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A Rocky Road to the NWHL's Sophomore Season

Amanda Kessel's historic signing to the New York Riveters earlier this month helped to shift focus from the NWHL's recent legal issues, but is it enough?

Kate Cimini

NWHL/YouTube

The National Women's Hockey League, by all accounts, has had a rocky inaugural season off the ice.

One of its four founding franchises, the Connecticut Whale, went through two coaches and three general managers. Interim Whale GM George Speirs was also the league's COO; he resigned in February from both positions amid a flurry of anonymous accusations of seeding rumors in effort to supplant Dani Rylan and take over as NWHL Commissioner, which the league conspicuously did not refute. Soon after that episode, leaked emails from Bauer Hockey embarrassingly revealed that the league had late and missing payments for equipment.

On top of it all, this week Jenny Scrivens, a New York Riveters goaltender and fan favorite who as an employee of the NWHL's public relations department was responsible for cleaning up these snafus, announced her retirement. Although Scrivens cited only a hectic schedule and a wish to live with her husband, NHL goaltender Ben Scrivens, not across the country from him—not an unreasonable request!—there is little doubt that league turmoil made her job more difficult the past few months.

Read More: The NWHL Is a League of Haves and Have-Nots

But the most concerning news to date for those who wish to see the NWHL reach its sophomore season arrived with a lawsuit from Michael Moran, one of the league's founding investors. As first reported by Excelle Sports, Moran had sent the NWHL a letter of inquiry in March, seeking the return of his investment––$184,971.10–– in full. When that didn't work, Moran sued the league for treble damages, or three times the amount. The league's response to the lawsuit, given only to the Associated Press, called the lawsuit "frivolous and personal."

"The intentions of the individual who filed it were never about business or recouping finances, but a malicious attack to undermine Dani Rylan and the work of many behind the scenes," the league's statement read. The NWHL said it will provide a further response in legal documents being prepared by its attorneys.

The suit is pending as of this writing, and Moran has a difficult case to prove, given that his agreement with Rylan was a verbal one. Should he succeed, however, the NWHL would face having to make drastic cuts—the damages Moran is seeking alone are worth more than half its player salaries—or even shuttering the entire league. Even if the NWHL managed to survive the financial blow, its reputation would be in tatters. Either way, it would be a disastrous result for the cause of paid professional women's hockey.

But there are reasons to be optimistic for women's professional hockey, too. This year's graduating NCAA class is as deep as can be, with players like Miye D'Oench, Hannah Brandt, Kendall Coyne, and Alex Carpenter becoming available. Current NWHL players have noted with relief that positive publicity for the league has outweighed coverage of the pending lawsuit for the past few weeks, though granted there have been no updates to the case since free agency began on May 1.

The best news by far to emerge from the NWHL has been the signing of Amanda Kessel to its flagship team, the New York Riveters, for a record salary of $26,000. (Kessel negotiated the one-year contract herself, joking that she didn't use an agent because "with the limited amount of money that we do make, I think it's sometimes tough to want to give that away to somebody.")

Kessel celebrates during the Sochi Olympics. Photo by Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Kessel has been a standout player for Team USA and the University of Minnesota, where she won the Patty Kazmaier Award her junior year and led the nation in scoring with a career-high 101 points. Despite losing time to concussion symptoms, she returned to Minnesota midway through her senior season this year and helped the Golden Gophers win the title.

Pursuing Kessel was a clear must for the NWHL. Her star power, mesmerizing skating, and whip-like shot, plus the name recognition she brings as the sister of Pittsburgh Penguin Phil Kessel, provide a boost to the league's recently tarnished public image. In return, the NWHL provides her with a salary and the opportunity to live at home in the U.S.––two things that the league's closest competitor, the Canadian Women's Hockey League, do not.

"I was contacted by both leagues but honestly I just knew that I would like to play in the NWHL," Kessel said in a conference call the day after her signing was announced. "One, obviously, being paid is nice and then it is an American league so there was another pull as well."

"It's awesome that we get to have a chance to be paid and be called true professionals at our sport," she continued. "It's something that's new, so I want an opportunity to be a part of that."

Before signing with the Riveters, Kessel spoke with current NWHL players like Olympian and Whale forward Kelli Stack, who encouraged her to join the league.

"I just said there's no point in not playing in this league," Stack said. "Obviously, like, it's a start-up. There's going to be things that we complain about no matter what," but overall, Stack saw the benefits outweighing any potential pitfalls. It's a sentiment Kessel herself echoed in the same interview, when the subject of Moran's lawsuit with the NWHL came up

"As a player it more just showed me that I need to support the league," Kessel said. "It's a start-up, so that's going to be tough. Any start-up doesn't really go smoothly. I'm just here as a player to hopefully help in any way I can."

Kessel is not alone. Should the league go belly-up, players will be back where they were a year ago: with fewer options, all unpaid. For many, after earning a salary for their work and expertise, the thought of losing that is unpalatable.

The Riveters and the Connecticut Whale in a game last year. Photo NWHL/YouTube

Kaleigh Fratkin, who recently signed with the New York Riveters for $19,500, said that if worst came to worst, she would likely retire from hockey.

"You really hope you don't get to that point, to be honest," Fratkin said, her voice going rough. "I think I'd be really just devastated. I'd have to re-think my whole entire life. I've set aside the next couple of years to just focus on playing and being a professional hockey player. So if that were to happen, I think I'd be really lost.

"I know for a fact I can say I wouldn't go and play in the CW[HL]," Fratkin continued. "I just don't think, with my kind of lifestyle and what I'm trying to do with my career, that that would fit me.

"If this league were to fold then [I would be] done altogether."

While big-name signings such as Kessel's may be enough to shift the focus of fans for the time being, and even attract new ones, it isn't enough to pull the league out of the fire if this lawsuit goes south. A court ruling in favor of Moran would be a severe financial and reputational blow to the NWHL, one that it might not be able to recover from. The league has thus far refused to disclose the identity of its investors, and so far it has only one big-name sponsor in Dunkin' Donuts, so it's difficult to say exactly how much financial leeway there is.

If the lawsuit does bankrupt the league, though, critics will surely point to it as proof that women's sports don't make money, that women's leagues are a bad investment. Some people might even believe them. Either way, the NWHL would fade away as yet another women's pro league that failed, and its players would be back at square one—or they might decide to walk away altogether.

At the moment, the league has a strong on-ice product that it hopes to showcase in the coming season. The question on many people's minds right now is whether it will have the chance to do so for much longer.