”