NWHL expansion plans in jeopardy, open to talks about “passing the torch”

“We fight for progress. We strive to evolve. We’ll always do what’s best for the game.”

The NWHL released a thought-provoking statement today in which the league declared it will always do what is best for women’s hockey. This statement comes 24 hours after Kirsten Whalen’s piece for the Victory Press that addressed issues with NWHL contracts and the league’s slow growth model.

Today’s statement from the league outlines the NWHL’s stance on what it believes is best for the game. That topic has hung like an ominous storm cloud over the professional women’s game since the NWHL’s inception back in 2015. Since the dissolution of the CWHL and the spark of the #ForTheGame movement, that cloud has grown larger and darker.

“This is the right thing to do:” Annie Bélanger is #ForTheGame

The league reaffirmed it had received an investment that would have enabled its second expansion. However, it now appears that the plans for that expansion are close to being shelved. With summer just around the corner, the NWHL is now planning to have five teams take to the ice for the 2019-20 season. Unless something unexpected happens over the next few weeks, there will be no Canadian NWHL franchises until at least the 2020-21 season.

From the league’s statement:

The 2019-20 NWHL season will launch in October with our five current teams returning to their markets and playing before their dedicated fans: the Pride, Riveters, Beauts, Whale, and Whitecaps. Whether there will be more teams this season remains an open-ended question for a few more weeks. We are exploring all options to build our league.

As we said in April, we secured the investment required to add at least two teams. However, to expand properly, as we did in Minnesota, time, cooperation and preparation is required. We would love to have more teams in 2019-20 and will make it happen if there is a spirit of partnership from all sides. Unless there is a change of heart soon, we will revisit expansion for the 2020-21 season.

Another major revelation from the release is the NWHL’s stance on the formation of a new league that would offer full-time pay, health insurance, and other benefits to its players. This is, of course, what members of the PWHPA and the #ForTheGame movement are negotiating for. Reading between the lines, its clear that this is all in reference to the mounting speculation that Gary Bettman might form a women’s league under the umbrella of the NHL.

However, ESPN’s Emily Kaplan recently reported that Bettman is choosing to let the dust settle before he and the NHL take any kind of action.

In the interest of what is best for the game, the NWHL states that it would be “ecstatic” to have a conversation about a partnership or to pass the torch to any new league that could offer its players the aforementioned benefits. However, the NWHL asserts that it has no knowledge that any parties are currently building or planning such a league.

From the league’s statement:

If any individuals or groups come forward and declare they are ready to start and invest in a new league where women can receive a substantial full-time salary and medical insurance, we would be ecstatic to have a conversation about a partnership or passing the torch. We have participated in meetings with stakeholders in hockey and inquired, and to the best of our knowledge no one is putting this forward at this time.

It’s worth noting that the league’s statement was signed by four of its investors, three of whom are also board members. There is a good chance that those investors would seek compensation for dissolving or relinquishing control of the NWHL, but for the moment that remains unclear. What is clear is that the league still plans on having a 2019-20 season.

In the end, we are all for the game. There is no reason for the NWHL to quit on women’s hockey, and we are not going to.

Kaleigh Fratkin on the #ForTheGame movement, the PWHPA, and her decision to return to the NWHL