Todays SlapShot

Womens Hockey

Fledgling NWHL boldly aimed for the stars in Year One

Dani Rylan introduces the Isobel Cup at the Isobel Cup Finals. March 12 2016. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kaitlin S. Cimini

“What was your favorite point in this season?” Today’s Slapshot asked NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan, for an end of season interview. “What one thing sticks out to you? And don’t say that little boy running around saying Madison Packer was his favorite player.”

“But that was my favorite moment,” she protested. “And the girl with the 2027 sign. I liked the teddy bear toss up in Buffalo…a lot of them were fan-based. When Kelli Stack signed the puck and threw it into the crowd at the All-Star Game…at the end of the day, I’m a huge women’s hockey fan. There were so many moments that I was a fan in the stands, enjoying the product on the ice. Enjoying the competition. The professional spirit on the ice. It’s torture when people ask me to pick one moment or pick two, because at the end of it I had a couple dozen from this season.”

Those moments made up a lot of the league’s carefully-projected image, but were often interrupted by pretty impressive gaffes.

While the big picture was one of success, there’s a reason we’ve all heard the saying “the devil’s in the details.” The NWHL’s on-ice product never faltered, and players independently confirmed they received each paycheck they were entitled to, the biggest, most important detail of all when you’ve built your league on the premise that it will be the first in its field to pay women a salary.

“We’ve exponentially grown throughout this whole season, whether it was through tangible social media numbers or through the evolution of our broadcast,” said NWHL founder and Commissioner Dani Rylan. “It’s crazy to think that in 2014 we were not even a blip on the radar and at the end of 2015 we were playing on the biggest stage at Gillette Stadium, [at] an NHL event, the Winter Classic. And to see how far we’ve come, how much support we’ve received from the hockey community has just been amazing. It’s exciting to see the support that continues to flow in and the passion the community has for women’s hockey.”

However, the league ran into numerous issues that stemmed from failure to think its ideas through, beginning to end.

Nearly everyone loved what the NWHL stood for: pay for women who had a skill, an attempt to grow the sport in the U.S., and not just Canada. Commissioner Dani Rylan had – has – very smart ideas, and overall has attracted an intelligent staff that works hard to see them come to life. There are, unfortunately, too many ideas to bring to life and too few people to do it.

See, for example, player headshots and videos. At the NWHL’s media day they had a photographer on site at each location who took photos of players for the website as well as short, 10-second videos of players introducing themselves and welcoming fans.

Madison Packer, Brooke Ammerman try on gear at the NWHL New York Riveters Media Day. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kaitlin S. Cimini

Madison Packer, Brooke Ammerman try on gear at the NWHL New York Riveters Media Day. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kaitlin S. Cimini

Fast-forward to the end of the season and not one of those video clips were shown; the majority of the headshots belonging to the New York Riveters went up on the NWHL’s site but the rest of the teams are still without identifying photos. In a sport where the NHL itself has struggled in connecting individual stars with the general public, it’s twice as difficult for women’s hockey, when the players must wear facemasks. And in a league where every dollar counts, creating these headshots or videos only to ultimately not use them is a waste of resources.

Rylan didn’t necessarily agree with said assessment.

“I don’t think headshots are an example of dreaming big or thinking too large, I think that’s…it was something where…we were short-staffed and working very hard,” said Rylan about the small missed opportunities throughout the year, such as headshots. “A lot of people were wearing many hats and there was just not a web developer on staff.”

It’s a perfect example of the league failing to understand the scope of what was needed to execute its often very good ideas.

Rylan did admit that there were many missteps and stumbles made throughout the season, focusing particularly on her league’s inability to deliver as much merchandise as fast as they had hoped, as well as their stumbles with their ticketing platform that lasted from late August until only a few weeks before the opening game.

“Last year we didn’t finish our ticketing platform until two weeks before the season started,” she said. “We still had 27% of all of our tickets sold going to season ticket holders when they only had two weeks to purchase tickets so that was really an impressive feat, granted [sic] that we only had two weeks to sell those tickets, but in an ideal world we would have had multiple months leading up to our first game to sell as many tickets as possible.”

There were any other number of things, like the New York Riveters trip to Japan that was hyped pre-trip but ultimately left U.S. fans cold, or the GoPro footage from the cameras on Kate Buesser and Brittany Ott’s heads during the Outdoor Women’s Classic. Despite the fact that Savanna Arral, Director of Communications for the league, tweeted that there would be something forthcoming in the days after the game once fans noticed the cameras mounted on the players’ helmets, nothing materialized.

Then there were the not-so-little gaffes, such as the report that the Commissioner discussed firing a coach with said coach’s players while the coach was in a room with an adjoining wall, or the teaser run on the livestream at the end of the season that indicated an expansion to Canada was coming, in what appeared to be Toronto and Montreal.

NWHL Expansion Teaser from the Isobel Cup Series, Game 2, Boston vs Buffalo. March 12, 2016. Screenshot from NWHL YouTube stream.

NWHL Expansion Teaser from the Isobel Cup Series, Game 2, Boston vs Buffalo. March 12, 2016. Screenshot from NWHL YouTube stream.

If there’s no such thing as bad publicity, the NWHL must be glowing from the articles, podcasts, and television references the image stirred up. However executives at the CWHL, which already has three women’s hockey franchises in those areas, and at the NHL, who issued an ultimatum to the two leagues that they needed to learn how to get along before they would see real support from the men’s league, can’t have been happy to see said graphic go up.

Those are two relationships the NWHL cannot afford to make rockier in its nascent stages, and yet, the league decided to proceed with this teaser anyways. The league would not comment any further on the graphic, and would only say that relations with the NHL remained positive.

All these incidents, small and large, speak to acting without thinking things completely through.

“There have been a lot of challenges this year,” said Rylan. “I think there were times when operationally we had to sit back and remind ourselves that we are just a start-up.

“I think those missed steps are what make next year so exciting, because we get to take those lessons and improve upon them,” she added.

One of the best things about Rylan is that she dreams big and jumps in feet-first. It has gotten her league to places even the most optimistic didn’t think were possible, all in one year.

However, a kite can’t fly at its best without a string to keep it from soaring too high, too fast, then crashing; Rylan needs to find her string, someone who will force her to look at an idea from start to finish, who will push her and the staff to cover all angles before committing.

In the end, in 2015-16 the NWHL not only launched, it kept the lights on and paid its players. That alone is half the battle. Perfection might be expected of professional leagues in this day and age, but for one in its first year of life, that isn’t a realistic projection.

The mess-ups, though they give a more complete picture of a league that is scraping by on a small budget and even smaller staff, also shows the league’s penchant for striving for greatness. While the NWHL might be better-suited to carefully pare down its ideas to the most important and concentrate on its finishing ability, it finished its first season a success, with highlight reels on SportsCenter, stands packed with fans, and most importantly of all, players who were paid for their work and expertise.

“Our biggest goal is to put a better product on the ice and to continue to improve our product off the ice,” said Rylan. “The biggest struggle going into Year One was that we had no proof of concept and we were just an idea. And now this year we have tangible numbers that people want to see on the business side and we have an incredible product on the ice on the professional hockey side.

“The combo of those two is just going to be a bigger and better splash than we had this year.”

NWHL teaser. March 12, 2016. Screenshot from Isobel Cup Finals, Game 2.

NWHL teaser. March 12, 2016. Screenshot from Isobel Cup Finals, Game 2.

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