NEW YORK (AP) — There's hope for girls and women who want to play professional hockey in the United States thanks to the New Jersey Devils.
The Devils recently announced a partnership with the Metropolitan Riveters, one of four teams in the fledgling National Women's Hockey League. The Devils will provide their practice facility for home games in Newark, assist with marketing and host a doubleheader with the Riveters on Saturday at the Prudential Center.
The Devils are the first NHL team to officially extend support to the NWHL, which has teams in Boston; Buffalo, New York; and Stamford, Connecticut.
"They are marketing us like a real sister team — everything from the website, social media, to the broadcast and in arena," NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan told The Associated Press. "You name it, they're going to be helping us market the Riveters."
The 3-year-old WNHL has private backers and pays players modest salaries. The season runs from October to March, with teams playing a 16-game schedule. Rylan hopes to add two teams after the 2018 Olympics. But first comes Saturday's game.
"This is an amazing opportunity to leverage the big rink and make it a fun hockey day in Newark," the 30-year-old commissioner said. "We're excited to get our product on the big stage, on the NHL sheet."
The Riveters will play the Boston Pride on Saturday afternoon, with the Devils facing the Arizona Coyotes that night. The women's game will be streamed on Twitter.
Devils President Hugh Weber says reaching out to "young women who play this sport with a pro franchise made all the sense in the world."
It's the latest advance for women's hockey after the U.S. team threatened to boycott the world championships in Michigan last spring. The team negotiated improved salary and benefits with USA Hockey on the eve of the tournament and defeated Canada for the title.
U.S. captain Meghan Duggan played in the NWHL the last two years with the Buffalo Beauts and Boston Pride. This year, Duggan is among about a dozen NWHL players who made the U.S. Olympic roster and will skip the pro season.
"It's a big step for that league to be getting an NHL backer on the women's side," Duggan said. "Anything with the NHL — they have the marketing and promotions and financing in place — and the women's league can only benefit."
Dunkin' Donuts is the official corporate sponsor of the NWHL for a third season. Tom Manchester, vice president of field marketing, says the company's partnership "helps drive critical awareness for female athletes and the increasing popularity of women's hockey."
The NWHL held its inaugural season final in the Devils' practice facility at the Barnabas Health Hockey House in Newark. The Riveters then moved from Brooklyn to play home games there last season.
"I think the Devils were impressed with the fans that were coming to Newark every weekend to watch the Riveters play," Rylan said. She added she was "pleasantly persistent" about an expanded partnership.
Weber called the Devils' partnership a "long-term agreement" and said the time might be right "to figure out how other NHL teams might be able to partner in a substantial way."
Two-time Stanley Cup champion Phil Kessel and the Pittsburgh Penguins hosted the NWHL's All-Star game in February. Olympian Amanda Kessel, his sister, scored a hat trick for the Riveters in the game.
Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin recently visited Russia's national women's team before it played the Riveters in an exhibition.
Rylan grew up in Florida and at age 5 dreamed of becoming the first female defenseman for Tampa Bay after watching Manon Rheaume play goalie in their preseason exhibition games in 1992-93.
She played college hockey at Northeastern University, where she also earned her graduate degree in sports management. Rylan currently plays on a men's hockey team in Queens with her two brothers.
She also faces competition from the Canadian Women's Hockey League, which recently began paying players and announced an expansion to seven teams with the addition of two teams in sponsor-rich China.
While the NWHL had trouble paying player salaries last season, Rylan is hoping for partnerships with other NHL teams.
"The Devils have noticed the growth of the girls' game throughout the metro area and they wanted to double-down on it," Rylan said. "They want to make sure that anyone can go to the rink and know they can sign their son or daughter up and they both can dream of playing professional hockey."