Rylan defiant in face of detractors as NWHL opens fifth season

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National Women’s Hockey League founder and commissioner Dani Rylan has a blunt message for her detractors in preparing to open her fifth season.

”We’re not going anywhere. We’re just growing,” she told The Associated Press in a wide-ranging interview last month.

There are questions about the league’s stability after several franchises lost their local NHL teams’ backing and some 200 of the world’s top players opted to sit out this year. Rylan is nonetheless defiant and insists there will be a sixth season next October, a seventh one after that and so on.

If that means moving forward without Olympians and with the NHL questioning whether the privately backed league’s business model is financially sustainable, then so be it.

”I would ask what about it is not sustainable, what don’t they like,” Rylan said.

”I think the message right now is the NHL needs to save professional women’s hockey,” she added. ”And I just believe that a pro women’s league should be able to prove that it’s viable without the NHL, without NHL teams. And that’s what we’re proving.”

Rylan noted that North America’s first pro women’s league has paid out over $3 million in salaries. Last season, she said, it enjoyed 16 sellouts while setting league highs in apparel sales and online viewership. And it enters this season having added new sponsors, including a new live-streaming partner, Twitch, to broadcast every game.

The five-team league kicks off its 60-game regular-season schedule – up from 40 last year – on Saturday.

It has been a tumultuous offseason for the NWHL, which even Rylan acknowledged involving ”some ups and downs” for its teams in Minnesota, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The biggest downer came shortly after the rival Canadian Women’s Hockey League announced it was folding last spring and the NWHL was unable to fill the vacuum. The league eventually backed off on its bid to expand into Toronto and Montreal. Then more than 200 of the top female players balked at signing with the NWHL by pledging they would not play professionally in North America this season.

The disaffected players instead formed the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association to demand a league with a sustainable economic model that can one day pay them a living wage.

Rylan called the players’ decision a lost opportunity, considering there is currently only one league in operation.

”There was clarity in the market. All the players all the sponsors, investors, brands, everyone knew where to concentrate their interest,” she said.

”When the boycott happened, it refragmented the market,” Rylan said. ”I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to quantify the opportunity lost this offseason, and how maybe the game has slowed because of the boycott.”

PWHPA executive and former CWHL interim commissioner Jayna Hefford disagreed with Rylan’s assessment. She believes the decision to form a union spurred rather than hindered the momentum in pushing for one sustainable league.

”I’ve never seen that kind of unity in sport before. It was powerful. It was impactful,” Hefford said. ”It’s been very clear that the players don’t feel like that option (the NWHL) provides the resources and the infrastructure that they continue to say they need.”

PWHPA players have launched a North American barnstorming tour, attracting sponsors such as Budweiser, Adidas, Secret, Unifor (Canada’s largest private-sector union) and Dunkin’ Donuts, which also backs the NWHL.

The NWHL has a spotty track record in paying salaries, which led to some high-profile defections to the CWHL. After paying players between $10,000 and $26,000 during its inaugural season, the NWHL was forced to slash salaries by more than half a month into the next season in order to stay afloat.

The league no longer makes all players salaries public, though it announced Lexi Bender signed a $13,000 contract to play for Boston this season. This year, players will also receive a 50% cut from all sponsorship agreements, plus 15% of revenue from apparel sold featuring their respective names.

It still won’t be easy marketing a league in which a majority of players are newcomers, some coming off college careers at the Division II or club levels.

Among the more high-profile rookies are Sydney Baldwin, a two-time NCAA champion at Minnesota, as well as Slovakia national team members Lenka Curmova and Iveta Klimasova.

Based on signing announcements and a study of team rosters posted on the league’s website, the NWHL features 39 returning players and 57 newcomers, including three former CWHL players. Among those coming back are Madison Packer and Jillian Dempsey, who share the NWHL career record with 29 goals each.

That still doesn’t replace the star power the Buffalo Beauts alone had last year on a roster that included U.S. Olympians Dani Cameranesi, Emily Pfalzer, Lisa Chesson and Nicole Hensley, and Canadian national team goalie Shannon Szabados.

Another blow came when NHL Buffalo Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula relinquished control of the Beauts in May. The move meant the league not only losing the Pegulas’ financial backing of the franchise, but forced the team to relocate from its downtown arena to a suburban multi-rink complex.

