Column: What is Happening in the NWHL’s New York Offices?

As the NWHL rounds the final corner of the regular season, the Isobel Cup Final almost within reach, what was supposed to be an uplifting first season for women’s professional hockey has become something of a soap opera for the new league and its followers.

The Outdoor Women’s Classic was a tremendous success or a bust, depending on who’s doing the talking. The injury to Denna Laing won’t be forgotten. Nor was it the only dramatic turn to the season — the league’s Commissioner held a meeting with Connecticut players to discuss firing their coach, news of that same team’s general manager quitting was released late in the afternoon Christmas Eve; all are bumps that have been eyebrow-raising as they’ve become public.

The latest chapter in Leagues of our Lives is a doozy. As reported Wednesday by Today’s Slapshot, George Speirs, COO of the league and Connecticut Whale interim GM, is no longer with the NWHL. Whether he was asked to resign or was outright fired has not been released.

Now that Speirs’s exit from the NWHL is actually confirmed by the league, this incident begs the question: what is going on at NWHL headquarters? I fully expect NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan’s long-lost identical (but secretly evil) twin to join the cast of characters before the season is out.

From comments made by a source close to the league to Jen Neale of Puck Daddy, it appears the league may be better off without Speirs in the front office and vice versa. In Neale’s piece Speirs was referred to by said source as “a snake in the grass. … Spreading internal and external rumors in an attempt to discredit his bosses and establish himself as next the next [NWHL] commissioner.”

Those are strong words to use about the former COO and would indicate a serious source of friction in the front offices of the NWHL. While it is normal for a business to have a decent amount of turnover in its first few years, it isn’t usually quite so publicly antagonistic. The on-the-record silence on both Speirs’s and the league’s parts indicates there may be more than meets the eye in this situation.

The NWHL has thus far declined to respond to or refute the comments made by said anonymous source and have not returned emails sent by Today’s Slapshot.

No matter how dramatic the situation might seem, in the aftermath of Speirs’s exit from the league the NWHL can do only one thing: reflect, file the lesson away and move forward.

As Neale wrote only a few weeks ago, the learning curve is steep and it is long. The NWHL seems to be stumbling as it makes its way up the hill. Its next steps, such as finding a replacement for Speirs in the front office and at the head of the Whale, will say a lot to the public about the league’s vision of itself and its ability to accomplish what its founders have set out to do.

With Speirs gone, Rylan left as the oldest in the room. While she has accomplished a lot, she is still only 28 and could use someone who is familiar with the work it takes to run an athletic league. Likely, this would also mean someone who has been around the block or two and lost a little bit of shine.

The NWHL is a very young league, both in duration and age of its employees; with that comes an enormous learning curve. The league has made all sorts of promises to fans and players, both implicit and explicit, holding itself up as the bright new future of women’s hockey. Now they are faced with delivering on those promises and find it a tall order, indeed.

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