In a ‘monumental deal,’ NHL owner purchases pro women’s hockey team

"This is the best thing that could have happened to the NWHL."

In this Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, photo, National Women's Hockey League All-Star players take time for a "selfie" before the start of an all-star game at Harborcenter in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Gary Wiepert)
In this Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, photo, National Women's Hockey League All-Star players take time for a "selfie" before the start of an all-star game at Harborcenter in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Gary Wiepert)

Just over two years ago, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) launched the first pro women’s hockey league in North America to pay its players, with the help of a few leaps of faith from private investors, passion from women’s hockey fans, and plenty of skepticism from the outside world.

The ice hasn’t always been smooth, but midway through its third season, the four-team league just got its biggest vote of confidence yet. On Thursday, Pegula Sports and Entertainment — which also owns the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, and the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Rochester Americans — announced that it was purchasing the defending NWHL champions, the Buffalo Beauts.

Commissioner Dani Rylan has always envisioned the NWHL with independently owned teams, but this is the first time that dream has come to fruition. It is a huge boost for a league trying to establish a future for women’s hockey, in a society that is less-than-patient when it comes to women’s sports in general

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“This is the best thing that could have happened to the NWHL,” Hannah Bevis, site manager at The Ice Garden, a blog dedicated women’s hockey news, told ThinkProgress. Bevis isn’t alone in her assessment.

“This is by far the most monumental deal that we have done in our short history,” Rylan told The Ice Garden on Thursday morning. “Hats off to the Pegulas for seeing not only the value of empowering the women on the Beauts and the women in the league… I think across women’s sports in general, to have them buy-in, we believe that the ripple effect of that will be pretty significant.”

Players across the league — particularly those with the Beauts — shared their excitement on social media as well.

This time last year, the NWHL was reeling from drastic midseason salary cuts that left the players and the league itself in flux — it wasn’t a given that its second season would even finish. But despite some labor disputes and behind-the-scenes controversy over the identity of investors and the transparency of the finances, the league soldiered on to a third season.

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This offseason was a tough one, too. The salary caps for teams decreased, and because of the Winter Olympics in 2018, anyone who was planning on playing on a national team in PyeongChang, South Korea wasn’t eligible to play in the NWHL this season.

Still, in October, the third season got off to a promising start when the NHL’s New Jersey Devils announced a partnership with the NWHL’s Metropolitan Riveters. While a partnership is not an ownership, the deal has provided the Riveters with a practice facility for home games in Newark, and marketing assistance. Additionally, the Devils hosted the Riveters for a doubleheader at the Prudential Center.

The Pegulas have now taken the NHL’s support of the NWHL to the next level — a sign that the future of the league might be much more stable than anyone could have imagined a few months ago.

“With the up-and-down last year and a half, it means a lot to have the Pegulas invest,” Bevis said. “The Pegulas are Buffalo sports, so for me I think this really is a strong statement saying, this team is legitimate, they’ve been legitimate for a while, we recognize that.”

This announcement gives the NWHL a great foothold headed into the Winter Olympics, which provides women’s hockey in North America it’s biggest spotlight. Four years ago in Sochi, the women’s hockey gold-medal game between the United States and Canada drew 4.9 million viewers.

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“We want to contribute to the growth of women’s hockey,” Kim Pegula said. “HarborCenter has allowed us to make a positive impact on the game at the amateur, high school and collegiate levels, and we believe this is the perfect time to expand our reach to include women’s professional hockey through the NWHL. This sport provides outstanding opportunities, and we are committed to helping extend those opportunities to females of all ages.”