On the last day of March, what seemed like a cruel and way too early April Fools prank turned out to be real and devastating.
The Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) was to fold in May, ceasing operations and leaving many women hockey players without a team or league. While some believed the CWHL folding to be a sign that we were closer to one professional women’s hockey league, bolstered by the NHL, it’s clear in the time since that it’s unlikely to be the outcome. The NHL has chosen to, instead of investing substantially in the NWHL in the wake of the CWHL’s collapse, only transfer the pittance that they were providing from one league to another. What’s clear is that for the NWHL to survive, it needs a new infusion of support and funds and as I explained earlier this year, Pittsburgh is the ideal city and the Penguins are the ideal partner to provide it.
Back in October I wrote that the NWHL had been looking to expand and that the city of Pittsburgh was a potential target. Having hosted a wildly successful All-Star game for the league and several mid-season matchups, the Pittsburgh-area had shown that they not only have the interest, but the capability to host a women’s professional hockey team. With the folding of the CWHL, the NWHL has announced that it will seek to expand into Canada, adding teams in Toronto and Montreal as a starting point. Furthermore, NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan was clear in stating that this doesn’t preclude the league from adding additional teams before next season. Pittsburgh should be on that list and the Penguins should follow the city of Buffalo’s model to get there.
In late-2017, Terry and Kim Pegula, owners of the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres announced that they were also buying the NWHL’s Buffalo Beauts, making it the first privately-owned franchise in the league. Prior to the Pegula’s purchase, all franchise had been owned and operated by the NWHL. In the years since purchasing the team, the Pegulas have taken measures to not only support the team with resources, but to promote them across their various platforms. From Sabres star Jack Eichel sporting a Buffalo Beauts hat in his post-game presser to providing ice-time, the Pegulas have answered the call and women’s hockey is far better off for it.
Which brings me to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Often in sports and otherwise, the cities of Buffalo and Pittsburgh find themselves compared to one another. At least in sports, Pittsburgh has been the clear cut leader, with several championships in football and hockey, while Buffalo remains without. The Penguins franchise has a valuation of $650 million from Forbes.com, while the Sabres franchise comes in around $375 million. The Penguins, with their perennial playoff appearances, have the ability to turn a profit in ways that other franchises can only dream about.
For the Penguins to continuing growing their fan base and find ways to continue to support their success, they need to consider investing in the NWHL and in a meaningful way. The buy-in for a NWHL franchise is likely more-than-affordable for the Penguins and probably even a bargain. The benefits, for both the city and the league are innumerable. At the very least, the Penguins would take a significant step forward in growing the game in the city and developing opportunities for young female players to connect with professional athletes in a real way and not just by watching a NWHL playoff game on a Twitter stream or hoping the NWHL continues to swing-by for the annual visit.
There are very few franchises in the NHL as financially viable as the Pittsburgh Penguins, which considering where the team was not terribly long ago is an incredible statement. The Penguins, more than most, should recognize both the value and the opportunity in bringing a NWHL team to Pittsburgh. With the CWHL ceasing operations, it’s never been clearer that women’s hockey needs partners that can make a difference and the Penguins need to invest and do so before it’s too late.