Sharing the ice during NHL All-Star festivities and informal training skates and crossing paths at various Olympics over the past several years, some of the best men's and women's hockey players in the world got to talking. The state of the women's game often came up.
For much of that time, the conversation centered on the lack of what many hoped would be a sustainable women's professional league and the struggles many players went through to make a living. The tone has changed for the better since late June when plans were unveiled for a new league that starts play in January.
Suddenly, the North American hockey community was all on the same page and working together. The NHL is helping with scheduling and other logistics and will coordinate on crossover promotions and events. Men's stars who have seen their female counterparts shine on the international stage are eager to watch and support the PWHL moving forward.
“You want to see them flourish,” Toronto captain John Tavares said. “They’re great athletes. They play a great game that we all love, and they do a great job at it and deserve that opportunity to have their own league and develop a history, a pedigree, a legacy — just like we have as men.”
That history so far has been complicated, especially since the Canadian Women's Hockey League folded in 2019 and left the National Women's Hockey League (which became the Premier Hockey Federation) as the only option in North America. Most of the top U.S and Canadian national team players refused to join, and the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association charted another path.
An effort led by Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Mark Walter that involved tennis legend Billie Jean King dissolved the PHF and paved the way for the Professional Women's Hockey League to be the only women's league. That was the leap needed for the NHL to get involved.
“It wasn’t easy for them to kind of get all that figured out and everything and the draft and have it all kind of work out in their way,” Minnesota forward Matt Boldy said. “It’s a process to get this done, for sure, as anything is to set up and to start fresh. I’m just glad it all worked out that it went smoothly and that things are going in the right direction.”
It's not all smooth. There was criticism over the summer about what the new six-team league means for players who won't make a roster, given that there will be fewer spots.
Washington winger Tom Wilson, who has been a visible presence at PWHPA events hosted by the Capitals, has followed the situation closely and understands this was the most realistic path.
“They kind of decided like, ‘Hey, it’s time to take a run at this and get the best of the best, get them on a few teams and try and put the best product on the ice,’” Wilson said. “I think that’s probably a good plan and a good thing. And obviously some people lose their jobs, but that’s the way it goes.”
Sarah Nurse, who signed to play for Toronto, said in June that was the bittersweet part of the new league, which has a place for roughly 140 or so players. Funds were put aside for those left out, and the collective bargaining agreement that runs through 2031 sets the base salary at $35,000, the average at $55,000 and a 3% annual increase, with the top six players on each team making at least $80,000 apiece this season.
The NHL is not providing financial backing for the league, which is owned by Walter, but it is helping in other ways.
“It’s really to be there in any way we can to help facilitate the progression of the league,” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. “They’re working on a very ambitious timeline to get a league up and running and do all the things you need to do to to make that happen."
PWHL senior vice president of hockey operations Jayna Hefford said the NHL's response has been positive since the summer, including the ability to work off some of the existing templates provided for how to structure league schedules. It also helps that the women's teams are all in NHL markets: Boston, New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.
“There’s a lot more alignment, I suppose, with the NHL to be able to know that we are in NHL markets,” said Hefford, a Hockey Hall of Famer. “The teams that we have been in contact with in those markets have been incredible and really want to help be a part of this and build it."
Cooperation is expected to go beyond those six areas, perhaps all the way to Seattle, where the PWHL could launch its inaugural season as part of the Jan. 1 Winter Classic. NHL All-Star Weekend, which has for several years included women's players, could be another chance with the event set for early February in Toronto.
After rubbing elbows with Nurse, U.S. captain Hilary Knight and others at the All-Stars skills competition last year, NHL players like reigning MVP Connor McDavid are pumped to be part of helping the PWHL ramp up.
“It’s so good for women’s hockey but hockey as a whole, to be able to open up the game to everybody,” McDavid said. “Now women can play at the professional level and make a living, I think it’s an amazing thing for hockey.”
AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow contributed.
AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl