Sabres owners give up women's team in NWHL

The Pegula family, which owns the Buffalo Bills and Sabres, severed its relationship with the National Women's Hockey League.

Pegula Sports and Entertainment bought the Buffalo Beauts last season, and they were the only independently owned team in the five-member league.

The NWHL issued a statement saying it still plans to have a team in Buffalo, and that the league will operate it -- just as it did for the other franchises last season.

"The NWHL is pleased to regain operating control of the 2017 Isobel Cup champions and four-time Cup Finalist Buffalo Beauts," the statement 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 in Buffalo. 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 news comes on the heels of upheaval in professional women's hockey. More than 200 players -- including stars like Team USA's Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield and Canada's Marie-Philip Poulin -- said they will not play in any professional league next season.

"We cannot make a sustainable living playing in the current state of the professional game," read a statement released by individual players on social media. "Having no health insurance and making as low as two thousand dollars a season means players can't adequately train and prepare to play at the highest level."

Many players have gone on record saying they want the NHL to support a women's league with financial and infrastructural resources, and sources told ESPN that the players hope the joint announcement could apply pressure on the NHL to act. It is notable that the Pegulas have a relationship with the NHL, as they own the Sabres.

The NWHL is the only remaining professional women's hockey league in North America after the Canadian-based CWHL made the stunning decision to fold after the 2018-19 season.

The NHL has said it will further explore the situation regarding professional women's hockey privately before determining any next steps.

The Beauts were widely considered the gold standard for professional women's hockey because of their relationship with the Pegulas. Beauts players received access to Sabres facilities as well as access to skills ice (which other teams do not have). Opposing players told ESPN that the Beauts had much nicer and newer gear than other teams. Buffalo players also got catered meals before games, and some Beauts players were helped with housing.

Beauts goalie Shannon Szabados -- who has said she will not play in a professional league next season -- was the only senior national Team Canada player in the NWHL last season. She told the ESPN on Ice podcast in March that Buffalo is "one of the best, if not probably the best-run professional woman's hockey team in the entire world."

"We have ice every single day, sometimes twice a day," Szabados said. "It's always open and available. Same with the gym and access to facilities, and it really is just top-notch. A lot of our staff crosses over, so our PR staff, you see a lot of videos of the Sabres guys wearing Beauts stuff. They posted a video the other day before our playoff game of Carter Hutton and some of the Sabres and other players wishing us good luck. It's a really unique relationship."

The NWHL still plans to function this season. When the CWHL folded, the NWHL said it would expand to two Canadian cities -- Montreal and Toronto. The league has not released any details on that expansion and sources told ESPN those plans are in doubt. After the 200 players announced their intention to sit out, the NWHL released a statement noting that it planned for increased salaries in 2019-20 and that a 50-50 split from league-level sponsorships and media rights deals have been offered.

"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."