The NWHL season ended with a bang last weekend, and the whimpering started almost immediately afterward. Only moments after the Boston Pride raised the Isobel Cup, the NWHL broadcasters showed this graphic, which seemed to suggest that the infant league planned to expand into Canada.
Commissioner Dani Rylan was close-mouthed about the graphic, but it fomented much talk among followers of women's hockey in the US and Canada, especially considering the inscription on the league's shining new trophy, which reads (in part): "This Cup shall be awarded annually to the greatest women's hockey team in North America." At her own league's final the next day, CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress described it as a "strategic move." Many were confused, since Rylan has previously stated that the NWHL had no plans to expand next season. Others saw the Cup and the graphic as tasteless acts of aggression against the CWHL.
The bad feeling lingered over the next few days, and came to a head Wednesday in a very strange series of events that began with odd anonymous emails to the women's hockey media, suggesting, among other things, that Les Canadiennes of the CWHL had been so thrown by the NWHL's announcement of expansion that they lost the Clarkson Cup.
Another email with the subject heading "NWHL LIES" was sent to media and the CWHL (who had no comment). It contained correspondence purportedly between Rylan and Bauer Sports, which claimed to prove that the NWHL was seriously delinquent in their payments to the equipment provider. Jen Neale from Puck Daddy reached out to both Bauer and the NWHL, who made this joint statement in response:
"Bauer Hockey has been a great partner and supporter of the NWHL in our inaugural season. From the beginning, the NWHL was founded on the principle of paying women to play hockey. In our dedication to pay our players first, we missed a payment with Bauer. We have since paid them and are looking forward to working with Bauer Hockey again this season."
The alleged former employee, who seemed to have serious personal grievances with Rylan, also claimed that the league was beyond broke, having relied entirely on Joel Leonoff (father of Connecticut Whale goalie Jaime Leonoff) and George Spiers for backing. Then they made the following claims about the visa status of the Riveters coach, former Ranger Chad Wiseman (text courtesy of Puck Daddy):
The email offered no support for its claims about Wiseman. Kate Cimini pointed out that, instead of being paid "under the table," the coach of the Riveters is likely a 1099 contractor, and as such would have no taxes withheld from his salary -- not quite the same as being paid "under the table."
As many on social media have observed, starting any kind of financial venture is messy, and many small businesses have trouble with their bills as they get up and running. Even the anonymous emailer acknowledged that the NWHL had held to its core philosophy and made a priority of paying its players. At this time, no other vendors have stepped forward to call out the league for delinquency.
Yet the email does revive questions about the league's cash flow, its reliance on one private investor, and its solvency going forward. If anything the "whistleblower" said is true, the league should not yet be considering expansion, especially outside the US. Most troubling, however, may be the attempt to perpetuate bad blood between the two women's leagues, when everyone involved acknowledges that some kind of consolidation is virtually inevitable.