Dani Rylan’s weekly game in Queens, NY, gets going tonight at the very beer league time of 10 p.m. Normally she’d have accidentally fallen asleep on her couch around that hour, trying to watch TV, but even without the nap she has most weeknights, Rylan says she’ll be ready to go for puck drop. The left winger gets technical out there, too. She plays the same left wing lock system her high school and college teams did, even though her beer league team doesn’t follow suit. “It drives my teammates crazy,” she says, smiling. “I’m pinching on the D, and we’re giving up odd-man rushes all the time.” Teammates call her “Princess Pinch.”
Rylan also plays on Sundays in a ball hockey league in the East Village. And early on in a nearly two-hour conversation over lunch in the same Brooklyn building that houses her office, the founder and commissioner of the National Women’s Hockey League sums up those two weekly games matter-of-factly: “That is my social life,” she says. Hockey is, of course, also business for the 32-year-old, though to hear her tell it, the NWHL is a heck of a lot more than that: “It’s everything to me,” she says.
That passion is what drove Rylan to build the five-team American-based NWHL, the first and now only women’s pro hockey league in North America to pay its players. But it has also made her the most divisive figure in the women’s game. Many of hockey’s biggest stars wish the NWHL didn’t exist, and they refuse to play in what American star Hilary Knight calls “a beer league,” even with no other alternative on this continent. Critics contend the NWHL is holding the game back, that it should get out of the way so an organization capable of paying players a living wage can take the reins, assuming any would. And because Rylan hasn’t given an inch in the fight, she has been cast as the villain.
Amidst all this negative noise, the NWHL’s championship Isobel Cup will be awarded next weekend for the fifth time, with the 24–1 Boston Pride the heavy favourites. And then Rylan’s sole focus will be on building toward Season 6 and beyond in the most divided climate women’s professional hockey has ever seen.
The woman at the centre of all the commotion hails from the Sunshine State, of all places. Not Calgary or Minnesota or any other traditional hotbed of the sport. Rylan was five when the Tampa Bay Lightning were born in her hometown. That same year she hit the ice for the first time, rejecting the figure skates she was offered at the rental desk after both her brothers got hockey skates. The second-oldest of the family’s four kids jumped on the ice alongside her two brothers, “and it was a love affair from there,” she says.
Lightning players were heavily invested in the community while trying to grow their fan base early on, and so Rylan learned to play hockey from pros like Rudy “Pot Pie” Poeschek and John Tucker. She was the only girl in the Tampa Bay Jr. Lightning minor hockey system for years, and didn’t play on a girls’ team until she got recruited to one at St. Mark’s boarding school in Southborough, Mass. At age 14, Rylan moved 2,200 kilometres north to play high school hockey. “It was the ultimate dream for me,” she says, adding that the solo move as a Grade 9 student wasn’t daunting. “I was always a very independent kid.”
Always a small one, too. Weighing in at 95 pounds at the end of high school and ultimately maxing out at five-foot-three, Rylan played (and still does) under the false premise she’s the same size as all her opponents (which she swears she’s convinced herself of). She captained St. Mark’s as a senior, and while she’d dreamt of playing for a Div. 1 college, recruitment interest came from lower-tier schools.
After a couple of years of community college, Rylan finished her bachelor of journalism in 2009–10 at Metro State in Denver, a Div. 2 school that didn’t have a women’s hockey team. She made due, becoming the first woman to play on the men’s team. After graduation, Rylan got into Northeastern University for a masters in sports leadership. With two years of NCAA eligibility left, she tracked down head coach David Flint, who’d tried to recruit her out of high school for a Div. 3 team he coached then. Rylan asked if she had a shot at making the D-1 Huskies as a walk-on, but Flint hadn’t seen her play in years, and the last time he had, he says she was a “bubble Division 1 player.” He said he’d give her a jersey. “That’s the only thing I can guarantee you, is an opportunity,” Flint told her.
