March 1st, 2024

2023 a watershed year in women’s hockey with new professional league

By Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press on December 21, 2023.

Players Emma Maltais, Morgan Wabick Samantha Cogan and Hannah Miller step out of dressing room for practice during the Professional Women's Hockey League’s training camp in Toronto on Friday, Nov., 17, 2023. Women's hockey in 2023 felt to Daniele Sauvageau like reaching the summit after years of pushing a boulder uphill. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

Women’s hockey in 2023 felt to Daniele Sauvageau like reaching the summit after years of pushing a boulder uphill.

“The ball now is rolling down, so the momentum is impossible to stop,” said the coach of the first Canadian team to win Olympic women’s hockey gold in 2002 and now the general manager of Montreal’s new Professional Women’s Hockey League team.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. I’m so glad because at one point I had doubts. I had doubts that I was going to see it.”

The need for one women’s professional hockey league in North America, with the world’s top players in it to unite sponsorship, marketing and broadcast rights, was the oft-stated goal for years in the women’s hockey community.

Lack of unity, manpower and sustained financing kept the goal aspirational.

With tennis star and Los Angeles Dodgers minority owner Billie Jean King their champion, players under the banner of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA) impressed a man with deep pockets enough for him to invest in their product.

The early summer announcement that Dodgers owner Mark Walter had bought out the assets of the seven-team Premier Hockey Federation, and negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with women who wanted to play in his new league, ended an impasse between two women’s hockey entities.

The result is the blending of PWHPA members, which included the most recognizable names in the game, with former PHF players and college and university graduates for the new 157-player league, which opens Jan. 1 with New York at Toronto.

“In my mind, it’s the most significant year for our sport because of the evolution and the launch of the PWHL,” said Hockey Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford, who is the new league’s senior vice-president of hockey operations.

“It’s been a long journey of ups and downs and I think even looking at past leagues, all of them are part of the journey. We’re not here without those. Being able to attract an owner like Mark Walter to women’s hockey, I can’t imagine another sport that wouldn’t want him as an owner in their sport. And to have someone like Billie Jean King at the forefront of what we’re doing, we finally have the necessary investment that’s needed to really set this up to succeed.”

Naming the PWHL’s original six teams in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Boston, New York and Minnesota has taken a back seat to other urgent business of getting a league operational in just over six months.

That business includes women realizing what it means when a team holds their rights, and suddenly landing in new locales with new teammates.

Goaltender Elaine Chuli spent most of her post-college career in Toronto. She won an Isobel Cup with the former PHF’s Toronto Six in March.

With that league folded, Montreal selected her 78th overall in September’s PWHL draft and signed her to a one-year contract.

“It was crazy. That’s how I would put it. A lot going on,” Chuli said. “I can’t say I ever thought I’d be in Montreal, but it’s been great.”

On the international front, the United States reclaimed the women’s world title in Brampton, Ont., after two years of Canada prevailing and also taking Olympic gold in 2022.

“The disappointment of worlds is something that sticks out to me, because I felt like we had such a great group and had a lot of success, but not the success we wanted to end with,” Canadian defender Erin Ambrose said.

The U.S. also won three of the first four Rivalry Series games against Canada. The remaining three are Feb. 7-11, 2024 in Saskatoon, Regina and St. Paul, Minn. The 2024 women’s world championship April 3-14 is in Utica, N.Y.

Canadian women’s hockey team coach Troy Ryan and director Gina Kingsbury are both at the helm of Toronto’s PWHL franchise,with Ryan the coach and Kingsbury the GM.

“Even when this league was being talked about and when we knew it was going to happen and the CBA was being signed, I never once thought I’d be coaching in it,” Ryan said. “I thought I’d continue to coach the national women’s team and the league reached out to me as a potential GM.

“A lot of it snowballed from there. For me, it’s been unexpected, but proud to go along for the ride with so many athletes and staff, people who worked hard before I was ever involved in the game to make stuff like this possible.”

Former Canadian team defender Carla MacLeod, who has coached Czechia to its first back-to-back bronze medals at the world championship, is the head coach of Ottawa’s PWHL team.

“I feel like we’re taking a step we’ve been trying to take for 40 years,” MacLeod said. “It’s great, but it’s 2023. It’s time. I’m just grateful that finally the game is professionally moving in a direction that we can really get excited for it.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 21, 2023.

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