So You Want To Get Into The NWHL?

Maybe you heard about women’s hockey during the time of the 2018 Olympics, or through college hockey. Maybe you’re an NHL fan who knows that some women, somewhere, are playing hockey, but you just don’t know where to watch it. 

Enter the NWHL. 

Whether it’s McKenna Brand scoring two goals in 14 seconds or Allie Thunstrom scoring the game-winning goal against the undefeated Pride in the final minute, the NWHL offers some of the fastest and most skilled hockey on the planet. With two months until the leagues’ anticipated start date in January of 2021, here’s everything to help newcomers get acquainted with the rules and choose alliances before puck drop. 

What is the NWHL?

The National Women’s Hockey League is a professional hockey organization consisting of the Boston Pride, Metropolitan Riveters, Connecticut Whale, Buffalo Beauts, Minnesota Whitecaps, and Toronto Six.

Founded in 2015, the NWHL was the first hockey league in North America to pay women to play hockey and brought more places to play in the United States. Each team is competing for the Isobel Cup. 

All NWHL games are streamed for free at twitch.tv/nwhl or twitch.tv/nwhl2, a platform they began using last season. You do not need a Twitch account to watch the games. 

What’s different about the NWHL? 

While the NWHL is almost identical to NHL rules and structure, there are a couple of differences that stand out. 

The first is physical contact. In the NHL and most men’s hockey, body checking is allowed and a big part of the gameplay, whereas in most women’s hockey it is illegal to body check. However, body contact is legal. Meaning it’s okay to initiate “contact that occurs between opponents during the normal process of playing the puck, provided there has been no overt hip, shoulder or arm contact to physically force the opponent off of the puck,” as defined by USA Hockey. That’s a little vague, so let’s take a look at some examples. 

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The first image is body checking because the player leans her hip out to make contact, whereas the second is body contact because the player moves her body primarily to shield the puck rather than push her opponent and does not stick out any part of her body. Seem confusing? No worries, most fans get confused too! The line between body checking and body contact is blurry and often depends on the league and who’s the referee that game, but it’s unlikely to see any big hip checks like in men’s hockey. Due to the lack of hitting, skill and speed are prioritized more in the women’s game, with an emphasis on playing smarter rather than hitting harder. 

Less hitting means fewer stoppages and longer stretches in a game without a whistle than fans may see in a typical NHL game. Because NWHL games are streamed on Twitch, there’s only one commercial break per period at the ten-minute mark rather than three. As a result,  NWHL games are faster than NHL games or most televised hockey games. 

Under the current salary cap, 17 players dress for a game instead of 20, with the NWHL playing 3 forward lines of 9 forwards instead of 4 lines of 12 forwards. The full roster can hold up to 25 players and considering there’s no semi-professional league like the AHL or CHL, having a few extra players reserved is encouraged.

Fights happen in women’s hockey, but significantly less often in the NWHL as fighting results in a player being kicked out of the game and an automatic one-game suspension. 

NWHL players are rarely hockey players full time and usually work other jobs. As a result, the NWHL only plays on weekends and holidays. Player contracts are only one year long, and trades involving players rarely happen unless requested by the player themselves. 

For the past few years, playoff series have been single-elimination games instead of series. Who makes the playoffs are unclear now that the Toronto Six have been added, but in the past, every team qualified for the playoffs. 

When is the NWHL’s sixth season starting? What will it look like in a COVID-19 world? 

As of right now, the NWHL’s sixth season is due to start in January 2021, with each team playing 20 games. The league aims to award the cup at the end of March and have the all-star game after. Practices for the 2021 season have already begun. 

No official decision has been made, but it’s looking less and less likely that fans will be in the stands for NWHL games from a pandemic perspective. However, the NWHL hopes to do more fan outreach on their Twitch account to keep engagement up. 

Picking a Team

If you’re not near one of the NWHL’s six markets, it can be hard to choose who to root for. Rosters can change drastically year in and year out and most of the jerseys are really good, so picking based on fashion is out of the question. If you are near an NWHL city, you may want more information on how to support the team and who you’re supporting. Let’s take a closer look, shall we? 

Boston Pride

Play at: Warrior Arena in Allston, Massachusetts

Founded: 2015

Championships: 2015-2016 Isobel Cup Champions, three-time regular season champions

Last Years Record: 23-1 (1st place, made it to finals) 

NHL Affiliation: Boston Bruins

Be a Pride fan if: You like supporting the top team in the league and team to beat, which the Pride are almost every year. You value stability. You’re a fan of nearby Massachusetts colleges like Boston University, Boston College, Northeastern University, as a lot of Pride players formerly played for Hockey East colleges. 