Rachel Llanes was a 19-year-old sophomore on scholarship that 2010–11 season. “All we knew was there was this older walk-on,” she says of Rylan, the 23-year-old who came in amongst a rookie class of mostly 18-year-olds. So, yeah, Rylan’s potential teammates had questions. Biggest among them: “Can she keep up? You have this grandma coming along, and we weren’t sure,” Llanes says. “But she actually could, and there was really nothing on the ice she couldn’t handle. She was fast, and for her size, she played gritty.” (Rylan had separated her shoulder in a particularly gritty moment at Metro State the previous season: “I was actually trying to hit him,” she says of her opponent, “but he hit me harder.”)
Gritty “Grandma” (the nickname stuck) was in the Huskies lineup from Day 1, a third-liner who scored three goals her first season to go with seven assists. Flint describes Rylan as “an absolute workhorse” who played a major role in shutting down other teams’ top lines. “To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised at her game,” he says. “She also had a very important presence in the locker room.” Rylan was “the centre of everything in our room, all in good ways,” as Llanes describes it. “She had so much energy, one of the best personalities on the team. She was so positive. You could just tell she was so happy to be part of the team and to get to be at the rink every day.”
That positive attitude is much of the reason why, in her second season, Rylan was voted captain of a team that included a speedy young freshman named Kendall Coyne. Later that season, Flint awarded Rylan a scholarship that covered her final semester, news that brought tears to her eyes. Flint says that’s the first time in Huskies hockey history that a walk-on became a scholarship-earning captain — and he’s betting it’ll be the last. “It really meant a lot to me to be able to give that scholarship to her, knowing all that she had been through,” the coach says. “Her dream since she was little was to play Division 1 hockey. It wasn’t a typical route, but here’s a kid who worked her butt off and persevered and was given an opportunity, and she made the most of it.”
Rylan laughs, thinking back to her days as the Huskies’ “Grandma,” trying to beat Coyne in races during practice. “I’ll tell ya, I was a much better player at 24 than I was at 18,” she says. “Women peak athletically in their late 20s, and a lot of women in the United States were ending their careers when they were 21, 22 — after college. No one really knew what their peak was.”
That idea would stick with Rylan, and though it was a few years away still, she was going to create an opportunity for women to find that peak.
A white dog just sprinted down the hall outside the board room where Rylan is digging into her lunchtime salad. “We’re pet-friendly here,” she says. “All of Brooklyn is.” She’s wearing a brown sweater and jeans, and her blonde hair is tucked behind her ears. On a nearby wall “LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL” is written in black paint. This brick building is full of offices for start-up businesses like Rylan’s; hers is among dozens on this fourth floor.
In the commissioner’s office, you’ll find quite a few inspirational quotes. Rylan jokes that she has a “new mantra” nearly every week. One favourite is: “Risk more than others think is safe. Dream more than others think is possible.” Another she printed out and laminated reads: “Refuse to give up. Ignore the critics. Believe in the impossible.”
That one was sent her way by Boston Pride president Hayley Moore, who works alongside Rylan as closely as anyone, and has been involved in the NWHL since the very beginning. Most days, Moore wakes up to a “Good morning!” text from Rylan. She’ll respond, “Okay, what’ve you got for me,” and Rylan will then hit her with a “Here’s what I was thinking…” and some new idea, or two or three. “I don’t think there is a stop button on her,” Moore says. “It’s never-ending. But something that is this important, and that you believe in this much, it can’t have an off switch.”
“It never stops,” Rylan says, of the work. One of the quotes you’ll find posted in her office is a straightforward reminder, not that it seems like she’d ever need it: “Get shit done.”
When Rylan achieved her Div. 1 hockey dream, she had to figure out a way to pay for it, and for her two-year Masters. After her rookie season at Northeastern, she noticed “this herd of humans” heading to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox, starting in April. This got the wheels turning. “I was thinking, ‘How can I capitalize on this movement that literally walks by my apartment 80-something times a season?’” she remembers. Rylan thought about selling Red Sox T-shirts, but licencing was tricky. “What’s less complicated is water,” she says.
