Just getting started: Tennis, equality icon Billie Jean King sets stage for PWHL 'trailblazers'

12-time Grand Slam champion Billie Jean King admits she does not know much about the sport of hockey yet, but there was no other option to kick off the PWHL draft on Monday at CBC headquarters in Toronto than King, whose name has long been synonymous with gender equality in sports.

Legendary advocate for gender equality in sports was front, centre at inaugural draft

A former women's tennis player laughs while standing behind a podium.
Former American tennis player Billie Jean King delivers opening remarks ahead of the inaugural Professional Women’s Hockey League draft in Toronto on Monday. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

Billie Jean King: tennis icon, women's rights advocate … hockey ambassador?

While the 12-time Grand Slam champion admits she does not know much about the sport of hockey yet, there really was no other option to kick off the Professional Women's Hockey League draft on Monday at CBC headquarters in Toronto than King, whose name has long been synonymous with gender equality in sports.

"A trailblazer is one that blazes a trail to lead and include others, the first person to do something or go somewhere who shows that it is also possible for other people," said King before calling out Taylor Heise's name as Minnesota's first-overall pick of the inaugural draft. "Trailblazing is bold, it's brave, and it can be very scary and lonely.

"But it's worth it. It's really worth it. It's worth it for each one of us who have fought so hard for this day. And it's worth it for the generations of girls and women who will come behind us."

WATCH | Minnesota's Heise taken No. 1 in PWHL draft:

Minnesota makes history and selects Taylor Heise as 1st-ever PWHL draft pick

16 days ago
Duration 4:29
Featured VideoHistory is made as tennis legend Billie Jean King announces University of Minnesota forward and 2022 Patty Kazmaier award-winner Taylor Heise as the first-ever PWHL draft pick.

The moment was not lost on the 23-year-old Heise, who now embarks on her professional hockey journey after captaining the University of Minnesota last season.

"[Having King and former Canadian hockey player Jayna Hefford] there with me was iconic," Heise said. "To have Billie Jean King to endorse us so much and really realize we do deserve what we get here and that this league is going to be one to reckon with."

King was the first to inspire change in the tennis realm, lobbying for equal pay between the men's and women's tournaments at the U.S. Open, leading to the staple New York event becoming the first major tennis tournament to offer equal prize money to both sexes in 1973 at $25,000 US.

50 years later, that change still reverberates through the tennis landscape, with men's champion Novak Djokovic and women's champion Coco Gauff walking away with identical $3-million winnings following their respective victories at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City last week.

A woman presents a trophy to a women's tennis player.
Billie Jean King, right, presents the winners trophy to Coco Gauff of the United States during the ceremony after Gauff defeated Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus in their women's singles final match in early September at the 2023 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City. King was instrumental in fighting for equal pay at the U.S. Open, where Gauff took home a $3 million cheque, the same as 2023 men's champion Novak Djokovic. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

So when 19-year-old sensation Gauff was presented with her cheque at the trophy presentation, she turned to King with gratitude.

"Thank you, Billie, for fighting for this," Gauff said to the roar of the New York crowd.

And now, just over a week later, the 79-year-old from Long Beach, Calif., finds herself north of the border, just as excited to help advocate for a women's hockey league that begins in January with franchises in Boston, Montreal, Minnesota, New York, Ottawa and Toronto — a moment she's been involved in the making of for nearly five years.

WATCH | 'It's a dream come true today': Billie Jean King, PWHL advisory board member:

Billie Jean King says PWHL launch is ‘like a dream come true’

16 days ago
Duration 3:29
Featured VideoLegendary tennis player and women’s sports advocate Billie Jean King spoke with CBC Sports’ Andi Petrillo before the historic PWHL Draft in Toronto.

"[American hockey player] Kendall Coyne [Schofield] actually called us in March of 2019, and said, 'Would you help us?'," said King to CBC Sports' Andi Petrillo. "[I said] the first thing to do [is to build an association and a union]. Whatever you do, do that, and they did.

"And the top players I must tell you have stayed together through thick and thin, no matter how long this has taken … [The leagues that were formed before today] are like stepping stones to this day as well, and I hope they appreciate that fact. It's taken so many different people."

Long road to PWHL's formation

The road was a long one to make the league's draft day possible.

Following the collapse of the Canadian Women's Hockey League in 2019, the best women's players in the world found themselves split between the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association and the Premier Hockey Federation. They were finally unified in July following the forming of the PWHL, with an eight-year collective bargaining agreement in place with the players' union.

Many firsts have followed since, from the first signings with each of the six franchises that have annual salaries ranging from $35,000 to $80,000, to the first draft picks made on Monday, and soon the first games, goals, and championships.

But the hope is for the firsts to pave the way for many more to come.

"It's not about a single moment, it's about a movement," King said. "Finally giving women's professional hockey players the structure, the support, and the platform they deserve — that hockey deserves. I proudly stand here celebrating these trailblazers, and the best part is we are just getting started.

"The PWHL is just getting started."

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