Buffalo Beauts 

Play At: Northtown Center in Amherst, New York 

Founded: 2015

Championships: 2016-2017

Last Years Record: 8-16 (4th place, lost in wild card game)

NHL Affiliation: None, formerly Buffalo Sabres

Be a Beauts fan if: You’re in Buffalo and want a non-Pegula ran team to root for, like a team that does a lot of community initiatives, follow women’s college hockey in northern New England ( University of Maine, University of New Hampshire) or Canada’s USports program. 

Connecticut Whale

Play At: Danbury Arena in Danbury, Connecticut 

Founded: 2015

Championships: none

Last Years Record: 2-22 (5th place, Lost in semifinals)

NHL Affiliation: None, but does collaborate with Bridgeport Soundtigers 

Be a Whale Fan If: You want a team that’s been the underdog for a few seasons but transformed into cup favorites due to offseason moves. You’re big on defense that centers around shot-blocking. If you like “smaller markets.” For fans of southern New England NCAA teams (Quinnipiac, Yale) and NCAA Division III fans who want to see where their league’s superstars go pro. 

Metropolitan Riveters

Play At: Montclair State University Ice Arena in Little Falls, New Jersey

Founded: 2015 (formerly known as New York Riveters from 2015-2017) 

Championships: 2017-2018, one regular-season championship 

Last Years Record: 10-14 (3rd place, lost in semifinals) 

NHL Affiliation: None, formerly New Jersey Devils 

Be a Riveters fan if: You like a more physical style of play and a team with a chip on their shoulder, competitive underdogs, “smaller market” or a more intimate team experience. 

Minnesota Whitecaps

Play At: Tria Rink in St. Paul, Minnesota

Founded: 2004, joined NWHL in 2018 (formerly competed in the now-defunct WWHA and CWHL, then were independent for a while.)

Championships: 2018-2019, one regular-season championship

Last Season Record: 17-7 (2nd place, made it to finals) 

NHL Affiliation: Minnesota Wild 

Be a Whitecaps Fan If: You like a team with a long and storied history and like players who’ve been with the team since it was founded in 2004. You want team that values speed and stays out of the penalty box. You’re a fan of any WCHA team. 

Toronto Six

Play At: Canlan Ice Sports York in North York, Ontario

Founded: 2020

NHL Affiliation: None

Be a Six fan if: You want to root for a brand new franchise. You were a fan of the CWHL and want to follow some of the players from that league again. You want to watch arguably the most successful coach in women’s hockey. If you’re Canadian, or if you’re American but want to pretend you’re not for twenty games a year. 

What’s the difference between the PWHPA and NWHL?

The PWHPA and NWHL issue is complex enough to warrant its own article, so this will be the simplified version of the ordeal. 

Following the 2018-2019 season, the only other women’s hockey league in North America, the CWHL, folded, leaving a lot of women without a place to play. The PWHPA rose in its ashes. Both the NWHL and PWHPA have the same goal: women playing hockey as a full-time job and being paid a living wage to do so. 

What differs is their methods of achieving that. The PWHPA organizes showcases for women’s hockey in hopes of attracting sponsors that can help the PWHPA erect a league that pays a full-time wage with benefits. Cities like Calgary, Montreal, and Minneapolis have training hubs for PWHPA players, but you do not have to be in a training hub to be a part of the PWHPA. A lot of players can’t move to a city with a PWHPA or NWHL team, or don’t have the time and money to play hockey in a league while working full time. The PWHPA ensures they can stay in touch with the landscape of professional women’s hockey and have access to high caliber training and networking no matter what. Although the line can blur at times, the PWHPA is a players coalition and not a league. The organizations’ flexibility, lack of paid contracts, and not for profit status is what sets it apart from the NWHL and typical leagues. 

The NWHL is more of a traditional sports league style, registered as a for-profit organization and hoping to achieve a full-time wage for players over time by attracting sponsors to their already existing league and sell franchises to owners in hopes of increasing salary. Two franchises currently have non-NWHL ownership, the Boston Pride and Toronto Six. Former commissioner Dani Rylan stepped down from her role in order to pursue ownership for the teams full time. 

In other words, the PWHPA is pitching their talent and looking for sponsors to invest in a full-time league that they would build with that sponsor, whereas the NWHL is looking for people to invest in their league that’s already up and running. Some people who played in the NWHL now play in the PWHPA, and people who played in the PWHPA now play in the NWHL. Most are friends with people in both leagues. Which league players choose often depend a lot on both personal and business circumstances. 

For fans, it means more women’s hockey to support!

For more NWHL thoughts and opinions from Kacey, check out their author page or Twitter.

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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