Dani Rylan was as surprised as anyone else when the Canadian Women’s Hockey League announced Sunday that it was shutting down. Before the shock had subsided, the commissioner of the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League was on the phone, starting a series of conversations to bring two new franchises and additional NHL investment into her four-year-old league.
The NWHL announced Tuesday that it expects to add teams in Montreal and Toronto for the 2019-20 season, making it a seven-team league. Rylan said previous discussions about expansion will continue, leaving the door open to add more teams, perhaps as soon as next season. The Minnesota Whitecaps became the NWHL’s first expansion team last year and won the league championship in March.
After meeting Monday with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Rylan said the NHL has committed to become “one of our biggest financial sponsors.” She declined to reveal specifics of the deal.
While the CWHL will cease operations on May 1, Rylan said the NWHL remains healthy, adding that the Whitecaps turned a profit in their first season as a member. NWHL teams will play a 24-game schedule next season, a significant jump from the current 16-game schedule, and the league also is considering increases in roster sizes and player salaries.
“It was a shock to us,” Rylan said of the demise of the 12-year-old CWHL. “It definitely changed our offseason plans. But with change comes opportunity.
“Even in the last 48 hours, we’ve had interest from new expansion markets, new sponsors, new partners. We’ve been moving quickly the last couple of days.”
Players had been advocating for the CWHL and NWHL to merge, believing women’s professional hockey would be best served by a single league. Rylan had been discussing that with CWHL officials when news broke that the Canadian league would shut down. Its death left many of the world’s best players without a team.
The CWHL had six teams last season, including franchises in Montreal, Toronto and China. The NWHL has teams in the Twin Cities, Boston, Buffalo, Connecticut and the New York metropolitan area.
Though Rylan planned to eventually expand the NWHL — making it a priority to add another Midwestern franchise, as a natural rival for the Whitecaps — she said Tuesday she had not expected it would happen during this offseason. But when the CWHL’s dissolution opened up the Montreal and Toronto markets, the NWHL decided to jump in immediately.
“It’s always tough when a women’s sports team or league fails,” said Rylan, who isn’t sure whether the league will absorb the existing CWHL franchises in those cities or start new ones. “There’s definitely enough talent out there, and we want to do what we can to make sure those players have a place to play this fall.”
With two women’s professional leagues, Rylan said there had been “confusion in the marketplace” that hurt both. She already is receiving interest from potential sponsors and investors who had stayed on the sidelines, not knowing which league to choose.
Though Rylan said last week it is “imperative” for the NWHL to increase local and national sponsor revenue, it reached new highs last season in apparel sales, social-media impressions and viewership of games streamed on Twitter. The league announced capacity crowds at 16 of its 46 games, the most sellouts ever in a single NWHL season, and average attendance of 954.
The Whitecaps led the league in attendance and sold out all 10 games at 1,200-seat Tria Rink.