STAMFORD, CONNECTICUT — The first paid professional women’s hockey league in North America kicked off its inaugural season in Stamford, Connecticut Sunday afternoon.
The New York Riveters faced the Connecticut Whale on the ice for the first time in a local community sports center in front of a sold-out crowd. The Riveters and Whale are two of four inaugural teams in the NWHL, along with the Boston Pride and Buffalo Beauts, who faced off in Buffalo a few hours after the puck dropped in Connecticut.
Each of the NWHL’s four teams will host nine home games throughout the season, which will conclude following the playoffs in March 2016. The Pride and Riveters will each play exhibition games during the regular season, and all four teams will meet in Buffalo on January 24 for an All-Star game.
The National Women’s Hockey League, as it stands in its early stages, is a league run by women for women. On the ice prior to the Riveters–Whale game, local girls' hockey teams stood on the ice while and gave grazing high fives while the inaugural rosters were announced one by one. The National Anthem, was sung by Lisa Disimone the wife of an assistant coach for the Riveters, and the four referees patrolling the rink were, of course, women.
The NWHL began its season with a fast-paced game in which the Connecticut Whale scored four goals over the New York Riveters’ one. Fans packed the small community center rink around the edges of the ice, faces jammed to the plexiglass and with signs in tow to support the return of professional hockey to Connecticut.
The voices of young fans echoed through the small rink, which normally fits 500-700 spectators, but had 750 bodies crammed to watch the women on the ice today. Girls in the bleachers with their parents chanted “I believe that we will win,” the rally cry started during the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and continued through the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The Whale adopted its color scheme, team imagery, and name as an homage to the Hartford Whalers, Connecticut’s beloved NHL team that left the area for North Carolina and became the Carolina Hurricanes. When Whale forward Jessica Koizumi scored the first goal only 2:28 into the NWHL season, “Brass Bonanza,” the Whalers’ popular theme song played for the home team.
Though the Riveters scored a tying goal early in the second period, the Whale matched with their own less than a minute of play later and went into the 3rd period with a 2–1 lead. Things fell apart for the Riveters late in the 3rd period, though, and the Whale were able to score two quick goals against goalie Nana Fujimoto, who also plays for Japan’s national women’s team.
After the game, players from each team noted the the fast pace of play, which brought the level of the game up a notch from what they had played in the NCAA.
"We were all NCAA players and we were the best in the NCAA,” said Whale forward Kelli Stack, who scored the second goal of the game. Stack who is also a member of the United States women’s national ice hockey team, is the highest paid in the league thus far, with a 2015-2016 salary of $25,000. Baseline salaries for the inaugural season start at $10,000, with the league schedule is built to accommodate players’ needs for other jobs at this time, with practices taking place only twice per week on evenings, and games played on Sundays.
Player salaries are listed on NWHL’s official website, which NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan explained matches the transparency of the NHL and other men’s professional leagues. For the players, Rylan said, publicly available salaries "gives them incentive to know what their teammates are making so they can work hard for the next year.”
For the girls in the crowd, the formation of a paid women’s professional league gives them a goal beyond what the players themselves could have imagined at their age.
“Seeing the little girls was awesome,” Stack said after the game. “It shows us that what we’re doing is inspiring the next generation. For a lot of us, that’s what we want to do with this league. We absolutely want to keep playing for ourselves, but also lay the foundation for all those girls who are 14, 15, 12 years old so they have somewhere to play and do what they love.”
Stack grew up playing hockey with boys, and her hockey heroes were NHL stars. But for the many girls lined up around the rink and waiting after the game to get autographs from the Riveters and Whale, the NWHL has given them more role models to add to their rosters.
“It’s really fun and exciting,” said 10-year-old Anastasia, who is a forward for a Connecticut girl’s hockey team. “It shows that girls can play whatever boys play, and that girls are strong too.”