A sense of cold hung in the air, unfiltered despite the environment. It had nothing to do with the near-freezing November weather outside, or the temperature inside the three-rink hockey facility. It manifested in the small locker room that said “Connecticut” on the outside but read turmoil on the faces of those inside. A singular thought poured over and out of the minds that grew in worry, fear, and anger. For the Connecticut Whale, one of four teams facing the same dilemma in the National Women’s Hockey League, the question was the same.
“What do you mean, pay cuts?”
Harsh news shook the NWHL to its core; yet after the bomb, in the still-remaining rubble, those that survived would soon help women’s hockey evolve.
It was the second year of operation for the NWHL, the first and only professional women’s hockey league in the United States. Born out of competition with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, the CWHL, the NWHL immediately needed some clout on the national stage. With one decision, they got it.
Commissioner Dani Rylan, just a few months removed from being denied ownership of a CWHL team in New York, declared the birth of the NWHL in the Player’s Tribune. The announcement came with the decree that the league would be the first women’s hockey league to pay its players, with a small caveat.
“Right now, our salary cap is still small. Our players make an average salary of $15,000. They still have to work day jobs, of course,” said Rylan at the time. “We have nurses, teachers, and mechanical engineers on our rosters. But it’s not just about the money. It’s about respect. It’s about being treated as a professional.”
The CWHL, years away from projected pay for players, could only look on as four NWHL teams actively recruited the same players it coveted. For Rylan and the NWHL, this was a success.
The first year was, in a way. Attendance was high as fans poured into games. Players took in a pay that wasn't high enough to sustain a living, but enough to find worth in sacrificing part of their time and lives. With a salary cap just over $270,000 per team heading into year two in 2016, things were looking up for the NWHL. Then, as large donors stepped away, the culmination of several missteps by the league reached its peak in November.
Anya Battaglino remembers the day without fond thoughts. The head of the NWHL Players’ Association was merely a team representative, alongside fellow Whale Cydney Roesler. They were told by the NWHL to be ready for a phone call before practice, seemingly another common meeting among the team representatives and league officials. Despite her intense, passionate optimism and warm personality, there was nothing but cold on the other end of the phone.
“We were delivered the message that salaries were getting cut. ‘You need to tell your players that this is the new pay structure in an hour. Good luck,” said Battaglino. “We got this overwhelming phone call. Tomorrow it changes and this is what it is. We hung up the phone and we were both shaking.”
Practice was an hour away. Sitting around the locker room, their locker room, were their friends, teammates, and sisters in arms. All of whom had no idea what was coming their way. Battaglino turned to Roesler.
“I’ll do it. I’ll talk to people. I’ll be the one that delivers the message.”
Battaglino walked into the locker room, crestfallen but prepared.
“In sales, a lot of people say no and you have to grow some tough skin,” said Battaglino, referencing her day job. “I took that on, and as I was in the locker room I was shaking, sweating. It was a scary, overwhelming feeling.”
Her teammates joked around, getting ready for another late night practice. Some lived close enough they could walk to the rink when the weather outside was more forgiving. Others drove a multitude of hours each week, some from Boston, some from New York, leaving their cities where they held down jobs that afforded them the chance to play hockey for a few hours of practice each week. That cold November night would not be worth the ride.
“Watching every single teammate… they were hurt, and they were angry,” said Battaglino. She stood there, in front of her team, and announced sweeping salary cuts the league had dropped on her just an hour before.
The new plan was necessary in the league’s eyes, and abysmal for the players.
For each game, $5,000 was allocated per team. That total was divided among the players by the percent they made against the previously required salary cap. If a player was earning $27,000 before, about 10 percent of the salary cap, they would make 10 percent of the cash per game.
This high pay was a rarity, however. For most players, their salary previously was around $10,000 for the season. That meant about 3.3 percent of the game money, which amounted to around $165 per game, almost three times less than their expected pay. Without travel accommodations for games or practices, let alone payment for practice, most players were losing more money than they were making.
Take a shortcut through the wall behind the locker room, thin enough to hear noise but thick enough to limit verbiage, sits Connecticut’s trainer’s room. Rolls of medical tape and bandages sit to the side. Inside, on that day in November, sat trainer Paul Fernandes and Whale intern Kevin Ristow.
“They were promised “X” amount of dollars. Anyone would be disappointed, especially a lot of the players that moved (to their team) from way out-of-state,” said Fernandes, who sat in his room listening as the silence was soon cut. Ristow sat in worry next to him.
“Nobody was saying anything. You could hear faint conversations, what sounded like a team meeting, through the wall,” said Ristow. “You couldn’t understand what they were saying, but eventually we realized practice wasn’t happening for some reason or another… You got a sense that something was off.”
Despite the cold of the November, added with the freeze inside the ice rink, Battaglino could see the locker room heating up.
“(I had) to look all of my best friends in the face and tell them that the dream we were striving for and hoping for had a setback. People had to adjust their lives and change what they were doing.”
“They had to look at the sport of hockey and see if it was viable and what it meant to them. It was hard. It was really sad and it was hard.”
The players did not take kindly to the bombshell dropped upon them. They immediately took to the only weapon they had to fight with: social media. Fans began to question the decision as well.
The tension was palpable, and so were the results. Players left the NWHL, some immediately, others after a few weeks, and many more deciding this would be their last season with the league.
Whale captain and defender Molly Engstrom, a vocal leader and rock for the team, left for professional hockey in Sweden. Defender Ivana Bilic, already dealing with injuries from the games she had played, decided enough was enough and headed home. With two other defenders hurt, the blue line for the Whale disappeared in the span of a few days.
