The NWHL appears to be setting its new season up around a trip to the NHL’s Winter Classic, according to a tentative league calendar sent to Today’s Slapshot by sources close to the league.
The proposed calendar, though not yet finalized, includes a break labeled “NHL Winter Classic,” beginning Dec. 30, 2016 and ending Jan. 1, 2017. (Update: As an eagle-eyed commentator pointed out, those dates do not match up with the NHL’s Winter Classic, which makes the labeling all the more curious, though it could point to a pre-Winter Classic match-up, as last year’s Outdoor Women’s Classic took place the day before the NHL’s official Winter Classic tilt.)
While the NWHL did not confirm if it was planning to participate in a second Outdoor Women’s Classic, instead directing requests for information to the NHL’s Public Relations Office, the inclusion of the NHL Winter Classic dates suggests at minimum that the league has hopes of participating in the event.
Convincing the NHL to host another Outdoor Women’s Classic, which was riddled with frustrations and resulted in severe spinal injury to one of the NWHL’s athletes, might be difficult to do, as NHL facilitators for the game reportedly had such a difficult time getting the two leagues to cooperate that several of them were forced to do damage control via interview. The media held a somewhat-mixed opinion of the game’s significance for women’s hockey, eventually concluding that while it might have been a positive for the women who stepped on the ice, its inaccessability to fans made its existence a moot point, a view echoed by players like Hilary Knight.
The potential calendar shows that even more changes are afoot for the upstart league.
As previously reported by Today’s Slapshot, the tentative schedule shows a significantly longer season than NWHL fans are used to. The calendar’s opening weekend begins the third weekend in October and the Isobel Cup Playoffs cap the season in June, a timeline significantly greater than the October-to-March schedule the NWHL rolled out in its inaugural season. When league commissioner Dani Rylan told media in March that the season would be both longer and include more games, she was likely speaking with this schedule in mind.
However, with salaries more or less remaining stagnant and many returning players agreeing to pay cuts in order to sign a contract for a second season, this may not be as popular with players. Many hoped for a longer season, but specifically envisioned weekends with back-to-back games, similar to the CWHL’s or an NCAA schedule, not a season longer by several months.
The proposed schedule’s length may be an issue for national team players as well, with a break at the end of October for the Four Nations Cup, which the U.S. women’s national team will travel to and compete in and another two weeks in April during which national team players will head to the 2017 International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Championship in Plymouth, Michigan.
Presumably the most stunning change of all are the six-week playoffs that run through the last weekend in April, all of May, and part of June. While the expansion Rylan teased at the end of the first Isobel Cup Final has yet to materialize, this potential calendar could suggest a round-robin style of play, where all four teams face each other in sets of weekend-long series before advancing to a berth in the Final.
This schedule, should national team players agree to play by it, would have them training and playing from mid-September (when practices are scheduled to begin) to the beginning of June (when the Isobel Cup Final ends), their scant breaks filled with national team camps and commitments. The national team’s June camp, typically set to jump-start players’ training after they break post-Women’s Worlds, would instead come only a few weeks after teams wrapped up the Isobel Cup Final.
The league has clashed previously with the U.S. national team schedule, which left national team players unable to compete with their NWHL teams and cost them money for each game and practice they could not attend.