Rylan paid $61 for her hawker/pedlar licence, she bought cases of water at Costco for nine cents a bottle, and she found a massive cooler and ice-maker on Craigslist. She called her first business Hydration Nation, a play on Red Sox Nation. They called her “The Water Girl.” Rylan was hard to miss: Every home game, she’d set up on the street, the blocks leading up to her boasting hype-filled Bristol board signs. “Fun fact, did you know you can bring in a sealed bottle of water?” one said. A bunch of steps later: “Did you know that a bottle of water inside Fenway costs $7, and it’s only $2 here?”
Rylan’s price dropped to $1 on the way out. Business was so good that she couldn’t even look up after games as she passed out bottles with one hand and jammed dollar bills into her apron with the other. She hired her roommate to deliver cases of water down from the apartment when she ran out. They communicated via walkie talkie. “She made more money working for me making $10 a run than she did at the ice cream shop she was working at,” Rylan says, laughing.
“She was always up to something,” Llanes remembers. “Dani was always hustling, you know?”
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Rylan tracked everything to do with her business on a spread sheet. That year, Hydration Nation made a little more than $30,000. “I kind of cornered the market there,” she says. “It was a wild summer.”
At the time, Rylan aspired to be a sports reporter. Once she graduated from Northeastern, she got a job with the NHL working behind the scenes on a live show on the league’s network. But her timing was dismal: She was set to start ahead of the 2012–13 season, which opened with a lockout. Having already moved to New York for the job, and sleeping on her older brother’s couch, Rylan started walking dogs to make money.
Even with the NHL job on the horizon and her new four-legged friends helping to bring in a bit of cash, Rylan kept her eyes open. When a bare-bones rental space became available in East Harlem, she jumped at the opportunity. “My original idea was a yoga studio, but I’m really bad at yoga,” she says. After tracking demographics and foot traffic on the block every morning for a week, she decided it should be a coffee shop, since there wasn’t one for a few blocks.
Rylan took to YouTube and learned to use a mitre saw and set tiles, and then she renovated the 300-square foot place, top to bottom, with the help of a couple of beer league hockey teammates. Rylan got the space in October, and worked until 3 a.m. some nights to prepare for an early December opening. She called her shop Rise & Grind.
The NHL resumed in January of 2013, when her café had been in operation for a month. Rylan was still tabbed to work for the NHL network. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is lovely,” she says, with more than a hint of sarcasm. “’I just opened a business in Harlem and now my dream job is calling me.’” Not wanting to pass on either opportunity, Rylan did both. She worked at the café from 4 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., and then hopped on the subway to work for the NHL until the end of the live show, at 7 p.m. She hired an employee to take over Rise & Grind during the day and was always back in time to close up. “I had very little social life,” Rylan says. “Didn’t sleep much, either.”
By the age of 25, Rylan had started two businesses, worked in live TV, become a barista, a water salesperson, a dog-walker and a DIY contractor who was convinced you could learn to build anything on YouTube. She sold Hydration Nation to a couple of teammates (they didn’t fare as well), and later sold Rise & Grind to her younger brother. It turned out she enjoyed starting the business more than being a barista.
She also decided that while she wanted to work in hockey, she didn’t love working for others, so she left her job at NHL Network. “I felt like I had ideas that wouldn’t come to fruition,” Rylan says. “I needed to find a way to parlay my love for hockey with my love for business.”
A sellout crowd of 623 people packed the arena at Chelsea Piers in Connecticut for the NWHL’s historic first-ever game between the Whale and the New York Riveters. The sound of the fans in attendance was shrill, with full teams of little girls cheering for their new hometown Whale.
Three-time world champion Kelli Stack put on a show. The 27-year-old Team USA forward had a goal and two assists in a 4–1 Connecticut victory, and was named the game’s second star. No female pro hockey player had ever been paid more money to play in North America than the league-high $25,000 salary Stack was set to earn that inaugural 2015–16 season.
Rylan was in the crowd that day with her family, who’d flown in for the opener. She cried tears of joy as she watched that first game. “Oct. 11, I’ll never forget,” she says.
