Amid uncertainty about the future of women's professional hockey in North America, Pegula Sports and Entertainment has relinquished control of the Buffalo Beauts and handed the franchise's operations back to the National Women's Hockey League.
Following Wednesday's announcement, the NWHL revealed it plans to keep the Beauts in Buffalo and have their games played at the Pegula-owned Harborcenter, where the team posted the five-team league's second-highest attendance this past season.
Terry and Kim Pegula took control of the Beauts from the NWHL in December 2017, becoming the league's only independently owned and operated team at the time.
“Our main goal has always been fostering the growth of women’s hockey across all ages,” Kim Pegula, president and CEO of Pegula Sports and Entertainment, said in a statement. "We thank our Beauts players, staff, and fans for their support this past season. We will continue to look for ways to successfully grow the women’s game.”
The statement did not provide a specific reason for the decision.
In a separate statement, the league affirmed its commitment to keeping the Beauts in Buffalo and said it intends to work out an arrangement for the team to remain at Harborcenter.
The league and PSE previously had a tenant arrangement for the Beauts to play there for the team's first two-plus seasons before PSE took control of the team.
"The NWHL is pleased to regain operating control of the 2017 Isobel Cup championships and four-time Cup finalists," the league said. "The fans of Western New York are among the most dedicated in the world, and we have had four exceptional seasons of winning hockey and large crowds.
"We will look to continue our relationship with the Harborcenter and its incredible staff, and in the Beauts' fifth season and beyond, we will build on their tradition of success."
The future of the Beauts and women's professional hockey in North America were in doubt almost a week before PSE's decision.
Last Thursday, more than 200 of the top female players in the world announced they would not play professional hockey in North America next year, a sign of solidarity to establish a single league. Almost the entire Beauts' roster was among the group.
In a statement Friday, PSE said, "We are currently completing an end-of-season review following our first year of running the team — a review that was started well before the news from the players yesterday."
In several reports, players cited low pay, travel and paying for their own health insurance as reasons behind the decision. The NWHL became the only professional league after the demise of the CWHL, which ceased operations following this past season.
The CWHL was a nonprofit league and players reportedly received stipends ranging between $2,000 and $10,000 over the past two seasons.
The NWHL, meanwhile, was established in 2015 and expanded to Minnesota in 2018-19. It became the first league to pay its players annual salaries that ranged from $10,000 to $26,000 in its inaugural season, though salaries were cut the following season.
In a statement last week following the boycott announcement, the NWHL said it intended to operate next season.
"Of everyone working in women's hockey, we are among the players' biggest fans," the league wrote. "In 2015, there wasn't a professional women's hockey league in the United States. Prior to our launch just four years ago, there was never a movement for others to take over women's hockey, or for any wide-scale league in North America.
"In a challenging climate for women's sports, our leadership has been proud to invest a great deal of time and resources in women's hockey and these athletes. We believe in them."
Buffalo reached the Isobel Cup finals in all four seasons, winning the title in 2017. The team possessed arguably one of the best professional rosters ever assembled this past season, including goalie Shannon Szabados and Emily Pfalzer on defense.
"I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Buffalo Beauts fans, staff, volunteers and everyone who supported us," Szabados tweeted Wednesday afternoon. "We are hopeful for a future that sees every organization and player treated the way we were in Buffalo under the leadership and guidance of @PegulaSE."
"This past season has made me feel thankful and hopeful," Pfalzer tweeted. "Thankful for the environment the Pegulas and Beauts provided for my teammates and I every day we came to the rink. And hopeful that there will one day be a league where every team treats their players this way
The Beauts, under PSE management, had access to training facilities used by the Sabres, skills coaches from the Academy of Hockey, and the Sabres handled marketing efforts, including advertisements during Sabres telecasts.
“We definitely have more of an organizational structure,” Beauts forward Jacquie Greco said last July. “We have a general manager, then coaches, then we have team managers that help with day-to-day activities. Before, the coaches had to plan everything and sometimes they lost sight of the game. The extra support the Pegulas have offered this team made us an all-around better team. There’s more tools and assets to help us be a world-class team, a professional team.
“We feel we’re treated like professionals now more than ever. We don’t make millions of dollars, but we’re treated as professional athletes.”
The Beauts averaged 1,101 fans for its home games at Harborcenter, more than the league average of 954. The NWHL said apparel sales set a league record and were up 36 percent for the 2018-19 season; three Beauts players were among the top six in jersey sales.
"The NWHL thanks Pegula Sports and Entertainment for their stewardship of the Beauts during the last two seasons,” NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan said in a statement Wednesday. “We have a deep appreciation for the remarkable, ongoing commitment of the organization to advance the sport of hockey at all levels."
Story topics: Buffalo Beauts