NWHL Exposure: ACHA Exhibitions Could Grow the Game

Growing up, my mom had this one story about playing ice hockey in Scarborough, Ontario in the 1970’s.

Her older brother was the captain of his hockey team; her dad was the coach. He also coached the team for kids her age – she would have been 6 or 7 at the time, making her around Mites age – and as a result, he signed her up to play for the team he coached.

The only problem? Girls weren’t allowed to play on that team.

She went by the name ‘Sam’; she jokes, when telling the stories, about how she was always so nervous that her best friend Robby would recognize her through her face cage and tell on her. She wasn’t very good, she said, but she didn’t want to get kicked off the team – although ultimately, one of the older siblings of a teammate called out the fact that she never took her helmet off at practice. The jig was up; she switched to tennis.

I bring up that story because today, goaltender Jenny Scrivens – who some of you may know as the insanely smart wife of Edmonton Oilers goaltender Ben Scrivens (yes, it’s a power couple with brains AND goalie gigs; it’s not fair, I know) – tweeted out a picture:

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(No, YOU’RE overly emotional about this.)

It’s amazing; my mom is only 46, but the world has already become such a different place. My mom’s generation sometimes had to play with their hair in a french braid, tucked up into a helmet while they answered to ‘Sam’ instead of ‘Sarah’; my generation is getting paid to play.

The biggest problem now, of course, is finding a way to grow the game.

Scrivens makes the league minimum*; that’s roughly $10,000, or a full $1,770 below the US 2015 poverty line for a single person household. Some players are making up to $25,000; if they only support themselves or have a supplementary income, that’s actually closer to the 50th or 60th percentile in income, but still roughly half of what an AHL salary would pay an NHLer on a two-way deal. As the only salaried pro women’s hockey league (since the CWHL uses financial incentives but no true salary), that still puts women’s hockey leaps and bounds behind where we’d like it to be.

Seeing Scrivens tweet that picture made me excited; I’ve never been an athlete who could go pro in any sport (including hockey, where I play net as well), but the fact that it’s now even a possibility – when I grew up hearing my mom’s tales about playing hockey just a few decades before I was born – is thrilling. I mean, going from Manon Rheaume as an isolated idol to having dozens of women to look up to? That’s a pretty big deal. I want to grow things even more, and I have an idea.

I was at ASU’s maroon and gold hockey game a few weeks ago, chatting with my friend’s dad. He’s on the board for high school hockey here in Phoenix, Arizona; while we started off talking about goaltending styles (and the need for more goalie coaches) and the growth of the game in the valley, we ultimately turned to talking about women’s hockey here in the desert.

At a young age, he said, there are roughly as many girls interested in playing as there are boys. Coaching with the Arizona Coyotes Hockey Development Team at schools and clinics around Arizona, I’ve noticed this as well — just last week, we had a group of fourth grade girls so fierce that they actually started trying to block shots in the girls vs. boys scrimmage we set up. The girls love to volunteer to be the goalie (and they’re usually pretty good, too) and I’ve given out so many hugs and high fives to girls who want to grow up to be ‘just like me’ that they’re probably the reason I’ve got a serious head cold right now.

Once they get older, though, my friend’s dad pointed out that there isn’t much interest in staying here in Phoenix. In order to get noticed by those scouting for the very small, very limited opportunities for higher level play, he said, girls have to go play at prep school in the Northeast or Minnesota in order to really continue developing the way they need to. The competition level here just isn’t where it should be.

Hopefully, that’s going to change soon; Arizona State University has announced that they’re adding an ACHA women’s hockey team in 2016. My idea? Have ASU host the NWHL for exhibition games while they’re still ACHA.

The hope, of course, is that women’s hockey follows the path of men’s hockey here in Phoenix; the goal would be to see ASU host DI programs for both men and women in the not-so-distant future. At that point, the women playing at ASU would likely be ineligible to play against the NWHL teams for contractual and pro-related reasons; as DI men’s programs can only play against the USNDP and not against NHL, AHL, or even ECHL clubs, women’s NCAA teams are likely ineligible to play games against the NWHL for the same reason.

ACHA, though, is club hockey — and by hosting NWHL teams for exhibition-only games, I think the impact on the game would be huge.

Logistically, there’s a lot about this that would need to be broken down in more detail.

Which party would pay for what in the exhibition game? Obviously, you’d assume the NWHL would pay for travel expenses for the players they bring to the desert, but that means gaining a better understanding of everything from travel stipends to per diem money (if any) at the NWHL level right now.

Then, there’s where they’d play, who would be the ‘host’, and who would pull in the financial benefit from everything. Would they play at Oceanside Arena in Tempe, Arizona? Oceanside can legally fit 747 patrons for an ice hockey game; in theory, this game would want to attract a much bigger crowd than that – so do you play at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona? If so, does ASU’s ACHA women’s program receive the profits from ticket sales, do the Arizona Coyotes, would they split with the NWHL, or would the City of Glendale pull in profit from the sales? What about concessions? If the NWHL brought player merchandise, would they have to split any profits? We’d think not, but these are the questions that you’d have to address.

Still, it’s an idea that we should certainly start exploring early on.

I’m a recreational coach, and I have little girls wanting me to sign their jerseys, their school folders, and pictures they draw in class – just imagine if real-life heroes came to town and got to play for them. Right now, girls are finally starting to become regularly exposed to women who they can consider role models — but so many of them, like me, are role models only in the most broad sense of the term.

Girls have women to look up to, but they can’t be picky about it; unless they’re given opportunities to be exposed to NWHL (and even CWHL, although those logistics become even more complicated) players, they’re grasping at straws. That only grows the game so much; you still get that sense of futility to investing time and money into the sport at a young age. Right now, their role models are local coaches and women who play either recreationally; the goal is for them to start being exposed to idols who have truly made it.

Bringing the NWHL to play against an Arizona ACHA team seems like a pretty easy way to spread the game — and the wider you spread the game, after all, the more you benefit in every area. Player participation grows at every level, there’s more money to make from player merchandise, ticket sales, and streaming subscriptions (and since that currently goes towards the players in the NWHL themselves,  that’s another HUGE benefit). It potentially benefits both ASU and the Arizona Coyotes, and that’s just looking at it from a local perspective for me; if you’ve got an ACHA team in your area (for example, there are ACHA women’s teams in California, Ohio, Alaska, North Dakota, and Iowa), this concept works just as well for you.

Just a thought.

For more information about the ASU Women’s Hockey ACHA program set to play their inaugural season in 2016-2017, visit www.asuwomenshockey.com . For more information about the NWHL, visit www.nwhl.co .

(Since it’s such a baseline for the idea, I’ve added the comments box below. Have something you think would make this work/not work? Any questions about something that I didn’t cover well enough? Want to share an experience that you’ve had? If you want to submit anonymously, pseudonyms are fine.)

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