BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — The owner of the Buffalo Beauts gave up control of the team Wednesday, a move that could further jeopardize the future of the National Women’s Hockey League as it struggles to keep its five franchises afloat without the support of the world’s top players.
Beauts owner Kim Pegula informed NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan of her decision last week, and the terms of the team’s handover back to the league were determined during a conference call Tuesday, two people with direct knowledge of the discussions told The Associated Press. The people spoke to The AP on the condition of anonymity because the discussions were private.
“Our main goal has always been fostering the growth of women’s hockey across all ages,” Pegula said in a statement. “We thank our Beauts players, staff, and fans for their support this past season. We will continue to look for ways to successfully grow the women’s game.”
Pegula did not provide a reason behind her decision to back out of the league some 18 months after she and her husband, Terry, became the first private owners of an NWHL franchise.
The NWHL will re-assume control of the franchise, but will have to renegotiate facility fees if the league intends for the Beauts to continue playing at the Pegula-owned HarborCenter.
Rylan thanked Pegula Sports for running the Beauts over the past two seasons and the organization’s ongoing commitment to advance hockey at all levels. The league then issued a separate statement, saying the NWHL is pleased to regain operating control.
“The fans of Western New York are among the most dedicated in the world, and we have had four exceptional seasons of winning hockey and large crowds in Buffalo,” the league said. We will look to continue our relationship with the HarborCenter and its incredible staff, and in the Beauts’ fifth season and beyond, we will build on their tradition of success.”
Last week, more than 200 players announced they would not play in North America this year without what they say needs to be a single, economically viable professional league for women. The list featured a number of Beauts players, including U.S. national team defenseman Emily Pfalzer and Canadian national team goalie Shannon Szabados.
Pfalzer said players cited how well the Beauts treated their players as one of the reasons they made their pledge in believing there are better options available.
“It makes me really hopeful that one day we’re going to have something where it’s not just one team that’s receiving these resources, it’s every team,” Pfalzer said, noting how the Beauts were provided everything from clear tape and skate laces to having an athletic trainer on hand.
“I think that’s something that we want everyone to have, and everyone deserves it,” Pfalzer said.
The NWHL has said it plans to hold a fifth season this fall but has now lost one of its most influential private backers. Pegula and her husband Terry also own the NHL’s Sabres and NFL’s Bills.
Their departure places a considerable dent in the league budget at a time the NWHL was raising the possibility of expanding into Toronto and Montreal after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League shut down as of May 1, citing financial woes.
The Beauts were among the NWHL’s first four teams and have advanced to the Isobel Cup championship game in each of the league’s four seasons, winning it in 2017.
The Pegulas also earned league-wide praise for how the Beauts operated. Players had access to the Sabres’ practice and workout facilities. The Sabres also assisted in marketing the players and team. And the Sabres went so far as to have their media relations staff produce game notes, something not all NWHL teams published.
Szabados backed Pegula’s decision and grew emotional when praising how the Beauts met players’ needs, including providing her sessions with a goalie coach.
“Every single Beauts player was on the same page because we lived what that is. And it’s because we want what we had last year for every team,” Szabados said, before her voice began to crack. “We literally lived a dream last year, and that’s what we want for every player on every team.”
Without the Pegulas, the NWHL will again be saddled with picking up the Beauts’ operating and salary costs, estimated to be close to $200,000, one of the people told AP.
Jack Brodt, co-coach and founder of the NWHL champion Minnesota Whitecaps, on Monday told The AP he was concerned about the league’s status.
“It doesn’t look too good right now,” Brodt said while emphasizing he was speaking from a personal perspective and not for the league.
As for the Whitecaps’ status, Brodt is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“I don’t have any idea at this point in time what the situation is going forward,” Brodt said. “With the players not willing to play and so forth, I don’t know if there’s going to be the ability to have a league.”
The Whitecaps sold out all their home games, and led the NWHL with an average attendance of 1,200 last season. Buffalo was second at 1,101.
The Whitecaps remain privately controlled after joining the NWHL last year. Though the NWHL announced it reached an agreement in principle to purchase the Whitecaps, Brodt said the agreement was never signed.
The NWHL’s three other teams are operated by the league, including the Metropolitan Riveters, who have a “strategic alliance” in place with the New Jersey Devils. As part of the three-year agreement, which runs through the end of next season, the Devils provide the Riveters time at their practice facility and include them in marketing and ticket sale programs.
The league’s other two teams are based in Boston and Connecticut.
The NHL is monitoring developments and communicates with its owners who have ties to women’s pro franchises, deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The AP last week.
“We certainly want to preserve the ability of women players to play at the highest levels,” he said then. “So it’s really too early to say how that is going to play out and how the NHL’s role will or won’t be going forward.”
AP Sports Writers Teresa M. Walker and Tim Booth contributed to this report.