Defender Kaleigh Fratkin had an assist in that first-ever Whale win. Fratkin, from Burnaby, B.C, was the first Canadian to sign in the NWHL, also making a higher-end salary of $20,000 for the 18-game season ($10,000 was the low-end). Her older brother, Jesse, had played on a rookie deal in the East Coast Hockey League with the Stockton Thunder. “Wait a second,” he told her, “for your time commitment and pay, you’re making more money than I was making.” Fratkin hadn’t thought much about the details. “It was a chance to play pro hockey and live out my dream and get paid for it,” she says. Of course she’d jumped at it.
Shortly after Fratkin and the Whale earned their first win, Manon Rhéaume dropped the ceremonial puck at HarborCenter and the visiting Pride beat the Buffalo Beauts 4–1. Knight had Boston’s first-ever goal, and its second.
Moore, the former captain for Brown University, was the Pride’s general manager that first year. She was emotional seeing the product in front of her, a sight she shared with a sold out crowd of 1,231. “I was so happy that somebody had the courage to start this league,” she says. “As a female hockey player, it’s something we all looked and hoped for, and Dani just did it. It wasn’t a wish, it wasn’t a dream. She brought it to life.”
That inaugural season wasn’t without hiccups and lessons and “madness,” as Rylan describes it. The NWHL’s small staff learned on the go, and there were plenty of adjustments to be made ahead of Season 2. That included a big change almost nobody saw coming: In November, just a month into the league’s second season, Rylan announced player salaries were going to be slashed by 38 per cent.
Anya Packer had the unenviable task of taking over as executive director of the NWHL’s players’ association shortly after that news hit. By then, Rylan had become an enemy in many players’ eyes. “It led to this kind of mudslinging, like, ‘We hate Dani. The players are getting screwed over,’” Packer says. “There was this animosity.” Panic, too. Some players left the NWHL. Fratkin had to lean on her parents for financial help because she didn’t have a green card to work in the U.S. “A month in, that happens and it comes out of nowhere for players, without having transparency,” Fratkin says. “Salaries were cut and Dani was the bearer of bad news and everyone wanted to shoot the decision maker — for fair reason. And that was her.”
After the first season, Rylan says, it was clear changes and improvements were needed in almost every aspect of the league. “The only thing we didn’t adjust [heading into Year 2] was the players’ salaries, because it was so important to hit those. That was the ultimate, like, we need to hustle to make this work,” she says. But the league couldn’t — its projections were well under what it would need to fulfil those obligations, including $26,000 for the NWHL’s highest-paid player, Team USA star Amanda Kessel. “Dani had to make a decision in the very beginning of her tenure as the face of women’s hockey when she cut salaries, and it totally sucked,” Packer says, now. “She took a villainizing position to right her business.”
Letting down the players was the worst part, Rylan says: “I understood that it was for the greater good, but that didn’t make it any easier. While I understand it wasn’t me personally, it felt very personal and to the players it was me, to the players it was very personal.”
Rylan responded the only way she felt she could: By working to continue to grow the league. The NWHL secured its first private owners in Season 3, when the Pegula family bought the Beauts, and it expanded to Minnesota in Season 4 with a Whitecaps franchise that became the first NWHL-owned team to turn a profit. This season, the approach to her latest challenge — the biggest yet — has been no different.
Women’s hockey had a seismic shift last off-season, when the Canadian Women’s Hockey League shuttered its doors, leaving the NWHL as the lone pro league on the continent. All the best in the women’s game had long wanted one league, to have the top players going head-to-head. But soon after the CWHL folded, some 200 elite players, including big stars like Coyne Schofield, Knight, Brianna Decker, Marie-Philip Poulin, Natalie Spooner and Sarah Nurse, announced they would not be playing in any professional hockey league in North America (in other words, the NWHL). They were, they said, holding out for a league they felt was sustainable, one that would make the game a full-time career.
Rylan was at a coaching conference in Florida when she heard the biggest names in the game were refusing to play in her league. “I was disappointed, because there was an opportunity and a moment to do something bigger together,” she says.
When news of the holdout broke, many NWHL players worried their league would stop entirely. “It was a scary time not knowing what was going to happen and where the future was going to go for women’s hockey and what the status of the league was going to be,” says Pride captain Jill Dempsey, who’s been with the NWHL since Day 1. “Were fans going to be invested? Were we going to have great turnout? There were so many question marks.”
