ice ceilings

U.S. Women Deserve a Pro Hockey League

Photo: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

At 1:30 p.m. on October 11, the puck will drop in the opening game of the National Women’s Hockey League, the first paid women’s league in North America. Founded by former Northeastern University hockey player Dani Rylan, the league aims to help talented female players get recognized — and compensated — for their skills long after college.

Rylan started playing hockey at age 5 and played on the men’s team at Metropolitan State University in Denver. At Northeastern, where she earned a masters in sports leadership, she was co-captain of the women’s team. As a child, she fantasized about going pro, and she wants to enable other women to make that a reality. “Even though my playing career peaked in college, this wasn’t about me at all. It was about giving the best players in the world the ability to dream as big as the boys do,” she says.

The changing landscape for women’s sports makes the timing seem ideal: “Even though the WNBA launched in 1997, it wasn’t until 2010 that their first team was profitable,” Rylan points out. “And I think it was profitable in 2010 because it was 2010.”

And hockey in particular is having a moment. Rylan points to the 2014 Olympic women’s hockey final between the U.S. and Canada as evidence of the sport’s growing fan base. The game averaged 4.9 million viewers on NBC, making it the most-watched ice hockey game (excluding the Stanley Cup Finals) since the 2010 men’s gold-medal match. The U.S. women lost 3–2; they haven’t won an Olympic gold since 1998. Which suggests another reason the NWHL is so necessary: Without a full-fledged pro league, it’s difficult for players to maintain their fitness and skills between the Games.

Right now, women do have the option to compete in the eight-year-old Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which has four teams in Canada and one in Boston. But players don’t get paid, they have to sell tickets so the teams can afford to participate in the playoffs, and many have to buy (and wash) their own equipment.

By contrast, each of the NWHL’s 72 players will make a minimum of $10,000, with top athletes able to command up to $25,000. Those aren’t full-time job salaries, but players only have two practices and one game per week, and they’re eligible for health insurance. The paychecks will help sustain training for women with Olympic aspirations, and let others play a sport they love while being compensated for their talent.

Rylan, who also owns a coffee shop in East Harlem, is co-founder and commissioner, as well as the general manager of the New York Riveters, one of the founding four teams. It seems fitting that former CWHL player Janine Weber was the first woman to sign with the NWHL on June 11. The Austrian national team member scored the winning overtime goal to lift the Boston Blades over the Montreal Stars in the league championship, but when the Hockey Hall of Fame asked Weber to donate her stick, she hesitated: She only had two and the other was broken. Social media and equipment company STX came to the rescue, but the issue illustrates the challenges facing CWHL players.

Now, Rylan is running the show alongside advisers like four-time Olympic medalist Angela Ruggiero, the fourth woman in history to be named to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Together, they decided to create a four-team league in the Northeast, as that’s where a third of women and girls have registered with USA Hockey. Plus, the cities are within driving distance of each other, and three out of four are home to NHL franchises.

Rylan has been thinking about the possibility of partnering with the NHL from the beginning. The NWHL championship trophy is named the Isobel Cup, after the hockey-playing daughter of Lord Stanley. The Riveters and the Boston Pride have the same team colors as their male counterparts, the Rangers and Bruins; the Buffalo Beauts’ logo is similar to the Buffalo Sabres, and the Connecticut Whale is a reference to the now-defunct Hartford Whalers (and, yes, she got permission to use the trademarked name and a version of the logo).

As commissioner, Rylan’s responsibilities range from pitching investors to coordinating broadcast rights on regional sports networks. She’s faced plenty of skepticism along the way. When the league was announced this spring, there were doubts over whether Rylan could pull it off. But in just over eight weeks, the NWHL has signed 46 free agents and drafted an additional 20 rising college seniors who will play next season. Thus far, their biggest get is two-time Olympian Brianne McLaughlin.

Fellow Olympic medalist Hilary Knight, who played with the CWHL’s Boston Blades, told the Cut she’ll be signing with an NWHL team but wouldn’t say which one (free agency ends on August 17).“What I love about Dani is her willingness to just go get something done,” she said at Self magazine’s Play Like a Girl breakfast in July. “She’s unstoppable. She saw the struggles of the girls who were training for the Olympics and were trying to scrape pennies off the ground to sustain themselves, and also the girls who are out of college and don’t have a place they can play. And she went out and found a solution.”

Rylan knows the potential the league has for hockey, and even for the bigger sports universe. “One of the coolest questions I was asked was ‘Where do you see this league 20 years from now?’ It’s pretty special that a little girl may start playing hockey because of the NWHL and 20 years from now she’s going to be draft eligible or playing in the league.” Let us not forget that the buzz-worthy female coaches on men’s teams, Becky Hammon of the San Antonio Spurs and Jen Welter of the Arizona Cardinals, have something in common: They played their respective sports professionally for more than a decade. Hammon even told Fortune that without the WNBA she probably wouldn’t be on the Spurs’ staff.

In the short term, though, Rylan’s  realistic about what still needs to be done from a financial standpoint. “We’re selling it as a media platform,” she says. “I would love to say we have that one big sponsor who’s going to be taking us there, but we don’t right now.” She’s actively pitching the naming rights, à la the Barclays Premier League, and says it’s the league’s biggest asset.

Rylan seems as pragmatic and candid as she is optimistic, admitting, “In all honesty, after the 2014 Olympics would have been the best time to piggyback that hype and continue to grow the sport, but the 2015–16 season is now the second best time.” She says she got her straight-talking approach from her entrepreneur dad. “He always encouraged me to take risks and put myself out there. And he’s been an amazing sounding board —  I know I’m going to get a genuine reply and not a cliché.”

Some news outlets have pointed out that a second women’s league could fragment support and stall progress, but Rylan has repeatedly said she wants the NWHL and CWHL to co-exist. If some real talk and friendly competition results in paychecks for players north of the border, too, then literally everyone is a winner.

U.S. Women Deserve a Pro Hockey League