What Dani Rylan Kearney’s resignation means for the NWHL, women’s hockey

PWHPA member Sarah Nurse joined Hockey Central to outline the differences between the PWHPA and NWHL and explained the importance of sponsorships for the PWHPA.

There’s certainly no shortage of women’s pro hockey.

The past couple of months have included the start of the National Women’s Hockey League season — which wraps up this week in Boston after COVID postponed the first go-around — and the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association getting two events on national television.

In some ways the sport’s boom at the pro level, especially during a pandemic, is remarkable. Even a couple of years ago, as the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded and the NWHL was wrapping up its fourth season, the idea of getting to where we are now was murky.

For those who casually follow the game, though, the big question is always about the divide. Even as the PWHPA has grown and furthered its reach by advocating for better opportunities for women’s athletes, and the NWHL has continued to succeed without star names, the spotlight has been on the divide that’s existed since the CWHL was active.

“It’s not like we don’t speak to each other,” said PWHPA goalie Nicole Hensley, who also previously played in the NWHL. “We’re just playing in different leagues. We both have the same goal and have different ways of getting to that goal, and different milestones we want to get to. I think it’s like anything in any other industry, people have a lot of different ways of going about it and I don’t think that’s the worst thing in the world.”

Dani Rylan Kearney’s sudden departure from the NWHL also created more questions than answers, especially as she’s sat in the epicentre of the debate, whether that’s fair or not.

Announced as a resignation, Rylan Kearney — the league’s founder — hasn’t made public comment on her departure since the three-paragraph press release from the NWHL’s new communications staff on Tuesday. The league has told reporters it has no further comment and won’t be making any.

“I was surprised,” said Connecticut Whale defender Shannon Doyle, one of the original NWHL players. “Honestly, disappointed to see. She’s the founder of our league, I mean mistakes were made but I think they are always made when you’re trying to do something new. Hopefully we get some sort of clarity on the situation but this year hasn’t had a lot of clarity.”

Rylan Kearney served as the league’s commissioner after she founded it in 2015 until October 2020, when she stepped down from the role. Ty Tumminia took over on an interim basis, though that tag hasn’t been used in recent weeks.

Around the NWHL, Rylan Kearney’s departure hasn’t come as a shock to everyone; as one player put it, everyone “saw the train coming” when she took a lesser role more than six months ago.

“I feel lucky I’m able to make money playing a sport I’ve loved since I was five years old, and that doesn’t happen without Dani,” added Minnesota Whitecaps goalie Amanda Leveille, a five-year NWHL veteran. “She’s grown the league to what it is today.”

The timing, however, has some scratching their heads. One big, unavoidable, question centres on women’s hockey outside the NWHL as well.

Several players defected from the NWHL for the ill-fated CWHL following salary cuts in the second season, and then went on to create the PWHPA in the spring of 2019. Some players have stated safety and conditions as a concern about the NWHL, and given the recent COVID-caused season pause, that’s been highlighted once more.

Since that time, those players have made clear they do not intend to play in the NWHL again, some not even acknowledging its existence, others openly calling for its downfall. That motivation partially comes from the NHL — an entity several PWHPAers have openly advocated getting involved — stating, on several occasions, it will not step into the women’s realm while opposing leagues are operating.

Then there’s the speculation that Rylan Kearney was the burnt bridge, and her presence alone was preventing progress. No one would return to the NWHL or consider it an option while she was there, despite growth and changes, especially behind the guidance of the players’ association.

It’s more likely the former than the blown-out-of-proportion latter.

“I think we have somewhat different visions for the future,” said PWHPA consultant Jayna Hefford, who also was formerly the commissioner of the CWHL. “We probably both have a vision of women’s professional hockey but we’ve said from the beginning that we think the NHL plays a big role in that. I think there’s room for more than one league and I think there’s going to have to be other leagues, but we feel it’s going to have to be completely different.”

Hefford said the NHL being involved is ideal, in her mind, but it isn’t the only way to go about things.

