Players want a single North American women's professional hockey league. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman does, too. And now National Women's Hockey League founder and commissioner Dani Rylan is on record saying she is working toward that objective.
"One league is inevitable," Rylan wrote in an email to The Associated Press, her strongest statement regarding a potential merger with the rival Canadian Women's Hockey League.
"We will get this done," Rylan wrote. "It's on us, and we embrace the challenge."
Rylan's comments come nearly four years after she split from the CWHL to establish the NWHL, which became the first women's hockey league to pay its players a salary.
The investor-funded NWHL has provided a framework for how a pro women's league can function, but most observers agree that two leagues competing for the same talent pool and limited financial resources isn't going to last — or help the game grow.
The U.S.-based NWHL, in its fourth season, grew to five teams after expanding into Minnesota this year. The CWHL, in its 12th season, began paying its players a salary for the first time last year and has six teams, including ones in Worcester, Massachusetts, and China.
CWHL on board
Rylan is now echoing what Jayna Hefford said in July upon being named the CWHL's interim commissioner. The former Canadian national team star called the formation of one league "a priority" and projected it could happen within two years.
Rylan's comments also come after both leagues discussed merger options this summer, a person with direct knowledge of the discussions told The AP. Also on the table is an NWHL proposal for both league champions to compete in an end-of-season playoff, the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private.
Rylan confirmed she's spoken to Hefford, and added: "There is a path, and Jayna and I and our business partners will continue those discussions."
Hefford expressed cautious optimism regarding the possibility of joining forces.
"It's certainly something we have to figure out," she said, while noting she's still new on the job. "I'm trying to understand what the challenges are, what the roadblocks are and try to figure out a way to get us to the point where we have one truly professional women's hockey league."
Hefford was scheduled to meet this week with NHL officials, including Bettman, for the first time since replacing former commissioner Brenda Andress.
The NHL supports the idea of one women's pro league and has several member teams involved in both leagues.
The Sabres purchased the Buffalo Beauts in December to become the NHL's first franchise to fully own an NWHL team. The Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens each have partnerships with CWHL teams based in their respective cities.
The NHL's support of women's hockey included the league stepping in at the last moment to end a wage dispute between USA Hockey and U.S. National team women players threatening to boycott the 2017 World Championships on home ice. Two people familiar with the situation said the NHL agreed to pay USA Hockey to help fund the four-year agreement. The people spoke to AP on the condition of anonymity because the league and USA Hockey have not made that information public.
The NHL has been careful to avoid the appearance of favouring one league over the other. Bettman told the AP last month he has no interest in forming a third league because he doesn't want the NHL "to look like a bully" by pushing the existing leagues out of business. He is also hesitant of the NHL assuming control of the CWHL or NWHL because, as he put it, "we don't believe in their models."
"We need to start on a clean slate," Bettman said.
"If at some point the leagues say, 'We've had enough, we don't see this as a long-term solution, we'd like you to start up and we'll discontinue operations,' then we'll do it. But we're not pushing it," he said. "If we're going to get involved, it cannot fail, which means it has to be on us."
Rylan refutes Bettman
Rylan, who previously worked at the NHL, took exception to the comments.
"What's it like when Gary Bettman tells the media the model for our women's league doesn't work? Of course, it's really disappointing," said Rylan, who nonetheless called Bettman a "gracious adviser."
"Can we improve? No question about it," she added. "If Gary and more NHL owners want to get involved in women's hockey, that's an awesome an exciting thing. Let's get started now."
Hayley Wickenheiser, former Canadian national team member and newly hired Maple Leafs assistant director of player development, said, "I think the NHL should and could do more and in a heartbeat make it happen." But she placed more of an onus on the players to make it happen.
"They need to take control and move it forward, and the NHL is there and ready when they are," said Wickenheiser, the first woman to be hired to a hockey operations role.