NWHL keeping an open mind in its pursuit of partners

Dani Rylan is looking both inside and outside of the NHL for potential partnerships

The Ice Garden has learned that the National Women’s Hockey League is keeping an open mind when it comes to finding partners for its teams. While working on a piece examining potential partners for the Connecticut Whale and Boston Pride — both in and outside of the NHL — we reached out to the league for comment. In response, the NWHL’s Founder and Commissioner, Dani Rylan, gave The Ice Garden the following statement:

“We are open for business and seek partners for all of our teams, and I’ll add, additional teams as we continue to expand to other markets in the coming years. This is not just limited to prospective partners in the NHL, but anyone who recognizes the value of our league, teams and players, and has the ability to help elevate the club to another level. We’ve had very good discussions with ownership groups in other sports and other businesses, and those conversations will continue. The possibilities for women’s hockey are endless, and so are the benefits for our partners.”

Needless to say, there’s a lot to unpack here.

First and foremost, it’s clear that the league plans to expand beyond its current five teams. We already know that the NWHL has tested the market in Pittsburgh and Rochester, NY, and that the league has had its eyes on a few other locations — we’ll have more on that later. It’s also important to note that this statement arrived less than a week after the league’s deal with TRIA.

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It’s no secret that the Pride and Whale are the only two NWHL teams without an NHL partner. The Pride seem to have an inside track on forming a partnership with the Boston Bruins because they play their home games at the same rink the Bruins practice at. (Warrior Ice Arena is owned by New Balance.) The presence of a CWHL team in Boston might have been be an obstacle, prior to the Blade’s relocation to Worcester this summer. Now that the Blades are out of Boston, the NWHL might be able to gain some ground with the Bruins.

The Whale have two NHL teams with a presence in their home state: the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders. Both NHL clubs have farm teams — the Hartford Wolf Pack and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers — with home rinks in Connecticut, but that doesn’t necessarily make either team a great fit. James Dolan, the owner of Madison Square Garden and the Rangers, has completely let down the New York Liberty and their fans. The Islanders, on the other hand, are a team in flux. They won’t truly have a home they can call their own until the 2020-21 season. They also just lost the face of their franchise, and brought in a new president and general manager over the summer.

The NWHL being open to partners outside of the NHL makes a lot of sense, especially for the Whale. The Terry Conners Ice Rink, the home of the Whale, may have the highest seating capacity of all current NWHL rinks, but it doesn’t quite feel like the home of a professional hockey team. The benches at Terry Conners are on opposing sides of the rink and there’s no seating directly behind the glass. It is also the third sheet of ice the Whale have called home since the NWHL’s inaugural season. They played at Chelsea Piers in 2015-16 and were at the Northford Ice Pavilion in 2016-17.

A partnership for the Whale or the Pride would mean access to more resources and a huge boost in visibility — which begs the question, does it really matter if they partner with a team outside of the NHL?

Naturally, it makes a great deal of sense to encourage fans of NHL hockey to check out professional women’s hockey. However, the SheIs movement is showing us that there’s a lot more nuance to cultivating interest in women’s athletics than forming partnerships with professional male sports franchises and leagues. Cross-pollination between fan bases could be the key to the growth and sustainability of professional women’s athletics in the United States and Canada.

“We’ve had very good discussions with ownership groups in other sports and other businesses, and those conversations will continue.” - Dani Rylan

So, what does the list of potential partners for the Whale look like beyond the Rangers and Islanders? Two intriguing candidates in the state of Connecticut are the Hartford Yard Goats (Eastern League) and the Connecticut Sun (WNBA). The Yard Goats, the AA affiliate of the MLB’s Colorado Rockies, play in Dunkin’ Donuts Park — Dunkin’ Donuts, of course, was the NWHL’s first major sponsor and it has been with the league since its inaugural season. The Connecticut Sun are owned by Mohegan Sun and were the WNBA’s first franchise to be owned independently.

Of course the list of potential candidates for both the Whale and Pride grows exponentially when we begin to consider professional sports teams and ownership groups outside of the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts. We’ve already seen a few neutral site games and an All-Star Weekend take place in Pittsburgh with the involvement of the Penguins. And Rylan identified Washington, D.C., as a prime location for an NWHL expansion franchise last September.

From the outside looking in, the NWHL’s decision to keep an open mind about potential partners is simply good business. The league has taken tremendous strides in both sustainability in growth in the last year, and its commissioner wants to keep that momentum going.