“We believe the NHL gives us the best opportunity,” said Hefford. “That’s sort of plain and simple. But could it exist without the NHL? I think that’s possible. But we’ve always believed there’s gotta be some resources and infrastructure and serious investment.”

The PWHPA has seen a boom of its own in recent months, ironically enough, in the gap between the NWHL season start and finish. They’ve completed events in New York and Chicago with another planned for St. Louis, and two contests already aired on national television.

There’s a lot to figure out in the coming months with an Olympic year on the horizon and a solid percentage of the PWHPA players being on national teams. It’s something Hefford and Co. have on their radar, but it’s still a bit down the road.

On the other end, the NWHL has carried on, but recently has made more of a public push for collaboration than any previous time. During the PWHPA Madison Square Garden game on February 28, the NWHL tweeted out an acknowledgement of the game. On Sportsnet’s 31 Thoughts podcast earlier in March, Tumminia made a public pitch to work with the PWHPA.

The latter hasn’t shown much of an interest in doing so. The change of course in those acknowledgements from the NWHL, in the public eye at least, comes from some of the new leadership.

“Just because they choose a different way to work towards their goal, there’s no less respect and I love those players,” said Toronto Six owner Johanna Boynton. “We’re better when supporting each other. No matter what the stage is at the moment, there’s no doubt we have something really impressive to showcase our game…. It would be better to push together in the same direction.”

For all the talk of working together and respect, it doesn’t appear to be getting closer — or even a tangible attempt — to a resolution. The PWHPA is steadfast and consistent with its messaging of pushing for a future where the NHL’s resources and infrastructure makes women’s hockey a more realistic and sustainable career, and they don’t believe the NWHL pushes that agenda forward.

The NWHL has taken all sorts of different directions since the leadership change. Tumminia is the top dog, and the Boyntons — Johanna and her husband, John, who is an investor — have the main influence.

The previous regime is all but gone. They didn’t announce a change from Kelly Cooke to Katie Guay heading the player safety department, with Guay taking on a larger role. There’s a new communications department. Former deputy commissioner and then-Pride president, Hayley Moore, now serves as the AHL’s director of hockey operations. She worked closely with Rylan during their time together in the NWHL.

“It’s hard to put into words the impact Dani has had on women’s hockey,” said Moore. “I know how much she has to give, but looking back on the impact she’s had, I think about how there’s so much women’s professional hockey being played right now and that didn’t happen just a short time ago.”

Like everything else in women’s hockey, the answers aren’t as black and white as everyone would hope. Despite progress in every direction, and more pro women’s hockey getting attention than ever before, the spotlight always seems to be on what divides them, even when there’s public comment from every angle encouraging unity. It remains to be seen if the sport ever gets there. Recent messaging from some, though, indicate there’s a belief Rylan Kearney no longer being in the NWHL is a strategic move to push for those relations, whether realistic or not.

“She took it to where it was,” said Six head coach Digit Murphy, who previously worked in the CWHL. “At this point we thank her for her efforts and everything she’s done, and now under Ty’s leadership, we just see a different dynamic.”

In an upcoming Olympic year, the PWHPA will have to figure some new things out; the NWHL is still picking up the pieces of its COVID-infiltrated start to the season, where transparency has become a key topic and not for the first time.

At the centre of it all is the debate on if the NHL will make a clear step forward, something it’s never done long before the NWHL existed or the PWHPA called for it. Some NHL teams have partnered with the PWHPA, and others — like the Rangers — have made it a point to work with both groups, though there’s been no deviation from the league’s directive.

Whatever happens next, though, will seemingly occur without the person who created the NWHL, and will be guided partially by a new group looking to complete its first season in a pandemic in the middle of this whirlwind.

For those wondering if Rylan Kearney’s departure means some meaningful change is on the horizon for the two groups, though, all indications are they shouldn’t hold their breath.

“At the end of the day having two separate things is confusing for people,” said Hensley. “That makes it difficult to grow. Until we have that, we don’t have to completely agree, but until we’re close enough that both feel it’s headed in the right direction, this might be the best way to go about it until we have a better idea of the future.”

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