Rylan didn’t for a second consider ceasing operations. Instead, the NWHL grew this season from a 16- to a 24-game schedule. It continued to hire women in power positions, and currently employs all female GMs. It upped players’ salaries from the season previous, without altering each team’s $150,000 salary cap. The NWHL achieved that through a 50/50 revenue share deal that splits all media and sponsorship dollars evenly between the league and the women who play in it. “The way it was brought [by Rylan] to the PA was, ‘We understand that salaries aren’t where they need to be, and we want to eventually make this a full-time job. But at this point, this is what we can definitely promise,’” Packer says. “‘And then through sponsorship, as those grow, you’ll get paid just as much as we will.’
“There’s a mutual buy-in now with the revenue share, but also just with the climate of women’s hockey that to grow, we have to do it together,” the NWHLPA’s executive director adds. “It can’t be one versus the other.”
As of mid-February, Packer says the 50/50 revenue share had netted each player an additional 26 per cent of her salary, a number that’ll increase at the end of the season, when all final media and sales dollars roll in. “It’s absolutely massive,” Packer says. It means that as of mid-February, Riveters all-star Madison Packer makes an additional $3,120 on top of her base salary of $12,000. The league’s highest-earners, at a $15,000 base salary, earn an additional $3,900.
Fratkin was at Harvard recently for a presentation alongside athletes from the NFL, WNBA and NBA, and they were discussing their respective league’s pay structures. “The NFL guys were like: ‘Wait, you have a 50/50 revenue split? How the hell do you guys have that?’” Fratkin says. “I think as a player you may not immediately know what it means or how big it is, but you talk to other athletes, they’re kind of like: ‘Wow.’ The fact our commissioner’s willing to do that, I think it shows that she wants the league to grow and she also wants the players to benefit. As a player, that’s absolutely huge. And it shows you a lot about what Dani is trying to do as the figurehead of this league. I think people need to understand that she’s not tearing down women’s hockey. She’s helping women’s hockey, and this year is proof in the pudding.”
Two other major growth points this season involve a three-year deal with Twitch to livestream every game — the league says that through the end of the regular season, more than six million viewers tuned in — and the sale of the Boston Pride, which is now the NWHL’s sole privately owned club.
Cannon Capital managing partner Miles Arnone heads up the group of investors who bought the Pride. “I think there’s a legitimate value proposition here and return on investment to be had,” says Arnone, who has more than two decades of investment experience. “We built a group of investors who saw the opportunity, and we felt that we could make a good return here. And we also felt, frankly, that was important to do it. It’s a lot easier for people to put their money where their morals are when there’s money to be made than if it’s going to be a black hole.”
Among the Pride’s day-to-day improvements this season because of their new ownership is a consistent practice arena with their own dressing room (not all teams have that), a fridge in their room and food provided before and after games and practices. One weekend, the Pride flew to Buffalo for a two-game series instead of taking the usual eight-hour bus ride. “Going forward, we’ll continue to try to improve that experience. So, additional resources for their training, additional resources for making travel easier, continue to improve the level of accommodations on trips,” Arnone says.
He’s at nearly every Pride game, and in communication with Rylan nearly every day. “She lives and breathes this league,” Arnone says. He’s been impressed with her work ethic and approach to the business. “She’s done a nice job building a business from scratch there,” he says. “For an individual — and particularly, I think, a woman — of her age to start any business is hard. There are a lot of challenges. And I think more so — and it shouldn’t be this way, but I think it is — for women to do this in sport, which is extremely male-dominated. That tells you all you need to know. That is quite the achievement.”
Dempsey, whose 40 points in 24 games led all players in the regular season, thinks the progress she’s seen this year is the most encouraging to date. “It was a real test of will for the league to make gains,” she says, given that the world’s best opted instead to play in showcase events put on by the newly formed Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association.
As a teacher, Dempsey sees the impact of the NWHL regularly. It’s partly why she decided to play in the league again this year, rather than join many of her peers in the PWHPA. “I have students in my class who come to games and who are little hockey players, and they say it’s their dream to play in the NWHL,” Dempsey says. “That’s a positive impact. Anyone in the league would tell you it’s not perfect. But it’s growing and it’s improving, and that’s the bottom line. Every year, it’s getting better.”
