Hockey Headlines

Saturday, 1 August 2015

We've Done This Before

It's appropriate that I start this article with a photo of Yvon Barrette in his iconic role as Denis Lemieux in Slap Shot. Lemieux, in the film, asks Johnston Chiefs owner Joe McGrath, played by Strother Martin, who owns the Chiefs after rumours of the sale of the club to Florida come to light. It's appropriate that I start with this sequence in light of the fact that there appears to be history repeating itself in the NWHL. Yes, this is another NWHL piece, but I no longer can sit idly by while this league goes about its business with zero transparency to its fans, players, and anyone else not involved in the closed-door meetings held by whomever is running this smoke-and-mirrors show. It's time that someone answered some tough questions.

When McGrath tells Lemieux that he doesn't know who owns the Chiefs, it immediately fits the NWHL. There are two weeks left in NWHL free agency, and not one team owner has been identified by the NWHL. There are four teams signing players to what one has to assume are one-year deals, but no one knows if there is even an owner to answer for anything for which the team is responsible.

If there are no owners - a very real possibility - and all players are signed to standard NWHL contracts making the NWHL the owner of all player contracts, it presents a very unique situation. Miss Dani Rylan is the NWHL Commissioner, so would that make her in charge of all contracts? If it does, how does this work with her being the New York Riveters' general manager? Would this not be a conflict of interest when it came to the contracts held by the other three teams?

Ownership is a major piece of the puzzle in the sports world because the owner has to answer to the league regarding all matters. Owners just aren't figureheads with luxury boxes. They decide league matters in a democratic process, they discuss changes and improvements within their league structure, and they represent the team on committees and at inquiries at the league level. In other words, it's more than just kicking back in a cushy chair and counting stacks of money.

Yet we've done this dance before in 2007 and the NWHL is following the same path to oblivion that led it to suspend operations in its old form. Beverly Smith of the Globe and Mail wrote in 2007,
Wanted: a high-profile, media-savvy business leader to serve as commissioner of a revamped National Women's Hockey League that has suspended operations for a year.

Finding a full-time commissioner to lead the eastern-based league is the first step that a group of owners are taking to revise a chaotic division with few rules and no financial rewards.
Eight years later, the NWHL might be needing the same thing.

Perhaps the NWHL should have reviewed its options before jumping into this foray. They've done little marketing as far as getting fans interested in tickets, they're signing players who the CWHL seems to have no problem releasing, and there is no one leading any charge to bring on sponsors or financial help in case the NWHL finds itself with empty arenas for games. As Miss Smith wrote in her article, "Revenues are slim to none. [Mario] Forgione said there are no crowds at games. Perhaps as many as 100 people show up." That could be reality for the NWHL.

Miss Smith also wrote, "Dom Serafino, chairman for the group of NWHL owners, says teams are each losing from $100,000 to $150,000 a year and are frustrated by a lack of structure." I doubt that the NWHL, as a league, can suffer losses in its first season ranging from $400,000-600,000 based on the losses suffered by the previous NWHL. While benefit of the doubt says that losses may not be that high, the salary cap of $270,000 is much higher than some of the old NWHL teams paid out in their time. As Miss Smith wrote,
Serafino said the owners want to turn the NWHL into a league with clear guidelines for salary caps, age restrictions and a draft system. Currently, rookies can join any team they want, and some teams have an imbalance of good players. Some players get paid, others are paid a housing allowance, while some players pay fees to compete while working at other jobs.
As it stands, there is a "draft" system in the NWHL, but the players aren't required to sign with the team to which they were drafted. There has been no indication of how long a player's right are retained by the team that drafted her either, so it could eventually come to pass that a once-drafted player signs with another team in the league after a number of years. Would the team that drafted said player then try to block that signing?

There are age restrictions in place, but they make little to no sense when it comes to the on-going success of this league. By making the requirements to be drafted as restrictive as they are, the NWHL is guaranteeing that a vast number of talented players go elsewhere to play. I respect the fact that the NWHL wants their draftees to finish school with a degree, but this narrows the window of draft-eligible players to a fraction of the women who play hockey on this planet. At some point, the NWHL will need to open this window if they hope to help in growing the game at a tangible, real level.

Again, there is also a salary cap in place, but who is monitoring how much is being spent? Once more, we are forced to go back to the conflict of interest posed by Miss Rylan. As Commissioner of the NWHL, it would be her responsibility, at this time, to enforce the cap ceiling for all teams. However, she's also the GM of the New York Riveters in the NWHL, so who imposes sanctions if she decided to spend over the cap? What sanctions will be imposed if a team is found to be over the cap? Why has none of this information been published? And why, in a salary cap age, are the terms of the contracts for players not made public so that players can judge their contracts against other contracts to ensure they're being paid fairly?

This, readers, has all been done before. The NHL had all of these issues, and the push of expansion plus having a rival league made the NHL owners rethink their league's structure a number of times. Strangely enough, the old NWHL had the same problems, and they were unable to overcome these issues.

"This year is an example of how dysfunctional the league was," said Mario Forgione, owner of the Mississauga Aeros, told Beverly Smith in 2007. "This is the only league I know of that doesn't have a structure."

It appears that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.

The other major issue I have right now with the NWHL is that there has been not one mention of a director of officiating nor any on-ice or off-ice officials hired by the league in any way. Officiating is a pretty big part of the game, and there hasn't been one mention of securing a crew for season. While it would be easy to hire a crew of four in each city the NWHL has a team, that means that each crew will only work eight games per season which is less than what they would work in the NCAA or CWHL. Suddenly, attracting talent in stripes becomes a little more difficult when you realize that not many officials are looking for casual, part-time work.

Again, the NWHL boasted about how they were to be a league of elite players, so you would expect that they also would want elite officials to sign up as well. Instead, we've heard nothing. Not one official's name has even been mentioned, and we're approximately two months out from the opening games of the season. There hasn't been a rulebook published, an official hired, a director of officiating mentioned, nor has there been any attempt by teams to secure off-ice officials for their games in their respective arenas. At the NHL level, this stuff is signed, sealed, and delivered within a month of the start of training camps, yet the Commissioner of the NWHL is out worrying about players for the team she runs instead of making sure the business side of the game is ready to go.

While I like Dani Rylan from what I've seen and read about her, there's a very real possibility that she's bitten off way more than she can chew, and the league may choke on her mistakes. In saying that, there's very little room for mistakes when it comes to the NWHL at this moment because it's already on shaky ground when it comes to fan and sponsor support. Dropping the ball as the Commissioner has much futher-reaching impact than making a mistake as a GM of a team. One way or another, Rylan might be in way over her head on this one, and it's almost as if she doesn't even realize it.

The NWHL is being run like a fantasy hockey pool right now. Teams are racing to get the best players they can within a defined salary cap structure with little to no worry about all the surrounding costs and efforts needed. The drafted players held by these teams are sitting in a "reserve" pool with the teams unworried about their immediate futures despite this being real-life for the players in question. The league opens on October 11, and there are still major pieces of the puzzle missing with a couple of months to prepare for opening night and even less for training camps.

In knowing all of this now, the next announcement from the NWHL could read, "Wanted: a high-profile, media-savvy business leader to serve as commissioner of a revamped National Women's Hockey League that has suspended operations for a year."

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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