The Metropolitan Riveters no longer have an agreement with the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, who provided the team marketing assistance and ice time.

On the plus side, a group of investors led by Cannon Capital managing partner Miles Arnone purchased the Boston Pride.

”We see the opportunity and the potential to grow and the excitement that exists not only for pro women’s hockey, but pro women’s sports,” Rylan said. ”We want to advance that. And we’re not slowing down any time soon.”

PHT Morning Skate: Bolts need Vasilevskiy; Isles should be buyers

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Flyers are rallying behind Oskar Lindblom after his Ewing’s sarcoma diagnosis. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• The Bolts need Andrei Vasilevskiy to play like he’s one of the best in the world again. (Tampa Times)

• Coaches have been getting fired for reasons both known and unknown. (Los Angeles Times)

• The Blackhawks keep finding ways to hit new lows this season. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Jim Benning was looking to trade Sven Baertschi, but he was forced to put him on waivers. (Vancouver Sun)

• A London Knights physiotherapist helped save Tucker Tynan’s life. (CTV News)

Tom Wilson has become a new-age power forward. (Sportsnet)

• Four players from the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association will play in the ECHL All-Star classic. (The Ice Garden)

• If good teams don’t go on long losing streaks, what does that mean for the Edmonton Oilers? (Edmonton Journal)

• Referee Tim Peel is likely done for the season after suffering a broken leg. (RMNB)

• Islanders GM Lou Lamorielllo should dip into the rental market this season. (GothamSN)

• Alexis Lafreniere is hoping to become the next future first overall pick to turn in an incredible performance at the World Juniors. (Featurd)

• It’s still too early to say that Jack Eichel is among the greatest players. (Rotoworld)

• It’s time for the Anaheim Ducks to rebuild. (Spector’s Hockey)

• Former Lightning head coach Steve Ludzik needs a liver transplant. (Tampa Times)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Kane’s hat trick; Staal’s milestone night

Patrick Kane #88 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates with Jonathan Toews
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Three Stars

1) Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

Kane surpassed Sidney Crosby for the scoring lead this decade with 16 days left in the 2010s. Since Jan. 1, 2010, Kane has 791 points (311G, 480A), while Crosby has 788 points (296G, 492A). No. 88 recorded his sixth NHL hat trick in Chicago’s 5-3 victory over Minnesota. The Blackhawks have a long way to go if they want to have a realistic shot at the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but a victory against a surging division rival is a good place to start.

2) Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

On a football Sunday, the Jets scored a touchdown in their 7-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. Scheifele played a huge part with his three-point performance featuring a goal and two assists as he extended his individual point streak to six games. Neal Pionk added three assists, including two power-play helpers. The top four teams in the Western Conference (Blues, Avalanche, Jets, Stars) currently reside in the Central Division and playoff positioning will be crucial as each team eyes a lengthy postseason run.

3) Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Staal became the 89th player in NHL history to have 1,000 career points when he tallied a power-play goal against Chicago Sunday. After a dreadful 4-9 start to the season, the Wild have climbed up the standings with a 12-4-5 record in their past 21 games. The alternate captain leads Minnesota with 26 points, including four goals in the previous three games.

Other notable performances from Sunday:

  • Anze Kopitar’s two-goal performance in the Kings’ 4-2 victory against the Red Wings helped him surpass the iconic Wayne Gretzky for fourth place on the franchise’s all-time scoring list. Kopitar picked up his 918th and 919th point in his 1038th game.
  • Blake Wheeler finished with three points, including a goal and an assist during a four-goal barrage spanning 4:17.

Highlights of the Night

Staal etched his name in the NHL record books with this one-time blast

William Karlsson won an important foot race before Reilly Smith slid a cross-ice pass over to Jonathan Marchessault

Factoids

  • A total of 33 goals were scored across four contests Sunday for an average of 8.25 per game [NHL PR].
  • The Jets scored four goals in a span of five minutes or less for the fourth time in franchise history [NHL PR].
  • The Jets’ four goals in a span of 4:17 are their second-fastest scored in a game in franchise history, behind the mark of 3:50 set on Nov. 18, 2017 [NHL PR].
  • Canucks’ Bo Horvat has won an NHL-high 414 faceoffs this season [Sportsnet Stats].

