Women's Hockey Takes Stage As New Pro Sports League


National Women's Hockey League player Ashley Johnston of the New York Riveters celebrates her goal with her teammates in a game against the Connecticut Whale in October.
Bruce Bennett, Getty Images
National Women's Hockey League player Ashley Johnston of the New York Riveters celebrates her goal with her teammates in a game against the Connecticut Whale in October.

Featuring teams in Boston, Buffalo, Connecticut and New York City, the National Women's Hockey League has become home to some of the best players in the world. Meghan Duggan, for example, who was the U.S. Olympic Team captain in the gold-medal game in 2014 in Sochi, plays for the Buffalo Beauts.

It was that hockey final that inspired the league's commissioner and founder, Dani Rylan, to start it. The pro league launched in October. Its first all-star game is scheduled Jan. 24.

"I used to say that after the 2014 Winter Olympics was really the best time to start a professional women's hockey league. That gold-medal game out in Sochi was the most-watched event on NBC, with 4.9 million viewers," Rylan tells NPR's David Greene.

"And people weren't watching it because it was a women's game," he says. "They were watching because it was an amazing hockey game. The game is ready for the professional stage. If 2014 wasn't the best time, 2015 was the next best."

The women's gold medal hockey game between the United States and Canada, according to NBC, was the most-watched ice hockey game in the U.S., excluding Stanley Cup Finals, since the men's gold medal game from Vancouver 2010.

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Interview Highlights

On paying players

Each team has a salary cap of $270,000, so the average salary is $15,000 a year, and we've had investors come in and support our business plan, and this first year we've also had our first corporate sponsor sign on — Dunkin Donuts — and a few broadcast deals as well, with a streaming package with ESPN3 and [New England Sports Network]. Broadcast and sponsorships make the sports world go round and we've really made a big splash in the first couple months here.

On comparing players' salaries with players in other professional sports

It's a great start. You don't want to compare a league in its infancy to a league that is about to have its centennial. ...

This is such an amazing group of women playing in this league. We have everything from coaches to teachers, nurses, mechanical engineers. We try to accommodate their schedule as much as possible. All of our games are on Sundays, allowing the players to have those jobs during the week.

Thoughts on the league's first season

This year has been amazing. It's crazy to think that on Jan. 1 of 2015, we hadn't even announced the launch of the league yet, and then Dec. 31, 2015, we're playing on the biggest stage at an event partnered with the NHL. So it has been an incredible year, and I think what's really special about it is the number of generations that this has affected.

One of my favorite moments to date is actually a young girl with a sign that says "NWHL 2027 first-round draft pick." And I think it's really special to think that that dream can become a reality for her.

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