The commissioner has a couple meetings scheduled for this afternoon ahead of her 10 p.m. skate. Now that game-day operations are running smoothly, Rylan can focus more completely on growth. Much of her time is spent managing relationships with existing partners, like Dunkin’ Donuts — the league’s Day 1 sponsor — and pursing new sponsorship and media deals.
Packer’s day job is in sales, and because of the revenue share, she’s now involved in all calls and meetings between the commissioner and potential partners and sponsors, there to represent the players’ interests. Packer says Rylan is unlike anyone she has ever worked alongside. “There is an energy in Dani that just doesn’t exist in sales. Eventually you get kicked in the teeth 100 times and you’re like, ‘Ugh, this deal’s not coming through.’ She operates on such a positive. She just wants it to work and she loves it so much, you can feel it and you can hear it. And you just know it,” Packer says. “She has her masters. She’s an extremely smart woman. She could easily get a job working at some company making a heck of a lot more money elsewhere, but she believes in what she’s doing here.” So much so that if a potential partner offers up a deal that Rylan feels doesn’t value her players — say, 120 hockey sticks in return for some exposure — she turns them down. “That’s empowering,” Packer says. “That’s a woman that’s willing to change the world.”
Certainly Rylan has been changing women’s hockey since she set foot in the business. Through five seasons, her league has paid women more than $3.5 million to play the game. Yes, everyone is well aware it pales in comparison to Sidney Crosby’s salary for a single season, but it’s more than the $0 pro women’s players were making in North America before she founded the NWHL.
And, if you ask Rylan, her league is just getting started. “I can’t wait to run with weights off, because we have so much opportunity ahead,” she says. Her most pressing focus now is on expansion; she wants to grow to an even six teams, and sees the NWHL one day having a Canadian presence that could well begin with that sixth team. The last two players to sign in the league this year are Canadians. The NWHL has also seen some players join the league after originally being part of the PWHPA.
Given the current landscape of women’s hockey, the NWHL could be the only pro league on offer in North America for a couple of seasons or more, with no plans for another having been made public, and an Olympic year in 2022 that’ll see the world’s best occupied for a season anyway. Rylan maintains she’s open to partnerships or even passing the torch to an organization that can pay these athletes living wages and provide medical coverage, but until that day comes — if ever it does — she’ll continue to focus on growing what she started, critics be damned.
“I feel like some are trying to paint us as obstructionists,” she says, leaning over the board room table. “But all we have done is provide opportunity, and that’s all we’re going to continue to do. When you look at the 120 women who are playing in our league this year, the last thing we’re doing is obstructing their playing careers and opportunities to do what they love. Actually, we’re paying them to do what they love and are trying to pay them more.”
Packer has certainly had her battles with Rylan over the years, always working for a better deal for the players she represents. But never has she doubted the commissioner’s motives. “She’s one of the people that I think fights for women’s hockey harder than anybody else in the entire world … She has created a home where little girls in North America can believe in something different,” Packer says. “For all the members of the PWHPA — who, I would say, 80 per cent of them don’t even know her — everyone hates her. And it’s easy to disparage her, because it’s easy to shit on the commissioner. But she’s a catalyst for change.”
When she’s asked about comments like Hayley Wickenheiser calling the NWHL a “so-called pro league,” as the Hall of Famer did recently on Sportsnet 590 The FAN’s Good Show, Rylan references her “thick skin” and says those shots roll off her back. “What we are doing is objectively good,” she says. “If there was hesitation or doubt in that, then the comments might hurt more. Since we know what we are doing is exactly what we need to be doing for our sport, it’s pretty clear that we need to keep building that.”
Yes, Dani Rylan is “getting shit done,” even if some believe she’s a villain who stands in the way of progress.
“I’ve put all my chips in to make the NWHL,” Rylan says. She adds, with a shrug: “If it was easy, anyone would do it.” The commissioner loves her mottos.
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