BUFFALO, USA – The National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) made headlines last year when it debuted as a competitor to the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL). But the four-team, Eastern-based league was focused on embracing the sport’s grassroots at its World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend extravaganza in Buffalo.
American stars like Brianna Decker, Alex Carpenter, and Amanda Kessel took part in the opening games of the 2016/17 season at the HarborCenter, home of the Buffalo Sabres. The league takes pride in being the first to pay salaries in women’s hockey, and by helping the next generation of female players to improve their skills and deepen their love of hockey, it’s also finding a way to give back.
IIHF.com caught up with NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan after the event.
How did you enjoy your first day of World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend?
It was an awesome opening night for the league, and the festivities have not slowed down. Our first NWHL Futures tournament started this morning and is going through the holiday weekend. There’s another matchup tonight and again tomorrow night.
What does the event mean to you?
It’s a really amazing weekend to get more girls involved in the game, to expose more girls to the game, and hopefully have more young girls fall in love with the game. Being one of the top leagues in the world, these athletes have so much to give back to the game. They seize every opportunity to do so. To officially celebrate it this weekend is perfect for us.
What are some of the highlights.
We kicked off the weekend with a Try Hockey for Free event. NWHL players were happy to get on the ice with the young girls. In our Futures tournament this weekend, each of the teams is representing one of the NWHL teams. We have the Junior [New York] Riveters, the Junior [Boston] Pride, the Junior [Buffalo] Beauts, and the Junior [Connecticut] Whale. The pro players have been jumping on the bench or showing up in the locker room or lobby and surprising some of the teams, helping to coach them. It’s been special to watch how much these athletes appreciate the game and want to give back to it. Literally every player from every team has at some point this weekend come into contact with one of the girls playing in the Futures tournament and shared a moment with them.
What are your goals for the NWHL in its sophomore season?
Year One was all about proof of product. We proved there is an extremely passionate fan base for women’s hockey. Year Two is growing that fan base and introducing the game to more and more fans and young girls. Starting our season off with World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend was definitely poetic. We’re grateful that the calendar aligned for us to do so, and think the season can only get better from here.
How would you describe the NWHL’s relationship with international hockey?
We want to see ourselves as the premier league in the world. Having the opportunity to have some of the best players in the world playing in this league is what makes the product so great for our fans. Thirty percent of our league plays for their respective national teams, so they’re all having the opportunity to make a difference.
We have really developed a great relationship with different countries. Last year, the New York Riveters went to Japan for a three-game exhibition series against the Japanese national team. Our pre-season this fall started with a five-game series against Team Russia. They played Boston once, Connecticut twice, and New York twice. And we want to continue to grow those relationships and the profile of women’s hockey. We’ve actually heard that the Korean national team is interested in coming out in December or January to do a similar thing.
The United States, despite its success at the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship, hasn’t won Olympic women’s gold since 1998. What would gold in Korea in 2018 mean?
I think that gold medal game is always such a close game, it’s anyone’s game. You definitely want to see the U.S. have a gold to celebrate on the 20th anniversary of their last gold. I think that what our league has provided the players in the U.S national team program will hopefully be what was needed to bring home that gold.
What do you expect the next time you celebrate World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend?
We’re only scratching the surface. Next year, we want it to be an even bigger and more memorable event. We’re excited to continue to grow the game, and to have an excuse to celebrate is perfect for us.