The former hockey player created the National Women's Hockey League so women can keep playing their sport past college—and get paid to do so
Dani Rylan is 5'3'', or 5'5'' in ice skates. She doesn't lace up for double axels or sequined costumes, though; Rylan's skating career was always about hockey—and on the boys' team, no less. "Growing up, it was all I knew," she says. "And that made it fun."
Those boys weren't just allowing some cute blonde girl to shuffle along behind them. After years of playing with the Tampa Bay Junior Lightning in elementary school, she was serious enough about her sport that her parents allowed her to enroll at a boarding school over a thousand miles from her Florida home. The St. Mark's School is renowned in New England for its ice hockey program, which has produced several professional players, and Rylan was named captain of the girls' squad. She played with the boys again for the Metropolitan State University club team in Colorado. (Hockey isn't the only female-friendly male sport; find out Why High School Teams Are Embracing Female Athletes.)
"After try-outs, the coaches came up to me and said, 'Are you sure you want to play contact hockey?'" Rylan, now 28, recalls. "I said, Well, I know I'm not trying out for ballet.' I knew what I was getting into."
She braved hit after hit from her larger, stronger college teammates—"after every game, I felt like I'd been hit by a small truck," she says—but their size wasn't the only painful difference between them. The boys got to dream about playing in the NHL, or even transferring to play for a D-1 school. Rylan, of course, could not.
"If you've played a sport your whole life, it becomes part of your identity," she explains, "so when you have to hang it up, it's a sad moment."
She says that female athletes peak at age 27, or half a decade after college. So after Rylan graduated, she was hardly ready to retire her skates. She moved to New York City, where she opened her own coffee shop (Rise and Grind in East Harlem) and continued to play recreationally for two men's club teams. "It's perfect for me, but for the players who are still competing at a national level, their biggest goal is to play in the Olympics every four years," she says. There was no professional option, no American league, and certainly no opportunity for female players to get paid. Rylan lamented all those missed opportunities, all those athletes who had no goals left to aim for.
The thought stuck with her throughout post-grad life, as she got Rise and Grind off the ground. And it was during the 2014 Olympics, when the women's ice hockey teams from the U.S. and Canada battled it out in overtime during the finals, that Rylan was inspired to create a national league—all on her own. "Watching that caliber of hockey and realizing that there wasn't an opportunity like this for my friends, it seemed like a no-brainer," she says. "I couldn't believe it didn't exist already." (Meet more Women Who Are Changing the Face of Girl Power.)
While she was researching this new business venture, women's sports were enjoying unprecedented level of popularity, with the U.S. women's soccer team winning the World Cup and Serena Williams in the midst of a phenomenal season. All the attention only helped her cause, Rylan explains.
So how exactly does a person begin to create a national sports league? By picking up the phone. A lot. "People always say the hockey world is so small, and that's really how this thing snowballed so fast," she says. "I reached out to my hockey family, and everyone was behind it. They all said 'Dani, you should do this!'" Her twenty-year hockey career had afforded her a network of contacts, from players to venues, while the coffee shop had taught her serious entrepreneurial skills. In less than a year, the league was taking shape.
Rylan found players, held training camps, researched cities, created teams, and scheduled venues. "Anyone who does scheduling for a living, my hat's off to them," she laughs. For location, she chose to focus on the northeast. "Thirty-three percent of all hockey registration is in the northeast," she explains. "To keep our expenses down, we chose the four most viable markets in the northeast." The final cities, and their teams, are the Buffalo Beauts, New York Riveters, Connecticut Whale, and Boston Pride.
Finding money was, of course, a bit more complicated. "Sponsors want tangible numbers: what our demo is, how many fans go to games, and so on," Rylan says. "If you haven't played a season yet, you don't have those numbers. Luckily, we've had investors from the beginning who have been hugely supportive of this league, and of women's sports. It's an untapped business!"
The money was a crucial aspect of the National Women's Hockey League, because unlike in other people's attempts to create professional leagues, Rylan intended on getting her players paid. It'll take a while before these players can make a living wage off their sport—not to mention pull in eight-figure contracts like the Lebrons of the world—but exactly much can these women make? "Actually, this is a great time to ask this question because the first paycheck went out today," Rylan says proudly. "The average salary is $15,000." (Everyone has to start somewhere; here's How the Highest Paid Female Athletes Make Money.)
For that amount, the NWHL athletes have committed to two practices a week, nine home games, and nine away games. Rylan ensured that the season's schedule was as convenient as possible for the women, who may have full-time jobs and families. Practices are held after work hours, and games are only on Sundays. "We have such a diverse group of women in the league," she says, from teachers to architects, from local gals to women recruited from Austria, Russia, and Japan.
The first game of the first season of the NWHL will be held on October 11, 2015, at 1:30 p.m., when the puck drops between the Riveters and the Whale at the Chelsea Piers in Stamford, CT. Rylan hasn't had a ton of spare time to appreciate her accomplishment, or contemplate her legacy as the first commissioner of the NWHL. In fact, she laughs at the idea.
"I'm so engulfed in everything right now, I don't know if I realize it yet," she says. "After this year's success, [that's] when I take a breath and say, 'Wow.'"
In the meantime, she's appreciating the "little successes." "Parents come up to us, saying, 'It's awesome my daughter can dream of being of a professional athlete,'" she shares. "They say, 'My son wants to be a Ranger. Now my daughter wants to be a Riveter.'"