This interview is presented to you by the University of Nebraska — Lincoln Master of Arts in Business with a Specialization in Intercollegiate Athletics Administration.
By: Amari Dryden, @Amari_Dryden
After playing hockey at Northeastern University and seeing many young, talented women’s hockey players have to hang up their skates right as they were hitting their physical prime, Dani Rylan decided to create and become the first commissioner of the National Women’s Hockey League. A league so great, that women’s hockey players didn’t have to stop playing after graduating from college.
Rylan’s favorite part of creating the NWHL was watching it all come to life last year. Never in her wildest dreams did she think the first season would be as successful as it was. She loved seeing the number of fans making it out to the games and how much fun the players on the ice were having along with the great level of competition.
The 29 year-old from Tampa, Florida was definitely expecting a lot of excitement, but for it to also be a learning year. The NWHL had to learn many things in a short period of time, but the league was able to make improvements throughout the season on things large and small, like their live streaming capabilities.
“We started out as a one camera production, but throughout the season we ended up evolving into a five camera shoot. At one point, we had over 25,000 people watching our game live, which is pretty impressive.”
One thing she didn’t expect to happen was how immediate the impact would be on the next generation. She could see it in the stands, in the autograph lines and through the number of youth hockey camps they did.
“USA Hockey actually just reported their biggest growth in girl’s and women’s hockey, which was about a five percent increase. To see that return was something special because I know the NWHL played a part in that.”
When asked about where she sees the NWHL in five years, Rylan believes the game is going to be thriving based on the exposure the Olympics give to women’s hockey.
“Because of the Olympics, women’s hockey is on a massive, global stage every four years. In 2014, the gold medal game between the US and Canada was the most watched live event on NBC. And the talent has only gotten better going into the next Olympic Games in South Korea. This will continue to drive hockey fans who have already come to expect a certain caliber of play, not to mention attract new fans to get into the game and invest in the sport.”
Over the past year, Rylan has seen herself evolve into the biggest women’s hockey fan. Her favorite part of her job is getting to watch the NWHL play every weekend.
“I can remember a couple of times during the Isobel Cup Finals where the game was so exciting that I couldn’t restrain myself from jumping up and down. That’s how great the quality of play was, how exciting the hockey was.”
Though the youngest female C-Suite holder in professional sports, the challenges Rylan has faced as a woman in the sports industry exist regardless of gender. While barriers may have emerged during the NWHL’s inaugural season, so have opportunities.
“Every potential challenge I’ve faced, there has been upside for being a woman in the industry. It’s all about proving yourself. You’ve got to be bold, daring, committed and passionate about your job and what you believe in. I don’t see gender as a barrier so much as work ethic.”
The most exciting part of this upcoming season for Rylan is that the talent level on the ice will be better in 2016–17. There’s the addition of a few new U.S. National Team players and former players, including Sochi 2014 stars Anne Schlepper and Amanda Kessel. There should also be a little more parity between the league’s four teams, with the talent pool a little more spread out than last year.
“The competitive balance in the league has gotten better. I’m excited to see what this brand of hockey will look like.”
The advice Rylan has for anyone who wants to work in the professional hockey industry is to just go out and do it. There is no dream that is too small. It starts with that first step in believing in yourself and surrounding yourself with people who support your dream.
“Take that first stride as we say in hockey terms.”