A League Of Their Own

NWHL Looks To Pick Up Momentum After Charging Out Of The Gate

Emily Pfalzer lives in a dream world.

A year after graduating from Boston College, the 5-foot-2 defenseman is still playing professional hockey for her hometown team, the Buffalo Beauts, thanks to the new National Women’s Hockey League.

“It’s a dream come true to be able to play the game I love and to be able to get paid for it,” says Pfalzer, who plans to use her biology degree to one day attend medical school.

“But it’s not about that. It’s about starting the game and growing the game and helping little kids be able to come up with the dream, too.

“It kind of reminds me of growing up.”

Born in 2015 with franchises in Boston, Buffalo, Connecticut and New York City, the NWHL provides a life after college hockey for a number of female players, especially those without a National or Olympic team to train for.

They play in modest-sized arenas where loyal fans pay modest prices—general admission tickets run around $20 for adults and $10 for students—to watch the next chapter in the ongoing evolution of women’s hockey.

Unlike the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which launched in 2007, the NWHL is the first league to pay women to play the game they love.

Still, it should be noted that no player is making a living strictly from her paycheck. While a small number of established stars, like Hilary Knight, can make a comfortable living off their endorsement deals, for the rank-and-file players the NWHL is for now a part-time job.

Raleigh, N.C., native Alyssa Gagliardi, for example, plays defense for the Boston Pride and also works for a start-up tech company in Boston.

And the Beauts’ Kelly Steadman has a job in Pittsburgh that limits her ability to participate in games and practices. Still, even as a part-time player, she found herself leading the league in scoring early in the season.

“Very rarely do we have the entire team together, which is tough,” says Beauts goalie Brianne McLaughlin, at 28 is a veteran player and two-time Olympian. “In college ... there’s a big age difference. But here we’re all adults. ... I’ve always liked to know my coaches and have them know me better as a person and as a player. That’s what I’ve enjoyed here.”

McLaughlin is married, owns a house and figures she will start a family at some point. But for now, she’s happy to be on the ground floor of something big.

For many, the NWHL provides more than just a paycheck. It’s an opportunity to continue to be involved in a game that many have played since they were young girls. Like their male counterparts, the thing that players miss most when they leave the game is the culture and the camaraderie that comes from playing a team sport.

The action is fast, furious and often physical in the NWHL, something that has earned a growing legion of loyal fans.The action is fast, furious and often physical in the NWHL, something that has earned a growing legion of loyal fans.

“I keep telling them, ‘You know what GM stands for, right? Great Mom. I’ll be your mom away from home,’” says Buffalo Beauts GM Linda Mroz, who invites players to her home for meals.

A certified school teacher and 12-year hockey coach, Mroz ran a Buffalo-based youth program for girls before taking a lead management role in the NWHL.

“I’m here. That’s it. Bottom line, I’m in for life,” she says. “We’re a hockey town. Whether we’re winning or losing, our fans are there for us and it’s awesome.”

The Beauts play their home games at HarborCenter, a popular new complex adjacent to First Niagara Center, home of the NHL’s Sabres.

As a first-year league, the NWHL’s pace is up-tempo on and off the ice, almost like a car zooming down a hill with no brakes. And everyone involved in the league, no matter what their role, sees it only picking up speed in the future.

“Players are older and different; it’s a professional league,” says Meghan Duggan, the 28-year-old leader of the Buffalo Beauts. “I would just like to see every year that the league grows, gains popularity, puts more butts in the stands, things like that.”

Boston Pride coach Bobby Jay says the NWHL already feels more like coaching in the AHL than the NCAA.

“The skill level’s better than a lot of the pros that I’ve coached on the men’s side,” says Jay, who was an assistant coach with the 2014 U.S. Women’s Olympic Team. “I tell you, I coached five or six years in the American League, this is legit.”

The games are often low-scoring affairs thanks to great goaltending but with structure, verve and even a little nastiness. Afterward, the home team returns to the arena concourse to meet and greet with fans.

“This talk about a women’s league has been around for years, but no one was able to actually put it together and get the financial backing that is needed,” says Buffalo Head Coach Shelley Looney, who played in two Olympics before turning to coaching.

“To be a part of the actual footprint that actually did it, it’s kind of exciting. Back when I was playing, we hoped that it would happen. It never did, you know, so I make sure these girls know how special and how lucky and fortunate they are to be a part of it.”

Duggan is the living embodiment of that. The captain of the 2014 U.S. Women’s Olympic Team plays every shift like it’s her last, and the significance of the occasion is not lost on her.

“We’re playing for the past, we’re playing for the future. That’s what women’s hockey’s all about,” she says.

With the CWHL and the independent Minnesota IceCaps watching intently, NWHL expansion is widely considered inevitable thanks to its methodical approach to growth.

“We coexist and we’re so grateful for the CWHL and the opportunities that they’ve been giving women. Up until this year, that was the only post-collegiate option,” says NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan.

“Sports run on TV deals and sponsorship deals, and it’s been a huge part of our success. It shows what a splash we’ve made to sign the NESN deal and Dunkin’ Donuts, supporting not only the NWHL but grass-roots hockey. Part of the arrangement is a handful of youth hockey clinics [for girls].”

Four-time Olympian Angela Ruggiero, who was recently inducted into U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, sees increased media coverage as a major player in the growth of the league.

“You saw the ratings in Sochi. I think they were better than the men,” says Ruggiero, noting from her two years as president of the Women’s Sports Foundation that only five percent of the media covers women’s sports. “It’s exciting to see how many people stopped their day. It was the top story on NPR the next day. Everyone was talking about it.”

Media exposure has made compelling performers in other women’s sports major earners.

“You saw that with women’s soccer [last] summer. You’re seeing that with Ronda Rousey and Serena Williams,” Ruggiero says. “You’re seeing interest in women’s sports to rise. And selfishly I want women’s hockey to be the sport that people follow.”

Mick Colageo covers the Boston Bruins for the New Bedford Standard Times.

 


 

Laing Exemplifies Spirit Of ‘Boston Strong’

As it typically does, the hockey world rallied to the aid of one of their own in Denna Laing. The Boston Pride practice player pushing for a regular spot sustained a severe spinal injury when she crashed headfirst into the boards during the first-ever Women’s Classic exhibition game held at Gillette Stadium in conjunction with the NHL’s Winter Classic. The injury has left the Marblehead, Mass., native with limited movement of her arms and no feeling in her legs.

In the weeks after the accident, Laing has received widespread support from the NWHL and CWHL, as well as the NHL and its clubs. The Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens auctioned off game-worn jerseys to support her cause, and Boston-bred NHL brothers Jimmy and Kevin Hayes pledged $5,000 for every $10,000 raised by sales of a “24 Laing” t-shirt.

To learn more about how you can support this courageous athlete, go to dennalaing.org.

Issue: 
2016-03

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