Players take a knee between drills. Pictured: Gabie Figueroa, Danielle Ward. New Jersey NWHL training camp, June 11, 2016. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kaitlin S. Cimini
Womens Hockey

Returning to the NWHL: Not as roster players, but practice players

Photo Credit: Kaitlin S. Cimini

The NWHL is closing in on its free agency deadline, and while some teams, such as the New York Riveters, are sitting comfortably with their rosters close to completion, others, like the Connecticut Whale and the Boston Pride, have fewer than half the players needed under contract. One would think that there would be plenty of room for returning depth players to sign, but for many, that is not in the cards, and the chances are dwindling rapidly.

In the first place, the NWHL started the offseason by cutting its rosters from 18 to 17, moving a goalie to the practice player position, though it did expand the practice player numbers from four to six (including the third goalie) for the second season. So while more practice player slots need to be filled, the competition for roster spots is fiercer and tighter as more young women graduate college and take a shot at the league.

Recently the NWHL announced the cancellation of its third and final free agent training camp, where players are invited to try out for the four-team league, making it an even tighter race for those taking part. While the league may be able to fill out the remainder of its rosters with national team players, returning players and draft picks who signed with the league, that will still leave some former NWHLers, interested in returning, out in the cold.

For many of them, the thought of joining a beer league has been spoiled by playing and training with and against Olympians three times a week; the fact that the league cuts them a check and covers gear (to an extent) certainly didn’t hurt matters. The CWHL is only an answer for players who live in and around the Boston and Toronto areas.

So what do they do, if passed over for a roster spot?

Some are so invested in the league that they would rather take non-contract positions as practice players, filling in for roster players and only earning a paycheck when they take the ice in a game, than give it up entirely.

New York Riveters defender Gabie Figueroa embodied that sentiment when she spoke with the media in June, praising the general manager and head coach, Chad Wiseman, and the team that he has built thus far in the offseason.

“Chad’s done an unbelievable job. He’s gotten fantastic players. I think we’re a true contender for the Isobel Cup next year,” Figueroa said, then paused, parsing the words that had just come out of her mouth.

“I say ‘we’re’ because if I don’t end up with a contract spot I’ll definitely be a practice player in a non-paid position and still involved with the league,” she said, “Just because I believe in it so much.”

“I learned a lot the last year, playing with the Riveters,” Figueroa continued. “I’m just out here, playing my best and hoping for a contract spot,” she added, a twist to the left side of her mouth. She knows the odds of her former coach, Chad Wiseman, now Riveters GM offering her a roster spot go down with every day that passes.

“We’ll see what happens.”

Figueroa is not alone in this sentiment, or this uncomfortable position. A solid defensive defender who was considered good enough to be a depth player in the league’s inaugural season may find herself passed over for someone younger, more skilled and with a higher international profile, which, as Erik Wollschlager pointed out at Excelle Sports, stings quite a bit.

“After the loss in the championship game, the coaches came into the room and wished us all luck in the future, and that was kind of open-ended—no one really knew what that meant,” Williams told Wollschlager. “Since then, I have reached out to the team, but I have only really gotten a generic response from Ric (Seiling, general manager of the Beauts.) A teammate (who wishes to be unnamed) received the exact same response.”

The uncertainty of whether or not positions will, at some point, be offered, keep many players from verbalizing their thought process on the record, fearing a lowball offer or an assumption on the part of the GM that they will happily take a practice player position. Regardless, there are players who would rather play some high-level hockey than none, would rather receive a small paycheck for their skill than not receive one at all.

Returning to the NWHL: Not as roster players, but practice players

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