NHL Scores

Winnipeg Jets 7, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Chicago Blackhawks 5, Minnesota Wild 3

Los Angeles Kings 4, Detroit Red Wings 2

Vegas Golden Knights 6, Vancouver Canucks 3

Sabres demote under-performing center Mittelstadt to minors

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres have assigned under-performing second-year center Casey Mittelstadt to the minors.

The demotion to Rochester of the AHL was made Sunday, coming a day following a 3-2 overtime loss at the New York Islanders in which Mittelstadt was a healthy scratch for the third time in four games.

The 21-year-old has four goals and five assists in 31 games this season, and limited to just a goal and an assist in his past 21. Buffalo selected the play-making center with the eighth pick in the 2017 draft following his senior year in high school.

He then signed with Buffalo and jumped directly to the NHL in making his Sabres debut immediately following his freshman college season at Minnesota.

Mittelstadt has failed to play up to early projections of developing into Buffalo’s second-line center. He has 17 goals and 22 assists for 39 points in 114 career NHL games.

Players hope U.S.-Canada rivalry game helps spawn pro league

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HARTFORD, Conn. — The United States women’s hockey team beat Canada 4-1 on Saturday night, with players hoping the first in a series of five games between the international rivals will help kindle the public’s interest in both their sport and their fight off the ice for better professional opportunities.

Canada’s Victoria Bach and the Megan Keller of the U.S. traded power-play goals in the first period, before Amanda Kessel put the U.S. on top for good with a player advantage in the second. Abbe Roque’s backhand in the period gave the US a 3-1 lead and Alex Carpenter beat Genevieve Lacasse for the final goal 1:15 seconds later.

More than 7,000 fans showed up for the international competition, which comes after more than 200 members of what has since become the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association announced in May they would not play professionally in North America during the 2019-2020 season.

“I think it’s important for people to watch us play and see the level of talent and entertainment that’s out there,” Kessel said. “It’s getting that understanding that we need to help get us a place to play year-round so that people can see us more than five times a year.”

The women are seeking a professional league that provides a living wage, health insurance, infrastructure and support for training. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League shut down in the spring after 12 years of operation, leaving only the five-team National Women’s Hockey League, where most players make less than $10,000 a season.

“The product is there,” Kessel said. “The people to watch it are there. We just need a structure set in place.”

Sarah Nurse, a forward for Team Canada, whose cousin Kia Nurse plays for New York in the WNBA, said players are hoping to get support from the NHL, which has, so far, expressed little interest in investing in a women’s league.

“We can look at (the WNBA) and see that women’s sports have value and they have a place in this world,” said Nurse, who made $2,000 last season playing in the CWHL. “That is definitely a model that we look to.”

The rivalry series was created after the Four Nations Cup in Sweden was canceled when top Swedish players pulled out of national team events due to concerns over their salary and working conditions.

Without a viable pro league, players who are out of college have been training on their own at random rinks across North America in between gatherings of the national teams or training sessions and exhibitions sponsored by the players association.

Canada won two of those over the US in Pittsburgh last month.

But the lack of consistent competition can stunt the players’ development, especially when it comes to be being prepared for world and Olympic competitions, the players said.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Nurse said. “Games are when we truly get better and test out our skills, so it’s unfortunate that we don’t have more games to play.”

Cayla Barnes, who plays defense for the U.S. team and Boston College, said she and the other college players on the national teams understand what is going on and appreciate what the older players are doing.

“They are putting so much on the line for the younger generations,” she said. “Not just for us college kids who are coming up, but for U-8, U-10 girls who are coming up so they have opportunities later on. So I think all of us who are younger are trying to support them in whatever way we can.”

Hundreds of girls wearing their youth hockey jerseys attended the game, chanting “U-S-A” as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

“I want to be like them, like in the Olympics when I get older,” said 14-year-old Leila Espirito Santo, of Glastonbury “I started playing when I was in fourth grade and I wasn’t the best, but watching them play made me want to be better. It showed me I could do it.”

The teams will meet again on Tuesday in Moncton, New Brunswick. Other games part of the 2019-20 Rivalry Series are slated for Feb. 3 and Feb. 5 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Feb. 8 in Anaheim, California.