BOSTON – Kelly Cooke has played professional hockey for three years, though this season there’s one big difference: she’s drawing her first paycheck from the sport. Just because the players in the upstart National Women’s Hockey League are now being paid, however, that doesn’t mean they’re getting rich.
For Cooke, hockey is still a part-time job. Twice a week practices are often bookended by 10-hour days as a paralegal at a local law office. That’s not to mention the refereeing gigs on the side. “It’s definitely a busy life,” she said.
With salaries, though, the NWHL is certainly taking women’s hockey in a new direction. And while the pay is modest — ranging from a $10,000 minimum to $25,000 — it has helped the league contend with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League for world-class talent.
Despite winning the CWHL championship last season, Cooke left the league to join the Boston Pride — one of the NWHL’s four teams — this summer. Olympic stars Hilary Knight and Meghan Duggan, along with nearly every other U.S. national team member, made the same choice. It was “hard for people to think about continuing to play hockey in a league that wasn’t paid when there was an option to be paid,” Cooke said.
With elite players in place, the NWHL — now midway through its inaugural season — has quickly found its stride. In October, the league’s opening game sold out. By November, NESN announced a TV deal to broadcast Boston’s home games. The following month, Dunkin Donuts signed on as the league’s first corporate sponsor.
“It’s blowing my expectations out of the water,” said Commissioner Dani Rylan. Next up: The NWHL’s inaugural all-star weekend Jan. 23-24 in Buffalo, N.Y.
Beyond the money, Cooke says the NWHL has been an improvement for players in less obvious ways. The league provides athletes with equipment, a perk that previously ended for most after college. Players switching to the NWHL from the CWHL now also benefit from drastically reduced travel times since all four teams — the New York Riveters, Connecticut Whale, Buffalo Beuts and Boston Pride — are concentrated in the Northeast U.S. rather than spread across Canada.
Mary Jo Kane, the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, said that “a lot of the ingredients for success are there” and credited that the “best of the best” are finally getting paid. But while the improvements are notable, Kane said that it’s too early to tell how this new league model will fair over the long-haul.
She cautioned against the league expanding too quickly, and said she advises the NWHL to “borrow lessons from women’s soccer” by building individual players into household names. She believes a rivalry between the NWHL and its Canadian counterpart could be another driver.
“You want drama,” she said, though she worries that the existence of both could also be a challenge. “Will having two leagues dilute talent and dilute interest and dilute salaries? Or is having two leagues good in terms of competing?”
Both the NWHL’s Rylan and CWHL Commissioner Brenda Andress, whose league uses a bonus structure instead of paying player salaries, downplay whatever tension might exist. They instead point to their successful collaboration at the Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. Marking another first, the NHL’s annual marquee outdoor showcase featured a women’s game before the main event, with a matchup between the NWHL’s Pride and the Les Canadiennes de Montréal of the CWHL.
The game ended in a 1-1 tie, but received most of its attention due to a severe spinal cord injury to one player, Denna Laing. According to Lang’s family, she currently has “limited movement of her arms and no feeling in her legs.” The NWHL said the injury is covered by insurance.
Regardless of the unfortunate spotlight brought by the injury, the Winter Classic was arguably women’s hockey’s biggest stage yet, outside of the Olympics. “It was the coolest thing any of us has ever done,” Cooke said. “Just being treated like we were in the NHL.”
Well, sort of. The average NHL salary of $2.6 million is more than the NWHL’s entire budget. The male players also benefit from endorsement deals, national TV exposure and the ability to focus solely on hockey. It’s a gap that seems unlikely to close anytime soon.
In the meantime, Cooke is making it work between her hockey salary and other jobs, while applying to law school. Other women in the NWHL are teachers or engineers or coaches. “What we hope,” Cooke said, “is that someday, for the future generations, they can have the NWHL be their full-time job.”
Rylan, the commissioner, spends much of her time trying to drum up financial support for that vision — and to keep the league afloat. Even the teams themselves are technically for sale. As of now, she said, the NWHL is set for at least another season. “We’re in it for the long haul,” Rylan said. “Obviously revenue will determine how many years that means.”
Fans like Alex Saniuk will be key to that sustainability. Despite a 45-minute commute, the 29-year-old Marlborough resident has been to every Pride home game. “I was blown away with how awesome it was,” Saniuk said of his first visit. “I bought season tickets that night.”
The package cost $150 — about what he’d spend on a single NHL game. “Your bang for your buck is a lot more,” said Saniuk, sitting in his usual spot during a recent Boston game: the corner, right up against the glass. The Pride went on to lose to the visiting Buffalo Beauts, 4-3, in overtime, but, with nearly 1,000 people in attendance, it was a win for the fledgling league.
Afterward, dozens of fans lingered for a post-game autograph session. “The little kids telling you that they want to be you one day,” Cooke said, “definitely feels more professional.”
Tik Root is a freelance journalist, currently based in Washington, D.C.