"2027 NWHL Draft Pick"
Those words were written in kid-drawn letters on a multi-colored sign held high in the hands of a little girl.
"That's really what it's all about," said National Women's Hockey League commissioner and founder, Dani Rylan.
This 10-year old, hopeful, future draft pick was one of the many people in the stands witnessing history when the puck dropped on October 11th, the first time women were paid to play hockey in North America. The NWHL is the first U.S. league to pay its players and offer many of the sport's top talent a chance to continue their time on the ice.
The pioneers who are carving a niche in a previously dominated male sport are four teams of girls: the Buffalo Beauts, the Boston Pride, the Connecticut Whale, and the New York Riveters. They lace up their skates every week-and when they do they inspire a new generation.
I met Rylan, former NCAA ice hockey player, in the NWHL headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. Nestled in a loft-like space of a warehouse district, the environment occupies the vibe and culture of a typical startup. But nothing in this business model is typical. Rooted in this concept is an unconventional premise that gives the notion of goals a whole new meaning.
My conversation with Rylan:
What made you think creating a professional hockey league for women that pays it's players was possible?
My network in the hockey world and the timing of the sport. It was during the 2014 Olympics, when the women's ice hockey teams from the U.S. and Canada battled it out in overtime during the finals that inspired me. The 2014 gold medal game was the most watched event on NBC with 4.9M viewers. People said they didn't feel like they were watching just any hockey game-they were watching a high caliber intense game, and never realized it wasn't men-until they zoomed in and saw mascara and ponytails. The players were too good to be ignored.
How did you start to craft the business model?
The NWHL was born the way a lot of startups are born - data and social media became the driving force that made our league come together. We looked at the US and saw for example, 33 percent of the female youth hockey players in America are registered in just three states - New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts. We learned from researching other female pro sports leagues how travel costs can be a drain on budgets, so we wanted to keep the league regional. No planes-just buses for travel. We focused on the hotspots where demand for the sport is very high.
Who was your role model growing up, and throughout the development of the league?
My Dad. He encouraged me to take risks and follow whatever I thought I could do at the time, whether it was hockey, school, or businesses. He also always said "no" to me a lot growing up. "Can I have $10? No, you can work, and you can earn $10." So I would think - OK, what can I do to earn it? Hearing so many "no's" gave me the opportunity to take risks and believe that I can do anything and earn it for myself.
Do you see yourself in this next generation you are influencing...did you want to be a pro hockey player growing up?
As a kid I wanted to be President of the United States, then a professional hockey player. But there comes a point when you realize that it isn't an attainable dream. But I was able to parlay my dreams with my business endeavors now (the hockey dream, that is).
What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?
Networking. I always worked hard on it and never said no. I had coffee with everyone, had lunch, shared ideas, made time to meet with everyone. If you do that, then your network just grows. And once it does, everyone wants to help when you have a good idea.
You founded the East Harlem coffee shop, Rise & Grind...when you "rise and grind" each day, is there a piece of advice you give to yourself?
If I can survive today I can do anything.
Was there ever a moment you felt like, this just isn't going to happen?
Yes. Usually those days when I say to myself "If I can survive today I can do anything." But I would say to myself, "Dani, if you don't do this, who's going to? You're so far along. For everyone else. For all of your friends who want to play in this league. For the next generation that wants to grow up and be a professional hockey player, you need to keep your head down and keep working."
What is the one piece of advice you would give to budding entrepreneurs?
Execute. Something can remain an idea forever. Until you start testing the limits and actually moving forward and creating it will just stay an idea. Simple, but a huge part of it.
What is the biggest obstacle for players right now?
They seem to be very happy at the moment - happy that their equipment is paid for, happy they are getting paid to play the sport they love, happy that the competition is the best in the world. The focus is on the players, and it will be a player-centered league. With a newly created Player's Association, we ensure the players will always have a voice. Biggest short-term goal is awareness. Butts in seats and eyes on the product.
Did you ever think that what you are doing is generating a movement, and creating a true cultural shift?
That's huge. The number of generations that it's impacting is what's really cool about it. Looking at the immediate impact-women peak athletically at 27 years old, but college ends at 22. The immediate goal is to provide a place for players to continue to improve after college. My hope is that we can provide that opportunity to more players, and maybe find new national team players that we haven't heard of, allowing them to reach that goal.
10-15 years out is the long-term effect, when a big cultural shift will happen.
What would you say to those people who feel women's sports aren't worth paying to watch?
Go out and watch a game. If that was your first women's hockey game, it definitely won't be your last. It's fast, physical, and real professional hockey. A real student of the game would realize that while watching. You can watch the plays develop - there's a lot of thought that goes into the players while they're on the ice.
The NWHL Now Runs on Dunkin
After a television deal announcement last month with NESN to broadcast Boston Pride games, and live streaming on ESPN3-ESPN's mobile network, since I met Rylan, their partnerships got sweeter. The NWHL announced just yesterday their first company sponsorship with the Boston-grown breakfast food franchise, Dunkin' Donuts. Dunkin' Donuts is now the official hot, iced and frozen coffee of the NWHL, Additional highlights of the partnership include the Dunkin' Donuts logo featured on all team jerseys, signage on league goal posts and behind each bench, and advertising on www.nwhl.co and each individual team website.
"The image of players, coaches, fans and parents walking into the rink with a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee in-hand is ingrained in our hockey culture, said Rylan. We are thrilled to have them as an important part in promoting the National Women's Hockey League."
After years of being unpaid pioneers for the sport, high-caliber female hockey players now have an option to prolong their careers. But the league itself represents more than just a milestone for the game of hockey, and a progressive moment for women's sports. It's a symbolic statement that women everywhere, and in everyway can get paid for being the best at what they do.
To echo Rylan's words...
..."That's really what it's all about".