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NWHL Exhibition, Location Strategy Paying Off

The National Women’s Hockey League started with much fanfare, but also with a small footprint. This was not an illogical approach, as plenty of new sports leagues had expanded too fast and collapsed in on themselves. Year two of the league brought on numerous concerns about the financial viability of the league, but come year three, there was the NWHL, steaming ahead full speed into an extremely exciting season.

Throughout the good and the bad, one area of major success has been both the league’s exhibitions and their ventures into other markets, though many of these are one in the same. Commissioner Dani Rylan, Deputy Commissioner Hayley Moore, and all those who were involved in the planning of these events over the years have created a string of strategic successes that should serve the league’s growth well.

Most recently, the league’s farthest trip west to Minnesota paid off resulting in a sold out All Star Game, a brief alliance with the Minnesota Whitecaps who fielded players in the ASG, a chance to collaborate with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild as well as the WCHA collegiate hockey league. Plus the two day event led to a wide variety of press coverage in the “State of Hockey.”

The future is limitless for the NWHL and women’s hockey…” NWHL Deputy Commissioner Hayley Moore said in a league’s release about the game. “This weekend, with everything that took place in Saint Paul, is just the latest proof of that.”

Last year’s All Star Game in Pittsburgh, also attracted a large crowd and started buzz that was renewed when the Connecticut Whale hosted a “home” regular season game spurring even more fan interest and continuing expansion rumors. The Pittsburgh Penguins proved to be useful collaborative partners in these years by cross promoting the event. While the Penguins themselves are a franchise who damaged their relationship with many fans over their visit to the White House, Pittsburgh hockey fans themselves are a passionate group and the NWHL’s efforts succeeded in building buzz.

The league continued an effort from last season by hosting series with national teams in season three including Team Russia, Team South Korea, and a “Team China” which included members of the Chinese CWHL franchises. The Russian series served as an effective pre-season drawing extra attention than perhaps taking on junior teams would. When Team Korea visited Ingalls Rink in New Haven, before the climactic announcement the South Korean and North Korean teams would be unified, it drew fans in the middle of a snowstorm. The contest also resulted in rare appearance by one of the state’s most prominent hockey reporters who did multiple features on the game from various angles. When the Whale ventured out of their home in Stamford in year one to a game at Ingalls Rink as well, it drew more press coverage than a usual game might as well. The national team games also at times would get mentioned in pieces on the national programs written by other outlets.

The Team NWHL vs. Team USA series down at Team USA’s Training home base in Florida was well received. Fans traveled down to the game and the large hockey community within the state got an opportunity to see high level women’s hockey. Once again the NWHL was very effective at using lulls in their regular season schedule to create newsworthy events. It could be argued that the CWHL, which has been run very effectively, is missing a major opportunity giving up on an All Star game and also closing down the league during the Olympics, while the NWHL All Star game proved to be a well timed game drawing off existing pre-Olympics excitement.

Even the league’s first Isobel Cup Final, being played in Newark rather than a home rink of any of the four clubs, likely helped lay the groundwork for the eventual alliance between the Metropolitan Riveters and the New Jersey Devils that came to fruition this year. While it did inconvenience Boston Pride fans who would have presumably preferred to have the game at Warrior Ice Arena in Boston itself, it did likely benefit the league’s growth overall.

The league also has used the Buffalo location well, in not only situating in the modern Harbor Center, but also hosting the first All Star Game there. In the first season when the Beauts did make the Isobel Cup Finals but struggled in the regular season, the exhibition helped center interest on the city and draw many of the media agencies out to one place. Buffalo is not only a gateway to New York and Northern Pennsylvania, it is a key location to help draw in Canadian talent, as was shown this year with several CWHL players signing up with the Beauts. When he served as Beauts GM, current Co-Head Coach Ric Seiling had stated between seasons one and two his goal of drawing in more Canadian players. He had said at the time in reference to the national team players:

I think you’re going to start seeing players coming across from the Canadian National Team very soon. I think once or two flow across, the others will follow. I think once they realize that the fact that they’re playing at a high level at play and at the same time making a wage for it we’ll draw more over. I think after centralization and the Olympics happen you’ll start to see an influx of them in droves. It’ll be a situation where the nationality is not going to be an issue, it’s going to be who’s the best player to fill that spot…I already have one player who played for us on the Canadian national development team which is Shelby Bram. That alone, just shows they will come across. It may take a little coaxing.”

Seiling’s team bringing in CWHL players shows the door may be open to exactly what he foresaw. Though as a note, this was before NWHL salary cuts, and before the CWHL added a salary for their players. Nonetheless, Buffalo was a critical location, and with the Pegulas buying the team and adding to the NHL teams the league is allied with, putting a franchise far away from the other three has really paid off for the NWHL.

Expansion talk continues now with various fan bases making their case. Pittsburgh fans have weighed in, Minnesota fans certainly have, and Washington and Philadelphia fans have also been vocal in trying to woo the league. The only potential misstep was the rumored expansion to Toronto and Montreal that was promoted at the end of the NWHL Isobel Cup Finals in year one. Whether this was an actual plan or a tactic, it seemed to do more harm than good in angering the CWHL fan base and perhaps hardening the league to the north’s apparent distrust of the NWHL.

It could also be said that the first year exhibition game versus the CWHL at Gillette Stadium was a missed opportunity though the NWHL did show up ready to play, and the NHL failed to promote, stream or otherwise put its power behind what could have been a momentous contest. In theory an NWHL v. CWHL exhibition would be great for the sport, so it seems less like a strategic error on either the N or the C’s part and more of a lack of execution from the NHL’s part.

However on the whole, the gradual cautious growth of the league has been a smart choice. By drawing in new fan interest, giving current fans live action to watch, and attracting extra media attention, the location and exhibition positioning has planted seeds that may soon bloom into further NWHL success.

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