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Nov. 28, 2016 — The missing pieces

This week is a crucial one for the four-team National Women’s Hockey League. Saturday,the four teams — the Connecticut Whale, Buffalo Beauts, New York Riveters, and Boston Pride — are taking the ice in the midst of a financial crisis.

Last week, it was announced that the league would be cutting player salaries — already a pittance at anywhere from $10,000 to $26,000 — an average of 38 percent. By this Saturday, there may no longer be a league as a result.

The NWHL was seen as an offshoot and as a competitor to the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which dates back to another league with the name “National Women’s Hockey League,” which ran from 1999 to 2007.

But while the CWHL is pretty much a pay-to-play amateur league with the occasional member of either the U.S. or Canadian national teams playing for them, the NWHL was supposed to be on a more professional business model which was to build young talent towards the 2018 Winter Olympics.

As we detailed last year, however, the problem for the four teams is that it is difficult to find their games or build attendance in rinks that hold very few fans. The Boston Pride, for example, have moved to Warrior Arena in Allston, Mass., which has a listed capacity of 660.

Those are going to have to be some expensive tickets in order to help defray league costs. It’s an expensive league, with one very expensive fixed cost: ice time.

But the problem lies much deeper. As has been the case with many other women’s athletic models, the silence from potential sponsors and other backers has been deafening. The price paid for a season ticket in a luxury seat at some of the newer NHL arenas could fund an entire NWHL salary for a mid-range player, and you don’t see the kinds of collaborations with a well-funded men’s league that helped launch the WNBA.

An email from the National Hockey League, as published last week by The New York Times, questioned “the viability of two professional women’s leagues and the sustainability of the current business model.”

That, I think, is a copout. The NHL can have other ancillary products in their markets. Heck, there have been times when the Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, and Toronto Maple Leafs have shared the same city and, on occasion, the same building with their top farm club.

The announced salary cut isn’t good for the average player in the league, many of whom now have to either supplement the meager salary already, or opt to no longer play for their teams. This could lead to a player walkout, or even the dissolution of the entire league.

And, once again, it doesn’t reflect well on people who don’t support the kaleidoscope of women’s pro leagues in different athletic endeavors over the last 20 years.

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