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Hockey history – Minnesota’s first women’s pro game – comes with uncertainty

October 4, 2018

The question still trips up Hannah Brandt from time to time. When people ask the former Gophers star about her professional hockey career, she has to remind herself that, yes, she will be earning a paycheck with the Minnesota Whitecaps, a hard-earned milestone that seemed unattainable only a few years ago.

We grew up never thinking this was a possibility, to be paid to play a game we love, said Brandt, a Vadnais Heights resident and Olympic gold medalist. For this to finally be a reality is pretty special for all of us. And the coolest thing is, its just getting started.

Saturday, the Whitecaps will begin their first season in the National Womens Hockey League, entering a new era as the first Minnesota womens hockey team to pay its players. A capacity crowd of 1,200 is expected to watch them face off against the Metropolitan Riveters at TRIA Rink in downtown St. Paul. While the immediate mission is to win the game, the 25 women on the roster also understand they are fighting for something bigger: to help the NWHL position itself for long-term success.

The league expanded for the first time last May, when it added the Whitecaps as its fifth franchise. Commissioner and founder Dani Rylan has kept much of its financial information under wraps, declining to disclose details of its revenue and expenditures. But she said the NWHL is on solid fiscal ground as it enters its fourth season.

Weve never been healthier, Rylan said. And were already off to a really great start in Minnesota. All our revenue streams are firing.

Womens hockey now has two salaried leagues, after the Canadian Womens Hockey League began paying players in 2017. Each has a salary cap of $100,000 per team. Former CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress and many of the top players in the U.S. and Canada are pushing for the leagues to merge, believing that one organization gives the womens pro game its best chance to grow.

Leaders of both leagues are continuing to discuss what the future might look like. On Saturday, Rylan and the Whitecaps will be immersed solely in the present, as they welcome a new chapter in Minnesota hockey.

Everyone wants so much to see this whole thing succeed, said Winny Brodt Brown, who has played for the Whitecaps since her father, Jack Brodt, co-founded the team for post-college players in 2004. Its so important to all of us.

For me, its a dream come true. I never thought Id see the day when there would be a pro womens team in Minnesota, where players were paid.

Potential for big growth

Rylan said Minnesotas passion for hockey makes the Twin Cities an incredibly important market. The Whitecaps already have sold nearly 500 season tickets, the most in league history, and Saturdays opener is sold out. TRIA Orthopedics has signed a three-year deal as the teams official health-care partner, the first major team-specific sponsorship in NWHL history.

The leagues initial business plan did not include Minnesota mainly because of the high cost of air travel. Rylan launched the NWHL in 2015 as a bus league, with franchises in Buffalo, Boston, New York and Stamford, Conn. The Buffalo franchise was sold to the owners of the NHLs Buffalo Sabres in December, while the league owns and operates the other four teams.

The NWHL acquired the Whitecaps in May. Jack Brodt, who remains the teams general manager and co-head coach, said he does not know much about the leagues finances but has faith that Rylan is following a prudent business strategy.

Were not privy to their finances, so we dont know what position theyre in, Brodt said. But Dani has a plan in place. And shes a very smart businesswoman.

A former hockey player at Northeastern University, Rylan, 31, grew up in Florida, where her father worked in marketing for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Interest in the 2014 Olympic gold-medal game between the U.S. and Canada watched by 4.9 million people on NBC convinced her the time was right for a paid league. She spent a year crafting a business plan and courting investors, most of whom have remained anonymous.

One partner, Texas Rangers co-owner Neil Leibman, went public Thursday. Leibman did not disclose how much money he has committed, but he called the NWHL a legacy investment and envisions adding another three teams over the next five years.

I want to see the NWHL on par some day with the NHL, Leibman said. Im confident it will happen.

There have been growing pains. Player salaries initially ranged from $10,000 to $26,000 per season, then were cut substantially in the leagues second season when revenue did not increase as expected. The current salary cap of $100,000 per team is the same as last season.

Dunkin Donuts, which became the leagues first corporate sponsor in 2015, remains its only well-known national partner. But Rylan said the NWHL is securing more local sponsorships, and she anticipates sales of media rights to be the next revenue stream to really take off. The NWHL announced Wednesday that 16 regular-season games, the All-Star Game and the Isobel Cup playoffs will be livestreamed on Twitter this season, with the league selling advertising on those broadcasts.

Combine leagues?

Three franchises the Whitecaps, the Riveters and Buffalo also have affiliations with NHL teams. The Wild is assisting the Whitecaps with marketing, promotions and communications, as well as hosting eight home games at its TRIA Rink practice facility. The Riveters have a similar deal with the New Jersey Devils.

Jack Brodt believes that for the league to have long-term success, it must sell all of its franchises to NHL teams, as it did with Buffalo. I think thats the ultimate goal, he said. And I think the CWHL has the same end game. Our best chance over the long haul is if the NHL gets involved.

Andress, the former CWHL commissioner, said it also is imperative for the NWHL and CWHL to join forces. She recalled many great discussions with Rylan on that topic before she left to lead SheIS, an organization dedicated to the growth of womens sports at all levels.

The epic showdowns between the U.S. and Canada at the Olympics have generated more interest in womens hockey. But the stars of that rivalry are scattered across the two leagues, which do not play each other. Many of them including Brandt and Whitecaps teammate Lee Stecklein support a merger that would keep North Americas best players in the same organization.

I think both leagues are in very good places, Andress said. But for womens hockey to grow, we cant split these players up. Having one league is absolutely necessary.

Rylan said she will remain cautious in her stewardship of the NWHL. After acquiring the Whitecaps, though, she already is considering further expansion. Creating a natural geographic rival for the Whitecaps is part of the plan, as is pursuing more national sponsors and broadcast deals.

She will be at TRIA Rink on Saturday to watch paid women professionals play hockey in Minnesota for the first time. Brandt expects to feel some disbelief that this day has come. Not Rylan, who said she never doubted it.

There have been some ups and downs, but we have a ton of positive momentum behind us, she said. We need to keep proving our business model, keep learning and evolving, and not be complacent with where were at.

There has never been a doubt in my mind that theres a place for womens pro hockey. And weve created it.

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