Detroit on women’s hockey league’s expansion radar

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Every four years, the women’s ice-hockey teams from the United States and Canada provide some of the most exciting moments of the Winter Olympics.

The World Championships played between the two teams, under the auspices of the International Ice Hockey Federation, are also battles between the two powerhouses in women’s ice hockey and much anticipated by their fans throughout the year.

Two significant attempts to establish hockey as a profession for women — the National Women’s Hockey League and the Canadian Women’s Hockey League — are sustaining some success.

The NWHL may eventually seek to expand to Detroit.

“There are a few cities where it would be logical to have pro women’s hockey teams, and Detroit is obviously one of them,” said Dani Rylan, the NWHL commissioner.

“It’s a border city that would draw a lot of talent from Canada and the U.S. And of course, it’s Hockeytown!”

While its timetable for expansion is unclear, the NWHL has talked to the Detroit Red Wings and Olympia Entertainment about bringing its all-star game to the city, as the NHL and some franchises begin to expand cooperation with the independent women’s league.

Three years old, the NWHL plays a 16-game schedule among teams in the Northeast.

The league caps salaries at $270,000 per team, and while some of the stars are reportedly making $20,000 to $25,000, the cap provides for an average of about $18,000 per roster position.

Attendance is generally about 1,000, and 1,500-capacity venues are currently suitable for the women’s professional game.

A need to expand

After some failures in earlier attempts to establish professional hockey leagues for women and a spotty record of success for women’s professional sports, the NWHL is playing before enthusiastic, albeit modest, crowds in small arenas, and it is a going, and potentially growing, enterprise.

“The women’s game in the pros needs to expand,” said Rylan, a former captain at Northeastern. “It is essential to advance our mission of increasing the popularity of professional women’s hockey.

“Our hope is to be able to add at least two major American markets in the coming years.”

The NWHL includes the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale and the Metropolitan Riveters.

Madison Packer of Birmingham has been an alternate captain of the Riveters from the start.

“It’s been awesome, being there from the beginning and seeing how the fan base has grown,” said Packer, who returned to play this season after a hip injury and became a finalist for Most Valuable Player in the NWHL, for the Riveters, the 2018 Isobel Cup Champions.

The championship trophy is named for Lady Isobel Gathorne-Hardy, the daughter of Frederick Stanley, the 16th Earl of Derby and the donor of the Stanley Cup.

Packer, 26, started playing in Metro Detroit at age five. She played youth hockey on some boys’ teams, as many of the elite women do, along the way.

“I played for Little Caesars for four years, and played out of City Arena, downtown,” she said.

“My dad was involved, a little bit, and the Ilitches were super-supportive of girls’ hockey.

“Having that option in Detroit enabled me to stay at home all through high school. I didn’t have to move away and go to prep school.”

The CWHL did not begin paying players until this past season, its 11th, which ended last month. Salaries were to range from $2,000 to $10,000 per season, with a team salary cap of $100,000.

It plays a 30-game schedule among seven teams in Canada, China and the United States.

Talk about merging the two professional leagues is a matter of rampant speculation, and prominent women in the game, like Hilary Knight, a leader of Team USA in international competition, and Cassie Campbell-Pascall, the three-time Olympian for Canada and Sportsnet broadcaster, are advocates.

“We are always available for conversations with anyone who wants to collaborate on positive steps for the women’s game,” Rylan said.

“This is our life’s work and passion and we are at it 365 days a year. The NWHL is forever committed to doing what’s best for professional women’s hockey and its supporters and fans, and we look forward to any discussions that lead to growth of the game.”

Meanwhile, the NHL and some franchises are beginning to take an interest.

Terry and Kim Pegula, who own the Sabres, also own the Beauts, the 2017 Isobel Cup winner.

In 2016, Packer’s Riveters announced a partnership with the Devils.

The Wild provided their practice facility for the 2018 NWHL Skills Challenge and the All-Star Game. That game nearly landed in Detroit, except for a scheduling conflict.

“Last fall, representatives from the NWHL visited with our organization to discuss the possibility of holding the NWHL All-Star game at the Belfor Training Center,” said Olympia Entertainment, in a prepared statement.

“We have a proud history of supporting women’s and girls’ hockey including more than 1,000 female players each year in the Little Caesars AAA hockey program and Little Caesars Michigan Girls Hockey League, and while we were unable to accommodate the NWHL request due to scheduling reasons, we hope to build on this tradition by working together with the NWHL in the future.”

Training rink

Whether that might involve the training rink as a venue for the NWHL seems unlikely, because of a significant schedule of events, including Little Caesars hockey and Red Wings practices.

The same is true for USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, which has an extensive schedule of major junior hockey, with two USHL teams, and several tournaments and youth hockey activities.

Indeed, neither USA Hockey officials or Olympia Entertainment were willing to discuss what, at this point, appears to be a hypothetical expansion of the NWHL

But Rylan is confident of a team in Detroit, at some point.

“The momentum behind women’s sports is growing stronger by the day, and the players, fans and staff committed to our respective professional leagues can feel it,” she said.

“Between the success of the pro leagues and the incredible gold medal game at the Olympics between the U.S. and Canada, one could argue women’s hockey is leading the way.

“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that professional women’s hockey will only grow stronger over the next decade.”