Three Canadian franchises are included in the newly named Professional Women’s Hockey League that laid out details of where and how it will begin play in January 2024.
Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa will join franchises in Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul and the New York area in a 24-game schedule. Players will be allocated to those cities through a September free-agency period followed by a draft.
“Today, we look ahead to a phenomenal future for the PWHL,” said Jayna Hefford, a former Canadian national team player and the PWHL’s senior vice-president of hockey operations. “We have never seen more excitement and demand for women’s sports, and through the launch of this league, the top women’s players in the world will have the opportunity to reach even greater heights.”
Teams will begin building their rosters with a 10-day free-agency period beginning Sept. 1-10, followed by a draft on Sept. 18.
The eligibility pool for the draft and free agency will include PWHPA membership in addition to former Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) players. However, current and graduating NCAA and U Sports players — such as Canadian star Sarah Fillier — may only be acquired through the 15-round draft.
Teams may sign only three players in free agency. The first-round draft order will be determined by a lottery, while subsequent rounds will follow a snake format.
Long road to 1 league
Along with the ratification of the CBA, Los Angeles Dodgers chairman Mark Walter, one of the new league’s financial backers, bought out and folded the PHF, a rival outfit featuring seven franchises which had been set to raise its salary cap to $1.5 million US this coming season.
The PWHPA was formed in the aftermath of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League’s 2019 collapse and features nearly every North American national-team member.
Over the past four years, the union has fought for a sustainable professional league complete with the bells and whistles befitting the world’s top players.
The PWHL promises to provide that.
Canadian captain Marie-Philip Poulin told CBC Sports in April that although its stars would be heavily promotes, the league would not be possible without the collective sticking mostly together.
“The group I’ve been around for the last couple years, they’re all the best and for me I’m just trying to follow them. … When you surround yourself with strong people, it makes it easy to look good,” Poulin said.
Since 2019, the PWHPA rebuffed potential mergers with the PHF despite plenty of discussions and the urging of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Instead, PWHPA players competed on the Dream Gap Tour, a barnstorming series of weekend events funded partly by corporate sponsors.
All the while, the PHF steadily grew. In addition to its quickly rising salary cap, the league began poaching players from the PWHPA and overseas, including young Swiss star Alina Muller and four-time Olympic goalie Noora Raty of Finland, who signed with the Metropolitan Riveters. Recently retired American star Brianna Decker and Canadian Hall of Famers Angela James and Geraldine Heaney held coaching and management roles.
But in one fell swoop in July, the league ceased to exist, blindsiding much of its membership with a Thursday night Zoom call.
Player salaries in the new league will reportedly range from $35,000 to $80,000 US, a small step backward from what PHF players were set to earn. Six players on each of the six teams will be signed to three-year contracts worth “no less than $80,000 per league year,” per Tuesday’s press release.
But included in the CBA is health insurance, a retirement plan, commercial rights, maternity leave and much more.
Nurse told The Canadian Press after the CBA was announced in July that the document was “the most important thing” in creating the new league.
“In my professional playing career, I’ve seen a few leagues come and go because of that lack of player protection and lack of communication between the league and the union,” she said.
In another development, multiple reports say former NHL executive Brian Burke has been hired to become the PWHL Players Association’s first executive director. Burke, who last served as the Pittsburgh Penguins president through April, has a lengthy track record of involvement with women’s hockey dating to 2013 when he was a CWHL board member. The Hockey News first reported Burke’s hiring.
Multiple PWHPA players told CBC Sports at April’s world championship in Brampton, Ont., they hoped a pro title would reach the same status as international gold.
The 2024 world championship will be held April 4-14 in Utica, N.Y. The U.S. is the reigning champion after beating Canada 6-3 in the gold-medal game.
“That’s the goal. That is the goal for sure. One day we’ll get there. Obviously, it’ll still be an honour to always represent your country, but that is going to be really important, that next step,” Canadian defender Renata Fast said.
Tuesday’s announcement marks one step closer toward that goal.