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This Historic Hockey League Is Fighting For Survival

“It gives hope to players like me that we can keep playing”

The NWHL’s Boston Pride take on the Connecticut Whale.

Jennifer King stood on tiptoe, trying to peer over the heads and helmets in front of her to see if her favorite players had already taken the ice. Behind her, dozens of young female hockey players—wearing oversized Boston Pride jerseys—and their parents waited to fill the stands at Warrior Ice Arena, where the undefeated Boston Pride would soon take on the Connecticut Whale.

King has been to nearly every home game for Boston’s National Women’s Hockey League team since the league’s inaugural season began in October 2015. In fact, the only thing she wanted for Christmas last year was season tickets to the Pride games.

“I’ve loved the Bruins, but when I found out there was going to be a women’s league, I thought it was awesome,” the high school freshman (who did get the tickets as a present) tells GOOD. “It gives hope to players like me that we can keep playing and have a future in the game.”

Jillian Dempsey of the Boston Pride signs autographs for fans after a game.

Many young, female hockey players like King have found role models in the NWHL players, which only increases the stakes for the league’s survival. Fans and players alike expressed concern for the league’s future after it announced last month that it would cut players’ already small salaries by 38 percent for the remainder of the season in order to keep the league alive long term. The decision was due in part to declining attendance and a lack of media deal, according to the league’s commissioner, Dani Rylan, who founded the league in 2015.

There are more young girls playing hockey now than there ever have been, with 51,402 youth players in the 2015-16 season, according to USA Hockey. Both the NWHL players and league founders are trying to ensure those players have a pro hockey future to aspire to, even if that means making tough choices along the way.

“Every business has to make decisions, and we decided to pivot because of some setbacks,” NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan said. “The decision was made for the long-term sustainability of the league.”

The players expressed a willingness to work with the league to maintain its viability, but they also issued a statement calling for more transparency around league finances. The NWHL is the first-ever all women professional hockey league to pay its players, and it is funded by corporate sponsorships and the NWHL Foundation, a charitable wing meant to spread women’s hockey through grassroots efforts. The highest-paid NWHL player is Amanda Kessel, a member of the 2014 women’s Olympic team who signed a contract for $26,000 this year. (By contrast, the highest paid NHL player, Jonathan Toews, will make $16 million this year from his salary and endorsements.)

The New York Riveters' Rebecca Russo is in her first season in the league.

The salaries are meager, averaging about $15,000 per player. Even though most players work full-time jobs in addition to playing in the league, the salary cuts proved too much for some. Morgan Fritz-Ward of the New York Riveters ultimately decided to retire from the league, telling FanRag Sports that it was hard for her to justify staying when she already works two other jobs to get by.

The only other professional women’s hockey league operating now is the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. It was formed after a Canadian league also called the National Women’s Hockey League—which existed from 1999 to 2007—disbanded. The CWHL has five teams, including the U.S.-based Boston Blades. The current NWHL, by contrast, has four teams: Boston Pride, Connecticut Whale, New York Riveters, and Buffalo Beauts. And while the Canadian league requires players to pay for some of their own gear and doesn’t pay them to play, the NWHL supplies both gear and health insurance. Rylan had initially considered leading an expansion team effort in the CWHL before opting to start her own league. The CWHL has indicated that it is exploring options to pay its players.

In an email to the The New York Times, an NHL spokesman said that the league supported women’s hockey but “questioned the viability of two professional women’s leagues.”

Women’s hockey isn’t the only professional women’s sport to struggle for survival. In fact, a 25-year study conducted by the University of Southern California found that ESPN’s SportsCenter devotes only 2 percent of airtime to women’s sports. When women’s sports are covered, the study found that 81.6 percent of airtime is focused on women’s basketball, which isn’t surprising, considering the longevity of the WNBA and the relative popularity of women’s college basketball.

That’s why the NWHL players have taken it upon themselves to spread the word about the importance of women’s hockey. Anya Battaglino, a practice player for the Connecticut Whale, said many players coach youth camps and private lessons, as well as maintain an active social media presence to engage with fans.

“The salary cuts are tough, but we’re not out here playing because we get a measly 10 grand,” Battaglino said before the game against the Pride. “It’s for her.”

She pointed to a young girl wearing a Boston Pride jersey who clutched a poster printed with a team roster. The girl would later analyze the poster with a friend, and the pair spoke of the players by their first names, while bragging about how they’d been able to take selfies with some of their hockey heroes after previous games.

“Player accessibility is a huge part of any minor pro sports league,” Rylan said. “Having that ability to have that one-on-one fan interaction is a large reason why many of the fans come back.”

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]There are so many good role models for these young players. ... It would be disappointing to lose that.[/quote]

It’s also because they have role models in the professional players. Keira Harder, 12, plays for The Rivers School in Weston, Massachusetts. The school is where her favorite player, the Boston Pride’s Jillian Dempsey, got her start.

“It’s really great to know that someone who’s been through the same experience as us at Rivers ended up playing professional hockey,” Harder said. “Now, we can think that an option for us, too.”

Keira’s mother, Kristin, happens to be her hockey coach at The Rivers School, and is a seasoned player, herself. She began playing hockey after watching the ‘Miracle on Ice’ game in which the 1980 U.S. Olympic team defeated the Soviet Union. Harden played at Williams College and has been coaching for more than 20 years. She’s noticed a new passion in her younger players, who often talk about how much they admire having the women playing in a professional league, which is something Harden never dreamed of when she was their age.

Ashley Johnston of the New York Riveters meets a NWHL fan.

“It is easier to imagine yourself reaching a dream if someone who shares your gender, race, or other characteristics is already in that position,” Harder said. “There are so many good role models for these young players among the women in the NWHL. It would be disappointing to lose that."

The younger players showed no signs of concern while attending the game. After the Boston Pride won 5-2 to remain undefeated, many young fans bounced up and down while waiting in line for the Pride players to come out and sign autographs, as they do after every home game.

“Thanks for coming,” the players said after signing posters, hockey sticks and jerseys. “Maybe you’ll be up here signing autographs one day.”

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