The National Women's Hockey League, which is facing a boycott from many top players, on Thursday reiterated its plans to push forward with the 2019-20 season and signaled that it would be willing to discuss a partnership with any group that plans to start a new league.
"The NWHL is here, and open for business. The players are the game, and they deserve to see the benefits of their efforts to advance their sport," read the statement, attributed to Commissioner Dani Rylan, among others. "We remain available at all times for discussions with all players about achieving our common goals."
On May 2, more than 200 of the top women's players in North America, including several Minnesota Whitecaps and members of the gold medal-winning 2018 U.S. Olympic team, vowed not to play in the 2019-20 season until a financially stable league is established. Players listed salaries as low as $2,000 and lack of health insurance among their concerns.
This came a day after the Canadian Women's Hockey League ceased operations. Players from both the NWHL and CWHL are among those boycotting.
Thursday, the NWHL acknowledged rumors of a new professional league being formed to address those issues.
"If any individuals or groups come forward and declare they are ready to start and invest in a new league where women can receive a substantial full-time salary and medical insurance, we would be ecstatic to have a conversation about a partnership or passing the torch," the statement said.
"We have participated in meetings with stakeholders in hockey and inquired, and to the best of our knowledge no one is putting this forward at this time."
Rylan was not available for additional comment Thursday, a league spokesman said.
Since the boycott began, the NWHL has agreed to increase salaries, offer a 50-50 split of sponsor-related revenue with players and improve benefits for its players association.
The NWHL has announced several signings over the past two weeks, including the Whitecaps' re-signing of forward Allie Thunstrom.
Meanwhile, players boycotting the NWHL formed their own union on May 20, the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association. Among prominent 2018-19 Whitecaps participating in the boycott are 2018 U.S. Olympic gold medalists Kendall Coyne Schofield, Hannah Brandt and Lee Stecklein.
On Thursday, the NWHL's statement also said all five of its teams — the league champion Whitecaps, Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Metropolitan Riveters and Connecticut Whale — will return for the 2019-20 season, which starts in October.
But the league's plans to expand by two teams might be on hold until the following season.
"As we said in April, we secured the investment required to add at least two teams," the statement said. "… We would love to have more teams in 2019-20 and will make it happen if there is a spirit of partnership from all sides. Unless there is a change of heart soon, we will revisit expansion for the 2020-21 season."
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has spoken carefully about the possibility of an NHL-backed women's pro league, pointing out that the NWHL still is in operation. On Monday before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, Bettman said the NHL wouldn't necessarily form a women's pro league if the NWHL fails and mentioned the possibility of a different women's league starting.
"We're letting the dust settle in terms of what's ultimately going to happen with the remaining existing league, and we've heard talk of another league being formed," he said.
"Whether or not it's appropriate for us to get involved with a league, at least starting our own league, is something that not everybody agrees on."