“I’ve never gone back in NHL history but I’m pretty sure it was bad in the beginning days too. It wasn’t what it is now. It has to start somewhere and somehow,” mentioned Fernandes. “Of course money fixes everything, but until you get that it is a battle.”
Players questioned the legality of the decision. Media members wondered if this was it for the first professional women’s hockey league to pay its players, a toy losing its shine and luster. Over in Canada, the CWHL looked on, ready to pray on fleeing NWHL athletes, its only competition on the verge of collapse.
Only, the NWHL didn't fall. It evolved.
Within days of the pay cuts, another announcement was made, this time by the NWHL Players’ Association. One of their team representatives was anointed head of the NWHLPA, with hopes of growing the league that the players had looked to with hope for so long. Their new face for hope, volunteering for (and given) the role, was Anya Battaglino.
“My whole plan (as head of the NWHLPA) is to make sure the players are being treated fairly and equitably and being treated as the professionals and employees that they are,” said Battaglino. “Every single day I’m on the phone trying to create partnerships, something to believe in and work towards. Just for the players well-being. “There’s always things we can be doing better for our players. There’s a lot of good movement forward but there is work that needs to be done in a three-year league.”
Year two for the NWHL seemed to be the final year, but Battaglino and the players managed to push back enough to find ground with the league, and with a future. Players still left, true to their word, in search for better grounds. For the Whale, rookie sensation Nicole Kosta was plucked by the CWHL, while fellow rookie Nicole Connery has completely left professional hockey in search for a career in video production. Engstrom remains in Sweden.
The losses are tangible, and obviously hurt the team and the league. But Battaglino remains hopeful.
“It’s like the chicken before the egg. Do you get the salary to substantiate having it be your only job, or keep it in a night-and-weekend position but then the quality on the ice might not be as great? There are these differences that will hopefully work themselves out when it comes to a long-term future, “ said Battaglino. “There’s a lot of pieces that are going to go into what women’s hockey is going to be and where the sport should be going.”
Year three has seen that growth. The NWHL has lost some players to national team training with the Winter Olympics on the horizon, a loss known about for years and planned for. However, the league has new toys to play with.
Twitter and the NWHL reached an agreement over the summer to broadcast games, with a “Twitter Game of the Week” each weekend featuring two NWHL squads battling it out. The games have increased exposure, leaving hope for new ad revenue among other benefits.
The other benefit in year three was another big one, as the National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils announced plans to partner with the league and the team nearest them, the Metropolitan Riveters. The announcement was the first time an NHL team has formally partnered with an NWHL team.
With each step in the right direction, Battaglino has felt the hope emanating around the NWHL, and especially around the Whale.
“I don’t know if it’s just the team dynamic and who we are as people this year, but the Whale have never been so close,” said Battaglino. “It re-energized my love for this sport.”
While issues still remain, especially in the regrowth of a salary, the hope that shines the most is the human side of the players.
“We try to highlight ourselves not only as athletes but also as people with a message and a goal and a dream,” said Battaglino. “(We’ve been) humanizing ourselves and telling our own stories and not necessarily being athletes on this platform. (We’ve been) letting our walls down and letting people into our lives. (We’ve been) letting them know that as a division one athlete trying to get the grades and going into the work world and having a hockey job is not easy.”
That human side remains the reason Battaglino, and dozens of players around the league, continue to fight to make professional women’s hockey successful.
“Letting people know it’s not easy, and that I’m human and I make mistakes, all of that comes with empowering girls and women,” said Battaglino. “We’re not any different, we just happened to pick up a stick at a young age and do that really well. Using that platform to humanize us is hugely important when trying to figure out how we inspire the next generation.”
In year three, hindsight shows that the human side has been tested more than anything else for Battaglino. The league has had its ups and downs, but Battaglino rides the roller-coaster buckled in nice and tight. Year one gave her a reason.
She was hurt, and had to sit out a game. As disappointed as she was in missing the ice, she made a memory that powers her through each season, each issue and each bit of turmoil.
She looked down from her perch atop the stands to see a young girl, energized during play, wearing a Whale jersey. The number shined up, a bright white four with lettering that read “Battaglino” below.
Battaglino took a few steps towards the young girl.
“Hey, I really like that jersey. Why do you like that jersey, what does that player mean to you?”
The young girl smiled back at her.
“I love Anya Battaglino! My mom and I talk about her, she really works hard, and she’s just like me, she’s from a small hometown.”
Battaglino recalls the memory fondly.
“She told me my whole story back. She was so excited that she had somebody to look up to that was just like her,” said Battaglino, choking back tears. “We both went nuts, we were hugging and telling stories. Her name is Willow. She was the sweetest girl. She was just excited to be in an environment where she felt equal. That would be, bar none, the best human to human connection I’ve had.”
Ask around the league, and that human interaction is one of the biggest reasons players come back, no matter how hard it is to, just to be pioneers and role models.
“They’re role models for young girls,” said Fernandes. “Being around these players… they’re competitive. They have a dream too. They want to play and they love the game.”
Ristow concurs. “You got to see the smiles on these girls’ faces every day at the signing table. You got to see players interacting with young girls who get to meet some of their heroes,” said Ristow. (The young girls) see there is something for them to do after they graduate. They can keep on playing.”
With year three already underway, the players do indeed keep playing. Battaglino remains head of the NWHLPA, and continues to ensure the best for the future of professional women’s hockey and its players.
“It’s really really hard. I don’t sleep,” said Battaglino. “But at the end of the day, I think I’m doing the right thing.”