Sports

These Women Are About To Make Hockey History

CREDIT: Lindsay Gibbs

NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan helps with a helmet fitting.

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK — To the hundreds of other people at the Aviator Sports and Event Center in Brooklyn on Wednesday night, there was nothing notable about the 18 women gathered in the workout room behind the basketball courts and astro-turf soccer fields.

They were focused on their workouts, rotating through intervals of resistance bands, platform jumps, and kettle-bells while preparing to hit the ice at 10:00 p.m. They were still managing to have fun, listening to music and high-fiving each other throughout, despite the fact that it was late and they were exhausted from their day jobs.

But, unlike the rest of the patrons at the sports complex that night, those women were preparing to make history.

Together, they are the New York Riveters and on Sunday afternoon, they’ll take the ice at Chelsea Piers Connecticut to face the Connecticut Whale on the opening day of the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), the first professional women’s hockey league in the United States, and the first North American professional women’s hockey league ever to pay its players. The other game in the four-team league, between the Buffalo Beauts and Boston Pride, will also be played on Sunday.

This league has gone from idea to reality in just 18 months thanks to 28-year-old Dani Rylan, a 5-foot-3-inch former collegiate hockey player who is the league’s co-founder, commissioner, and the general manager of the Riveters.

Rylan initially set out to bring women’s hockey to New York City. She wanted to create an expansion team as part of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), the other North American women’s hockey league, which is considered pro despite not paying its players or providing all of their needed equipment.

But as Rylan put it nonchalantly on Wednesday night, when she stopped by to check on Riveters practice with her four-month old puppy Tucker in tow, the project “snowballed” from there, and soon she found herself here, the week of the launch, giddy with excitement while worried about live-streams and extra seats and helmet stickers.

“It all transpired faster than I ever imagined,” Rylan told ThinkProgress.

It’s been a whirlwind ride for everyone. This NWHL wasn’t announced until April, and most of the women in the league had already put their hockey days behind them.

Forward Madison Packer, a former member of the U.S. national team who graduated from Wisconsin in 2014, was interning at a law firm and preparing to go to law school when she found out about the league. She went to tryouts over the summer, was offered a contract with the Riveters, negotiated a remote working plan with her office, and packed up her bags and moved to New York City, a place the Midwestern girl never imagined living. She misses home and being away from her tight-knit family is hard, but it’s worth it. Without hockey in her life over the past year, she had been struggling.

“I think for a lot of us, we’re just excited to get back on the ice again,” Packer said. “For me, to have this opportunity when I thought my career was over, it’s definitely a humbling experience and it’s something we’re really excited about. You only get to be part of the first time for something once.”

Goalie Jenny Scrivens, who is married to NHL and AHL goalie Ben Scrivens, actually hung up her skates back in 2009, after her junior year at Cornell. With no viable future in hockey, she decided to spend her senior year focused on her marketing degree. Over the last five years, she’s been moving often to support her husband’s career, and working on her own career at every stop, most recently as the Director of Communications at the Ronald McDonald House in Edmonton, Alberta.

Scrivens first found out about the NWHL when her Twitter feed exploded with excitement over the news back in April, and out of curiosity, she reached out to her friends who were already signed to teams back in July. They couldn’t stop raving about the the league, and particularly commissioner Rylan. So Scrivens cold-called Rylan and told her about her marketing background. Now, she works full-time for the league in PR and communications.

At first, it didn’t even occur to Scrivens that there was a chance to play since she’d been on the sidelines for so long — until she found out that the team rosters weren’t completely filled. Then all she needed was a little encouragement from her husband.

“He’s really excited,” she said. “When the idea first came up, I thought it was ridiculous and brushed it away. Then I brought it up to him the next day, and he said, ‘Why not? You should do it.’ If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know if I would have done it. It means a lot to have that support.”

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CREDIT: Lindsay Gibbs

Of course, life in the NWHL is quite different than life in the NHL. Scrivens shares an apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with her teammate Erin Barley-Malone, who is currently in her first year at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. They had to move so quickly that their apartment is still basically barren — Scrivens’ mattress is still on the floor, while Barley-Malone sleeps on an air mattress.

Scrivens walks to her job at the NWHL headquarters — a corner office in a shared office space overlooking the east river, where a half dozen people, from interns to the commissioner herself, work in one room on their laptops.

