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Women’s hockey league continues to build awareness

Emily Pfalzer was signing autographs at a Buffalo Sabres game, helping to promote her own team, the Buffalo Beauts, and the National Women’s Hockey League.

A dad came up to the table with his son and daughter, inquiring about the team. It was the first time he heard of the Beauts or the NWHL.

“I’ll bring my daughter to a game,” the father said.

Pfalzer replied, “That’s great, but you can bring your son, too.”

It’s the continuing challenge of promoting women’s team sports. The NWHL social media accounts are full of photos of young girls with hashtags that read #NWHLFutureDraftPick and similar sentiments, highlighting the league as pioneering professional opportunities for women to play hockey.

But hockey is the central theme of the league. It’s not just a girl thing. And as the Beauts and NWHL grow the brand, the hockey is as important as the narrative of shattering the glass ceiling.

There have always been two sides to the NWHL coin – the athletic model and the business model. From a hockey standpoint, the league is a venue for players to continue to develop their individual games while growing the sport with the visibility and opportunity a pro league brings. From a business standpoint, it’s a way for elite female hockey players to be compensated financially while cultivating a consumer market for women’s professional hockey.

The business received big support recently. In November, the league announced its first broadcasting agreement – a deal with NESN to broadcast eight home games of the Boston Pride – then added a deal with ESPN to stream a number of their games on the platform ESPN3, adding an air of legitimacy to the four-team league.

Perhaps that helped convince Dunkin’ Donuts to come on board as the first corporate sponsor of the NWHL. Dunkin’ Donuts is now “the official coffee and quick service restaurant of the NWHL,” the news release noted. Jerseys now sport a Dunkin’ Donuts logo.

Meghan Duggan, assistant captain of the Buffalo Beauts and captain of the U.S. National Team, entered into a personal services agreement with Dunkin’ Donuts.

Sponsorship and broadcasting – the lifeblood of any potentially successful sports undertaking – has been an important step in securing a future for the NWHL.

“Big-time corporate sponsors and big-time TV stations are investing time and money into something that has a great product,” Duggan said. “Women’s hockey is a great product. It’s exciting for me to see women’s hockey grow. It’s been a passion of mine for 25 years – since I was 3 years old.”

Evolution comes with some growing pains. Attendance is not announced at games or on official score sheets (like it is in the NHL and NCAA hockey) and it’s difficult to get those figures from the league.

But women have always played regardless of the turnout in the stands. While the business plan is important, the essence of the league is the passion and respect for the game carried by the players.

For Pfalzer, a Buffalo native, the game is everything. A year removed from playing collegiate hockey for Boston College and entering her second season as part of the U.S. National Team, Pfalzer doesn’t know anything but this NWHL opportunity.

“I don’t have anything to compare it to but just hearing what people have gone through in the past, this has been a great place to play right out of college,” Pfalzer said. “Obviously I miss college. BC was an amazing place. Now, there’s still structure but I also feel the freedom to work specifically on what I need to work on. (The Beauts) practice two days a week so I’ve been skating with some boys teams to stay at high pace and challenge myself in that way. I’m working at doing at everything at full speed and on my shot. Just little things in my game. At school a lot of work is on systems and here, without classes, I have the time to work on individual things in my game.”

While her game is coming along, the Beauts are a work in progress. They are 1-5-0-2 with two overtime losses. They picked up their only win, a 3-1 decision, at the New York Riveters on Nov. 29. They’ve lost two games in a shootout and on Dec. 5 stormed back from a 5-1 deficit at Boston but fell short in a 7-6 loss.

“Really we haven’t had many games with our full team because of visa issues,” Pfalzer said. A number of the Beauts are Canadian citizens and live in Ontario. “But we’ve been in every game and a couple of games we’ve been down four or five goals and came back. We’re a hard-working team and have a lot of character. We can build off that.”

Pfalzer was selected as one of the captains for the inaugural NWHL All-Star Game, along with Hilary Knight. Team Pfalzer and Team Knight were selected via a social media draft on Thursday with the All-Star weekend scheduled for HarborCenter in Buffalo. A limited skate-with-the-players event will be held on Jan. 23 with the four-on-four game and skills competition at 2 p.m. Jan. 24. The next home game for the Beauts is Dec. 27 when they host the New York Riveters.

email: amoritz@buffnews.com