Women’s professional hockey is expanding in North America, but remains divided.
The Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA) possessing the bulk of player star power in Canada and the United States has a league in development with Billie Jean King and Mark Walter, co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, as potential backers.
The Premier Hockey Federation increasing salaries and teams in North America in its eighth season, and recruiting recognizable names in Canadian hockey into management roles, is bent on strengthening its foothold in the women’s pro hockey space.
The division continues a long-standing struggle of women to establish a marketable, sustainable hockey league to ply their trade as true professionals.
And the divide currently appears unbridgeable as an attempt to negotiate unification — with the NHL’s encouragement — went no where earlier this year.
The 2022 women’s world hockey championship in Denmark features 34 PWHPA players — with 21 on Canada’s roster, 13 on the U.S. team and none from the PHF on either team. Seven PHF players are sprinkled across the rosters of Finland, Switzerland, Czechia and Hungary.
The PWHPA has the most recognizable North American players in women’s hockey in Denmark— Olympic gold medallists Kendall Coyne Schofield, Hilary Knight, Amanda Kessel, Marie-Philip Poulin, Sarah Nurse and Brianne Jenner among them.
While they won’t give specific reasons on their reluctance to join the PHF, they make it clear their vision for a pro league differs.
“We have the utmost confidence and belief in what we’re doing,” Nurse said in Denmark. “We really want to make that professional league because we don’t believe it currently exists.
“Things are very close. We have such an incredible backing with our investment group with the Walter Group and also Billie Jean King. There couldn’t be better people on our side. Things are really moving along and we’re really hopeful that we’re going to have an announcement we can make to the public very soon.”
So while the PWHPA, with 43 Olympians among its 150 members, continues to schedule Dream Gap Tour weekend tournaments this fall to keep eyes on its product, the PHF is upping the ante with various incentives.
Increasing each team’s salary cap 150 per cent to $750,000 — an average of $29,000 on a 26-player roster — covering players’ health care premiums, a commitment to updating facilities and equipment, increasing ice time and growing the regular-season schedule to 28 games are among them.
Players have an equity stake in the PHF’s profitability and retain commercial control of their own image.
Forward Mikyla Grant-Mentis of Brampton, Ont., became the league’s highest-paid player this year when she signed a one-year, US$80,000 contract with the Buffalo Beauts.
Grant-Mentis was invited to Canada’s selection camp this month, but wasn’t named to the world championship roster.
The PHF’s expansion into Montreal in 2022-23 gives Canada a second club in a seven-team league alongside the Toronto Six.
Hockey Hall of Famer Angela James is a new co-owner of the Six and another Hockey Hall of Famer, Geraldine Heaney, is Toronto’s new head coach. Both played for Canada’s national team.
James scolded the PWHPA in a social media post earlier this year for its unwillingness to work with the PHF.
Longtime Canadian women’s team coach and general manager Melody Davidson, who navigated the team to Olympic gold medals in 2006 and 2010, joined the PHF this year as the league’s director of hockey operations.
And the PHF announced Friday that American forward Brianna Decker is on board in a team and player advisory role, but not as a player.
Decker, an Olympic gold medallist and six-time world champion, is the most decorated player to join forces with the PHF. She isn’t playing for the U.S. in Denmark after breaking her leg during February’s Olympic tournament.
Decker’s U.S. teammate and American captain Coyne Schofield remains steadfast in her allegiance to the PWHPA.
“We haven’t seen a league that affords women the opportunity to be professional in hockey only,” Coyne Schofield said in Denmark. “When you look at the definition of professional and professionalism, it’s the opportunity to call that your job.
“Right now, that doesn’t exist in women’s hockey, anywhere around the world. You have to have a supplemental income.”
Kessel says there’s more than player pay at stake.
“It’s just about the levels to be the best of the best,” the American forward said. “We expect a different level of professionality and not just to be paid more. We want great facilities, have all your professional training staff and coaches, playing full time, and that’s something that still isn’t there.
“Salaries can go up. That’s great, but really, we want a good foundation.”
While the PWHPA would love NHL head office to get involved in a league, it’s partnered in the meantime with 10 of its clubs, including the Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames.
Neither Billie Jean King Enterprises nor the Mark Walter Group responded to interview requests from The Canadian Press.
PWHPA lead consultant Jayna Hefford said she was “not in a position to comment” on a league because the association is bound by a letter of intent with the two parties.
Canadian forward and PWHPA member Sarah Potomak says a league feels imminent to her.
“Really close,” she stated. “This year, it may be not the exact way we want it, but I feel very confident in that the following year, we’re going to have a really good league.”