Ashley Johnston works five days a week as an engineer at Precision Valve and Automation in Cohoes, but for two days each week she does something only 88 women in the world can say. She plays professional hockey and gets paid for it.
“It’s a huge honor to be part of something like this,” Johnston said. “It’s historic in itself and to know that you are contributing to it and paving the way for future female athletes is an absolute honor and humbling experience.”
The league was founded by Dani Rylan, a former Northeastern University hockey player, who initially hoped to create a New York team to compete in the Canadian Women‘s Hockey League. Rylan’s supporters told her to think bigger.
The U.S. Women‘s National Hockey Team had just won gold at the 2014 Olympics defeating Canada. Nearly 5 million viewers watched the gold-medal matchup making it the most-watched hockey game of the 2014 Olympics.
“It wasn’t because it was a women’s hockey game,” Rylan said. “It’s because it was a great hockey game.”
Globally, women’s sports are growing commercially as seen by the expanding audiences tuning in to women’s World Cup soccer, Serena Williams‘ tennis matches and even women’s boxing.
“It was a no-brainer that the time was right for women’s hockey,” Rylan said.
Rylan’s research showed that 33 percent of the 70,000 female youth hockey players registered with USA Hockey live in three states: New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, so she focused there. Rylan, who is commissioner of the league, formed four teams: the New York Riveters, based in Brooklyn; Buffalo Beauts, Boston Pride and Connecticut Whale.
The players commit to two practices a week, nine home games and nine away games over a period of six months. They are paid between $10,000 to $25,000. In comparison, the Canadian women’s league does not pay its skaters.
“So essentially, unless you are an Olympic-funded athlete, you are paying to play,” in the CWHL, said Johnston, who is originally from Canada. Johnston earns $14,000 as a Riveter.
The NWHL was barely a rumor when Johnston graduated from Union in 2014, and the league still was nebulous when her teammate, Union goalie Shenae Lundberg, graduated a year later in May 2015. This summer, they heard the league was truly happening, and they tried out in Boston in July. They were signed to the Riveters on the same day.
“I’m really lucky,” said Lundberg, a native of New Hampshire. “I’m at the right age and right timing to be fresh off the ice from college to be able to transition straight here.”
The league has 11 Olympians.
“It’s the best hockey I’ve every played. It’s so fast paced,” Johnston said. “You are literally taking the top colleges for hockey and dividing them into four teams. It’s the best of the best. The competition is high and fierce.”
Johnston and Lundberg were accustomed to sparse crowds at their Union games that were usually attended by local kids they coached and a few other fans. But their Riveter games have several hundred fans in the bleachers. The largest attendance has been around 1,000.
The league signed a deal with the New England Sports Network to broadcast Boston Pride home games and penned a deal with ESPN to stream games on ESPN3.
The games are also streamed live on http://www.wnhl.co, the league’s website. Earlier this month, the league scored its first corporate sponsor when Dunkin Donuts became the official coffee and quick service restaurant for the NWHL. The coffee chain also signed a personal services contract with Olympian Meghan Duggan, who plays for the Buffalo Beauts.
“There is a platform for these women to excel,” Rylan said. “And sponsors and networks want to shine a light on these athletes.”