During her first five years playing professional women’s hockey, Kaleigh Fratkin built relationships with dozens of teammates whom she knew shared a common ideology about their sport.
This summer, when Fratkin saw many of those former linemates around Boston, where she lives, the meetings had turned unsettling.
“I personally have had these weird, awkward kind of encounters with friends and former teammates where it’s just kind of avoiding that elephant in the room,” Fratkin said.
That elephant is the splintering of women’s hockey after the closure of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League in May. The departure of the C.W.H.L. left one pro league in North America: the National Women’s Hockey League. But the N.W.H.L.’s slow growth, and its highest announced salary of $15,000, left many players in search of an alternative path.
The members of the association, including Olympians from the United States and Canada, quickly declared that they would sit out the 2019-20 season. Such a statement from the sport’s biggest names was akin to a commandment.
The N.W.H.L. has weathered questions about its viability, though, and opened its fifth season on Oct. 5 with five teams and about 100 players. This year, the N.W.H.L. will play an increased schedule of 24 games, welcome new sponsors and owners, and have games live-streamed on the gaming platform Twitch.
The N.W.H.L. still lacks many of the standards a majority of players desire, such as live television coverage, backing from the N.H.L. similar to what the N.B.A. has provided the W.N.B.A. and more convenient practice schedules. But its devoted contingent is determined to continue on its chosen course toward sustainability.
“I truly believed in the work that was being put in to drive the sport,” said Fratkin, who was the first player to re-sign for the 2019-20 season. “I’ve seen some highs, and there’s a ton of potential there.”
Fratkin added that the N.W.H.L. was becoming more transparent about its operations and was working toward increasing pay and finding more sponsors.
Beginning this season, players receive 50 percent of league-level sponsorship and media deals; such partners include Dunkin’ Donuts, Chipwich and Twitch.
Fratkin’s team, the Boston Pride, was purchased by an investor group led by the venture capitalist Miles Arnone, who has pledged more resources to the fledgling franchise. The Pride are the only N.W.H.L. club under private ownership; the other teams are operated by the league.
The Pegula family, which owns the Buffalo Bills and Sabres, gave up ownership of the N.W.H.L’s Buffalo Beauts after the top players announced their boycott; the Devils also ended their partnership with the Metropolitan Riveters about a week later. Instead of using the Sabres’ practice facility in Buffalo and the Devils’ practice facility in Newark, those teams are now based in suburban or exurban rinks.
Fratkin initially worried about staying with the N.W.H.L.
“Am I hurting the sport if I choose the N.W.H.L.? That was a lot of the connotation going around,” said Fratkin, who hoped that by being the first to stay she would encourage players who were afraid last spring to publicly say that they wanted to return to the league.
That same motivation drove Allie Thunstrom to become the first player to re-sign with the Minnesota Whitecaps.
In late April, the Whitecaps held a team meeting where players supporting the N.W.H.L. and P.W.H.P.A. made their cases. It became clear that the Whitecaps would not be returning in full form.
Thunstrom, though, said that the Whitecaps’ fan support and success as league champions last season convinced her that the team was on the right path in the N.W.H.L.
“Others reached out and said, ‘Thank you,’ ” she said.
The P.W.H.P.A. includes former league all-stars like Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne Schofield and Shannon Szabados, who, Thunstrom said, are “such great names and such great hockey players, you naturally want to follow their lead.”
Without Olympians and other top stars, the N.W.H.L. has become more accessible for those who thought playing pro hockey was not an option.
Nichelle Simon, who played college and recreational hockey, dedicated two years of training to compete on “American Ninja Warrior” in 2017. Afterward, her sights turned toward the N.W.H.L. But in February 2018, Simon found out she had breast cancer. After completing her treatment, she tried out for the Riveters in June and was signed.
“I feel like I haven’t played the best years of my hockey,” Simon, 36, said. “I had about a little less than a year from the end of my chemo to the start of tryouts. It helped get me through it so much.”
Another newcomer was Emma Ruggiero, who knew she wasn’t national team caliber but still yearned to play hockey after college.
A recent graduate of Division III Buffalo State, Ruggiero works as a server at IHOP. When Mandy Cronin, general manager of the Buffalo Beauts, invited her to try out, Ruggiero said the decision was a no-brainer.
“I may never get this opportunity again,” she said.
There does not seem to be any ill will toward the boycotters from the majority of N.W.H.L. players. But veterans like Jillian Dempsey, who is one of eight players who has remained with the N.W.H.L. since its inception in 2015, felt the league’s reputation was unfairly discredited in the off-season.
“The past five months it’s felt like, I don’t want to say a dig, but bringing the N.W.H.L. down by saying this is not a sustainable league that we believe in, that sense coming from the P.W.H.P.A. group,” said Dempsey, 28, who teaches fifth grade full-time in Winthrop, Mass., her hometown. “I know they say it has nothing to do with the N.W.H.L., but it does end up affecting the N.W.H.L.”
The National Hockey League could end the division in women’s hockey, but it has decided not to step in. The N.H.L. doubled its contribution to the N.W.H.L. for this season — to $100,000 from $50,000 — but otherwise has little involvement in the women’s game.
Since the formation of the P.W.H.P.A., there has been almost no communication between the association and the N.W.H.L. on a business front.
But not everyone views the schism as a negative. The P.W.H.P.A.’s Dream Gap Tour, where the top players are participating in clinics and exhibitions this fall, has stops in Toronto; Hudson, N.H.; and Chicago, cities that do not have N.W.H.L. teams.
“At the end of the day, having these two separate paths might be a very good thing,” Thunstrom said. “They’re hitting a lot of markets we don’t in the N.W.H.L. — that might be a really good thing. Eventually, hopefully all sides can come together and make this what everyone wants it to be.”
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