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NWHL Q&A With Zoe Hayden And Hannah Bevis: Part II

This is part II of our Q&A with Zoe Hayden from VictoryPress.org (@ZoeClaire_) and Hannah Bevis from TheIceGarden.com (@Hannah_Bevis1).

While it’s completely understandable to keep the four cities close for travel concerns, and Boston and Buffalo being hockey-centric markets, is the NWHL missing something by not including Minneapolis, which already has the strong Gophers program as a base. Or Chicago with a rapidly expanding youth hockey scene and even more so for girls (though the Cubs might start stunting interest in a hurry. No, honestly that’s how it works around here). Obviously the logistics are a nightmare for a league struggling to get by to be in the Midwest, but shoot for the moon and all that?

Zoe: The Midwest is such a quandary and even the NHL has really struggled to get a quality pro team going in Minnesota (all due respect to Wild fans, but it’s been a long time since a Minnesota NHL team competed for the Stanley Cup).  Wild games sell out nevertheless, but they are not a huge draw to television audiences.  For women’s hockey, the Whitecaps are out there but they haven’t been part of a league in quite some time.  Chicago, like you said, has so many other competing sports, but in Minnesota and Wisconsin the college teams have such huge followings.  I think the main hurdle is travel; it’s much harder to get anywhere via bus out there (and bus is currently how the NWHL teams travel, busing distance being a major reason for why the locations were chosen for the original four teams).

In the CHWL you have Calgary which is a huge outlier in terms of distance, but Calgary is a very important hockey city and it’s where the national team trains, which makes it impossible to exclude them or pressure them to move closer, I think.

If you can stabilize the original four NWHL franchises I think Pennsylvania is a good place to look at for expansion (really, anywhere, there’s a ton of hockey in PA at all levels, but I’m from near Pittsburgh and I live in Philadelphia so either of those would be amazing—and there’s also Wilkes-Barre and Erie).  Chicago is also not a bad idea.  Team USA has practiced/had camp in Chicago recently.  But like Hannah said I think it’s a ways away before that happens.

Hannah: Technically, there is a team in the Midwest already- the Minnesota Whitecaps, which isn’t affiliated with either the CWHL or NWHL, where the Minnesota-based players play against local area teams (last year, they played against a couple NW teams in exhibition games). They have a small fan base, and Minnesota is probably the last place that needs more focus on women and girls hockey right now- they’re hockey-crazy as it is. It makes a lot of sense to go there next, but the location isn’t ideal.

This may sound cynical, but the NWHL shot the moon when it said it was going to pay its players in its first year and now we have this, so…I don’t think they’re missing anything by not including Minneapolis. As someone who lives near Chicago, I would LOVE to have a team out here, and if we’re talking expansion, yes, I’d say a Midwest conference might be good if we could maybe have three or four teams to help make travel for Calgary a little easier. But I think there were points in the CWHL’s beginning where Calgary didn’t play every CW team because the distance made it so hard to get there. Weighing the pros and cons, I’d rather wait. 

You both mention NHL support, though considering how the NHL runs most things I’m not convinced that’s a good thing. The WNBA is sometimes used as an example, but the NBA prints its own money thanks to their TV deal and can afford to take that on. We can debate how it came to be this way forever for sure, but there are only a few NHL teams that make a lot of money overall. What’s the way to thread the needle on this?

Zoe: The CWHL has had team-based rather than league-based partnerships with Canadian franchises and I think that was a really brilliant move on their part.  The NWHL has gone a similar route, with two of their teams now playing regular games at NHL practice facilities.  I think the grassroots/local approach is the best idea with respect to things like ice time, resource-sharing, and cross-promotion.  Eyeballs are so important and a lot could be done by just talking about the leagues/teams during a broadcast or showing highlights or sending a few tweets.  The NHL does a lot to promote minor hockey and has affiliate franchises at every level so it’s stunning to me that they see even mentioning women’s hockey on a regular basis to be such a hurdle.  I don’t think it has to cost money, though money would be a big help.  As you said, the NHL has many franchises that do not make a lot of money.  And yet they’re expanding to Las Vegas?  It makes limited sense to me.  I’m all for nontraditional hockey markets.  But amounts of cash that are really small potatoes to the NHL or an NHL team would make a world of difference to women’s hockey.  In terms of capitalism, I’m sure the NHL thinks of it as wasted money or, at best, charity; to me it seems like common sense that you’d want to create a better, more inclusive hockey community and court fans who will love both women’s hockey and men’s hockey for the different experiences that each provides.

