Story of the Week
The NWHL gave everyone plenty of warning that there was going to be Big News announced last Tuesday, and that it involved Minnesota. We were all set to break our offseason biweekly schedule for the announcement, but when it came it was so short on concrete details we decided to hold off another week and see if anything developed.
The Minnesota Whitecaps were established in 2004 as part of the Western Women’s Hockey League, back when the original NWHL was a thing. As their website still proudly proclaims, they were the 2010 Clarkson Cup Champions (the Clarkson Cup used to be an interleague championship trophy until the WWHL folded following the 2010-11 season). Their rosters have boasted Olympians from at least three different countries. And yet, despite mentions of their legacy, the overwhelming reaction to the news that the Whitecaps had been acquired by the NWHL was “finally, a professional women’s hockey team in Minnesota”.
Clearly, the biggest thing the Whitecaps are going to get out of this arrangement is exposure. The governor of Minnesota was at the press conference. The Minnesota Twins tweeted their support. A player from the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx posted a video demanding a jersey and promising to come to games. The Whitecaps have been around for 14 years and the 2018-19 season will likely see their largest home crowds ever.
That said, it was a little strange that the NWHL’s press conference didn’t capitalize on this exposure by announcing the dates of free agency camps, or season ticket deposits. There wasn’t even much mention of the June 1st start to free agency. The press conference got Minnesota’s attention, but it didn’t convert that attention into concrete ways to support the team.
Of course, as well as exposure for the Whitecaps team, this announcement brings a lot of positive exposure to the NWHL as a whole. Moreover, while it’s possible that some of the Olympians who played for the Whitecaps in the 2016-17 season may retire, this almost guarantees that gold medalists like Hannah Brandt and Kendall Coyne will finally be part of the NWHL. Most people expect most of the USWNT players to return to the league next season, but this will increase the number of Olympians in the league significantly.
The number of Olympians expected on the Minnesota roster also means this isn’t going to be a 1967 Minnesota North Stars sort of expansion team. It’s not even really going to be a Vegas Golden Knights, scrappy underdog sort of expansion team. This team is expected to be full of highly skilled players able to contend immediately, and we all know that one thing that keeps a hockey fan’s attention is winning.
Minnesota brands itself as the State of Hockey, and for the Whitecaps it may be a double edged sword. Yes, there are tons of hockey fans in the state, women’s hockey fans, even, but there are also tons of games to go to. The Wild might be the only NHL game in town but there are college and high school games of both genders going on throughout the season, often with fanatical followings. A lot of those games cost significantly less than the usual NWHL ticket price of twenty dollars a game. The Whitecaps will want to win to keep fans, but they have to get them in the door first.
One possible solution to this would be if the Whitecaps can partner with the University of Minnesota Gophers, who have a rink specifically dedicated to women’s hockey and a devoted fanbase of their own. Katie Million attended the NWHL press conference to represent the WCHA, so there may be some support from that side of things. The occasional Gophers / Whitecaps doubleheader might help convince fans to spend a few extra dollars.
Assuming that the NWHL playoff format doesn’t change, the addition of a fifth team means that finally, in the league’s fourth season, regular season games will mean something. With four teams in the league, every team made it to the playoffs. With an odd number of teams in the league, that’s likely to no longer be the case. One team will get left out in the cold. If it’s not the Whitecaps, who’s it going to be? NWHL fans have a reason to watch the standings. It gives the league an extra sense of legitimacy when not all teams are guaranteed a playoff spot.
The recent announcement of co-coaches Robb and Shivaun Stauber is another positive. While most NWHL teams have a woman on their coaching staff, all of the current head coaches are men. Having Shivaun Stauber announced as “co-coach” as opposed to “assistant coach” is a step in the right direction. And speaking of exposure, having the head coach of the 2018 Olympic champions as part of the staff is a bit of a coup.
However, this is where we get particularly concerned. The USWNT won the Olympics, yes, but there were complaints that the team culture was not the best, nor was Stauber the most popular coach. There’s a possibility that he may not attract as many Olympians as the NWHL would like. Also, the money.
It’s a frequent complaint about the NWHL. They’re not remotely transparent with where the money is coming from, nor where the money is going, which is especially concerning considering their history of financial issues. And despite the Pegulas’ purchase of the Buffalo Beauts, and the partnership between the New Jersey Devils and the Metropolitan Riveters, the benefit to the league as a whole has never been clearly defined. Now not only has the NWHL “acquired” the Minnesota Whitecaps (their own language, which would seem to imply some sort of transaction), they’re adding a team whose travel expenses will far exceed anything the league has seen before, and they’re adding a coach who... probably isn’t being paid peanuts.
Robb Stauber may have recently lost out on a coaching job with the University of Minnesota men’s team, and he may have history with the Whitecaps, but the coach of a gold medal winning team surely had more than one opportunity, and should usually expect to draw a sizeable salary.
So the NWHL may have paid money to acquire the Whitecaps, will definitely be paying a lot of money to fly teams back and forth from Minnesota, is likely paying one of their head coaches a decent sum... but NWHL salaries aren’t going up. That’s concerning. The NWHL spent their first season emphasizing the importance of paying their players a decent part-time wage, to the point of using it as a marketing tactic, before the mess of slashing salaries halfway through their second season. Expansion, although it may bring in more revenue in the long run, has evidently supplanted increasing pay on the league’s list of priorities. It’s a sign of a shift worth noting in the NWHL’s business strategy.
Also concerning, if forgiveable because it’s still quite early in the offseason, is the lack of a home rink as part of the announcement, or any definitive word about what the 2018-19 season will look like. Anybody trying to book a rink for a beer league knows how quickly ice time gets snapped up. Hopefully the league will have more on this situation soon.
Fans of elite level women’s hockey have been hoping the Whitecaps would join another league for seven years now. To see them take the first step back towards relevancy is exciting. Hopefully the team and the league will both be able to benefit from this expansion in the next season.
If you haven’t already— Minnesota Whitecaps (@WhitecapsHockey) May 16, 2018
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