New pro league shoots high goals for women’s hockey

SOECharlesHallmansquareThe National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL)’s first weekend of play is now history.

Connecticut, New York, Boston and Buffalo, the four founding teams, each will play nine home games and nine away games, facing each other six times and again in the playoffs. The first NWHL All-Star game is scheduled for January 24, 2016 in Buffalo.

Photo by Chad Hutchins via Creative Commons
Photo by Chad Hutchins via Creative Commons

When asked, Minnesota Women’s Hockey Coach Brad Frost recently told the MSR that he hopes the upstart league succeeds, but is taking a wait-and-see position, with hopes that it will catch on.

“If we [and the other league players] can make women’s hockey the most watched [sport]every year and not just every four years [in the Olympics], that would be awesome,” proclaimed Boston Pride defender Blake Bolden, the NWHL’s first Black player who was recently featured in the MSR‘s “Sports Odds and Ends” column.

Now there are two women’s pro hockey leagues — the first-year NWHL and the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), where Bolden for two seasons played for Boston. However, she and other CWHL players didn’t get paid, which is not expected to be the case for the NWHLers.

“I was drafted fairly high,” recalled Bolden, who played at Boston College and graduated in 2013. “I didn’t know anything like [a women’s pro hockey league] existed after college. I was really excited when I played in the league.”

However, the weekend traveling back and forth to games got to be bothersome, explains Bolden. Her full-time job “became more demanding and I felt that taking off a lot of times for playoffs…and we traveled so far…it was getting a bit difficult.

As a result, “When we heard about this new league,” continued Bolden, “It was like a bomb that had dropped. We heard rumors about it, but I wasn’t sure the rumors were true until one day I got a call.”

The new Boston club called Bolton, and she signed with them this summer as a free agent. She said until she got the email, she was contemplating retirement. Now, hanging up her skates would have been a premature decision on her part.

“I think I made a good choice,” Bolton said. “You want to be a first at something, [then] you have to take a risk. If it doesn’t work out, you were retiring anyway so what do you have to lose?”

NWHL Commissioner and Founder Dani Rylan via email told the MSR, “With the best players in the world making their way from Japan, Russia, Austria, Canada and the United States, I can guarantee you that if you love elite-level entertaining hockey, you’ll love the NWHL.”

The WNBA, now in its 19th year, was financially supported by the NBA during its beginning years. When asked does she envision the National Hockey League one day doing the same for her league, Rylan replied: “They have been a phenomenal sounding board during our evolution. She added that the NHL was “always big supporters of women’s hockey.” But what about diversity?

“We will be shaping our grassroots efforts to introduce the game and grow the game for all girls,” proclaimed Rylan. “One of our main goals with the NWHL is to shine a spotlight on these amazing athletes, hoping to inspire the next generation of female athletes to dream bigger and demand more.”

As did the founding WNBA players who felt an obligation to do whatever was needed to ensure their league existed for those coming behind them, Bolden says it’s important for her and her fellow NWHLers to do the same.

Women’s hockey is different from men’s hockey, whether college or pro. “Women have the skill to go around someone [on the ice], while men just go off and hit somebody,” noted Bolden in pointing out a key distinction. Nonetheless, “We work just as hard and train just as hard” as their male counterparts, she asserted.

Bolden admitted, “It is going to take time” to build a sustainable following of the NWHL. “The women’s hockey game of today is faster, stronger and more intense than most people expect,” concluded the new league commish.

Related content: The Only One | Surveying the lack of diversity in college hockey

Related content: Hockey player a pro sports pioneer


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to