This is clearly more of a feeling than a fact, but I think the NHL’s reluctance to support women’s hockey has a lot to do with the fact that culturally women’s hockey is seen as antithetical to the NHL.  Women’s hockey is practically civil disobedience; women in sports still get an untold amount of shit from people, and women’s sports generally pushes back against gender stereotypes and essentialism.  Harrison Browne’s jersey is one of the best-selling jerseys in the NWHL.  If the NHL starts supporting women’s hockey, I think it inevitably leads to a higher level of awareness about stuff like head injuries/fighting,

toxic masculinity in sports, gender, LGBTQ issues, and classism.  The NHL probably doesn’t want to confront that stuff; it’s volatile, and they still cater their product to a male audience.  Not trying to bring up the election, but I think that it has really changed the tone in the US about how we talk about gender issues, too.

Hannah: Totally agree that the CWHL’s partnership with NHL teams at local levels was a great move. It’s been like the CWHL itself- slow and steady- but the benefits that have emerged from it include revamped logos/jerseys, ice time in beautiful NHL rinks for big games, etc. 

I don’t think this has to be the NHL that “swoops in” and helps the leagues, and I’m talking purely from a financial standpoint here. It could be USA Hockey, or Dunkin Donuts, or any other sponsor. Although we’ve seen in the NWHL (and other women’s leagues) how “angel investors”, usually men, donate a lot of money and then expect a lot of control and say over how the league runs, which doesn’t end well.

Also agree with your last part, Zoe. There’s not enough benefit for the NHL to invest now. It doesn’t help their product, and I think charity is exactly how they view it. They have nothing to lose by basically ignoring it and might see some money not returned right away if they do help, so the easiest thing to do is just keep the status quo where it’s at.

This is also a process that’s probably going to take some time- investing money in the league isn’t going to return dividends tomorrow, which may keep the NHL away too. It’s an issue we see in most women’s leagues, though. If a team or league makes a mistakes, it doesn’t usually get a second chance. 

There’s more I maybe want to say about marketing, but idk if it really fits in with this question specifically. 

All right, you’re in charge. Where does NWHL go from here? And how do you get it the attention it requires to thrive? This is always something of a delicate question, because there’s obviously fighting against some anachronistic ideas, if not out-right sexist ones. At the same time, there’s only so much time in the day for people to watch pro sports and this is a country where hockey is still something of a niche sport and women’s hockey is trying to carve out a niche within a niche (if such a thing exists). 

Zoe: The only thing to do now is be completely transparent.  The NWHL has clearly not elected to do that, so I don’t know how you go from there.

In addition to transparency/authenticity I think the NWHL would do a really good job trying to sell hockey to people who might not have previously considered themselves to be sports fans.  I think a lot of people would be interested in women’s hockey who have been turned off by the culture surrounding men’s sports.  People who like games, people who like sci-fi.  I don’t know.  I see a lot of intersections in the people who follow the sport right now–they all like to feel like they’re a part of something that isn’t just like, ridiculous capitalism or patriarchy, it has some kind of meaning that can be gleaned from it.  Lots of things succeed without being the same kind of industry that sports is.  I think you have to stop thinking of it the same way you think of another major sports league and start thinking of it like a deeper story to tell; and that shouldn’t just translate to branding but to your approach to the business itself.

Which–transparency.  They need to start doing that immediately and start telling their real story.

Hannah: This kind of goes hand in hand with what I wanted to mention, actually.

If this league works, it HAS to work at the local levels first. There needs to be a structure in place so game day ops can run smoothly and also so that local media have resources they need to write about their team, because you’re right. This is a niche sport. It’s a VERY niche one. So that’s where I’d focus first- build those connections so that we can start seeing success at the grassroots level.

One other thing- what is it that makes people excited about a team? Is it the storylines? The competition? The in-game experience, for those who can attend? Those all are factors, sure. But the biggest thing, in my mind, is community. Zoe touched on it above: some people who follow this league are die-hard sports fans, but some are bonding over something else- that its women’s sports, that this feels like something bigger than sport, etc.

I have yet to meet a person IRL who knows what I’m talking about when I say “Have you heard of the NWHL?” (that doesn’t live with me). This is more of a women’s sports issue than an NWHL issue, but media coverage and visibility is huge for this league. 

There’s often the debate of what comes first, the media coverage or the success of the league. In my mind, they have to work together. And currently, even if the NWHL was transparent and there were no money problems or lawsuits, in the world we exist in now, they wouldn’t be getting any mainstream coverage. Period. 

If I’m in charge, I’d rather leave the NWHL alone and take over a major media network to work with the league when it comes to how much attention it gets (maybe that’s cheating with this question, but hey, you said we were in charge). There’s a reason the USA/Canada rivalry gets as much attention as it does. 1) It IS the best of the best, but 2) it’s the biggest platform the sport gets. Media and fans make it MEAN something. The league will become successful when it becomes more visible, even if that doesn’t happen overnight.