Nobody is becoming a millionaire, at least not yet. Rylan designed the league to be very manageable for those with other jobs, since the salaries are not yet large enough to sustain the players on their own. The Riveters have optional open-ice skates at the arena every day, but only two mandatory practices per week, both of which start at 8 p.m. so that all the players can commute to the arena after a full day of work. Games are only on the weekends, and with all of the teams in the Northeast right now, travel is very manageable. There are 18 regular-season games for each team, extending from now until February, with playoffs starting in March.

Each of the four teams have a salary cap of $270,000, and the 18 players are all paid between $10,000-$25,000 per year. (You can see all of the salaries online.) The players also have a chance to make extra money through merchandise sales, since the league pays them 15 percent of their personal jersey sales. Scrivens said that with the incredibly manageable hours, the better-paid players in the league, those making between $20,000-$25,000, are receiving per-game salaries on par with some American Hockey League players.

This might be a part-time job for these women, but this is no hobby or afterthought. Thanks to Rylan, the entire operation feels very professional.

“She’s so inspiring with her work ethic and dedication,” Scrivens said. “People have been wanting this for the long time, and Dani just took the reins and ran with it. It came to a point that everyone was talking about it and nobody took the initiative, and she did.”

“Maybe that’s what the difference is. Talk versus action,” Rylan said. “You have to start pulling those triggers. It was as simple as, you know, starting to book the ice.”

That might sound like a gross oversimplification, and it likely is, but one of the reasons that Rylan has been able to pull this off is because she’s kept things transparent and practical from start to finish. As one of her favorite sayings goes, “It’s not rocket science. It’s hockey.”

Of course, some of the members of the Riveters might be pretty comfortable with rocket science, too. Ashley Johnston is a mechanical engineer. Meghan Fardelmann works for General Electric, and they’re allowing her to work remotely during the season. Gabie Figueroa, who studied structural engineering at Princeton, works as a project engineer with Gilbane Building Company, a construction firm that is designing the new Kingsbridge National Ice Center in the Bronx.

The team is also filled with teachers and youth hockey coaches, as well as three players from Japan, Russia, and Austria who have their salaries subsidized by their national teams.

Together, these women from all over the world and all walks of life are confident they can make the NWHL a success and they point to the rapid growth of women’s hockey to back that up. In 2014-2015, there were nearly 69,744 women and girls registered with USA Hockey. Over 50,000 of those girls were under the age of 18. In 1991, when many of the current NWHL players were just born, there were only 6,336 women and girls registered with USA Hockey. Fans are tuning in as well — the 2014 Sochi Olympics gold medal women’s hockey game between Canada and the United States averaged 4.9 million viewers on NBC.

All of this growth has happened despite the fact that women had no viable option to continue their hockey careers after college. That’s what Rylan and the NWHL are changing.

Unlike the National Women’s Soccer League and the WNBA, the NWHL is funded primarily by undisclosed private investors, not sponsored by big organizations like the United States Soccer Federation and the NBA. Considering those leagues are struggling even with the big-name support, the NWHL has a long road ahead of it. But for now, the league is starting small and working with the resources available, while Rylan is keeping an eye on attracting sponsors and partners and hopefully expanding the teams and increasing the salary cap in the future.

“We have a responsibility to grow this league,” Scrivens said. “We had the privilege of being in the right place at the right time — so many women didn’t get this chance. We owe it to all of the other women to make sure that this league is around.”

Scrivens thinks that the NWHL pioneers can make that happen by embracing the league’s grassroots nature and really interacting with and listening to their fans, be it through social media or in person. She has been encouraging the players to embrace the history-making moments, through the #historybegins hashtag, where players have been tweeting out their first paychecks and pictures of them playing as a child.

She wants to see all of the games sell out. She wants to see fans in the arena, with the league’s impressively designed jerseys on, supporting the league the same way fans support men’s sports.

So far, so good. The first game at Chelsea Piers is already sold out. According to Rylan, thanks to merchandise sales and ticket sales, the league is already churning out revenue, and although nothing is official yet, there are parties interested in broadcasting games. (The games on Sunday will be streamed for free on YouTube.) All of this, and the first games haven’t even started.

“The most exciting part is that it’s all happening. We’re here. We made it,” Rylan said. “Once the game starts, it’s hockey. That’s the best part. That’s when I’ll be able to appreciate how far it’s come and how much work has paid off.”