Lessons from other leagues — and its own past — can help women's pro hockey enter new era

It makes sense that women’s hockey should have a fully established North American pro league — just as soccer has the NWSL and basketball has the WNBA. But the sport should heed lessons from its own past, as well as the continent’s other women’s pro sports leagues as it enters a new era.

Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association set to start 2nd pro league next fall, per reports

Two hockey players bump fists.
Team Sonnet forward Brittany Howard, right, fist-bumps Team Bauer defender Cat Quirion, left, following a 2022 PWHPA game. Howard has since moved to the PHF, a competitor of the PWHPA, which could start its own formal pro league next fall. (Nick Wass/The Associated Press)

Nearly four years after the end of the Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL), the sport appears to have reached another critical moment in time.

The Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association (PWHPA), built from the ashes of the CWHL, has slowly risen, and according to multiple reports, it plans to launch a proper pro league next fall funded by Billie Jean King Enterprises and the owner of baseball's Los Angeles Dodgers. 

In that time, nearly the entire PWHPA membership has held strong — a group that features every single non-collegiate player on the Team Canada roster for the upcoming world championships, which begin April 5 in Brampton, Ont.

The few that have departed — most notably the now-retired American star Brianna Decker — moved on to the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF), a league that used to be known as the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) and was once a direct competitor of the CWHL.

The PHF is itself growing rapidly. Its salary cap will double to $1.5 million US per team next season, and teams like the reigning champion Toronto Six will require its players to work full-time.

It makes sense that women's hockey should have a fully established North American pro league — just as soccer has the NWSL and basketball has the WNBA. But the sport should heed lessons from its own past as well as the continent's other women's pro sports leagues as it enters a new era.

Competition questions

For one, the factions may need to unite, said Laurel Walzak, who was chair of the CWHL's board when the league folded.

"They're going to be competing for audiences, competing for sponsorship dollars, competing for broadcast time. And so hopefully they're all in different markets or they're doing something collaboratively to grow the game, right?" she said. "At the end of the day, there's growing your business and there's also growing the women's game."

Sami Jo Small, a CWHL co-founder who worked within the league up to its final day, just completed her first season as general manager of the Six. She said the PHF's "door is always open" to the PWHPA.

"I think what we want to do is convince the whole that the way forward is together, and what together looks like might be very different for a lot of people, but there's gotta be a way that we can show unity within the game and that it isn't us versus them anymore."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman also said his league has "concerns" about the competing factions. "If it ever gets figured out, we'll be more than supportive," he said in February.

However, the PWHPA called off conversations with the PHF nearly a year ago as it pursues its vision for sustainability in matters such as player salaries, pro-style facilities and support staff.

It's a risky bet for the PWHPA — one that heavily relies on its significant talent edge with Canadians like Marie-Philip Poulin and Sarah Nurse along with American stars Kendall Coyne Schofield and Hilary Knight, just to mention a few. But the CWHL once enjoyed a similar advantage, too.

WATCH | Toronto Six win 1st Isobel Cup title:

Vanišová's overtime winner gives Toronto Six Isobel Cup title

2 months ago
Duration 2:52
Tereza Vanišová's overtime winning goal crowned Toronto Six as first ever Canadian PHF hockey team to hoist the Isobel Cup.

Sponsor investments key

Walzak, who is currently a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, said now is a good time for the PWHPA to form a league if it has the requisite financial backing.

"As long as it's able to be aired and people can watch the games and so long as they've got financial support and this is something that they're looking [at] with the long-term [view], I think that's fantastic," she said. "I just don't want to see them struggle again the way that we struggled in the past."

Walzak said the CWHL's downfall was ultimately a lack of funds. Sponsors began to pull out in pursuit of one unified league, and the Hockey Canada well dried up too, save a single $130,000 loan which was eventually paid back after the league shuttered, she said.

"I'm glad that Hockey Canada was exposed because now we can see that, yes, actually, they spent millions and millions and millions on covering up sexual assault when they could have put a couple of million of that dollars into women's hockey and you still would have had a league."

But perhaps Hockey Canada's involvement isn't even necessary in 2023.

Walzak pointed to the NWSL as a potential model. The soccer league skipped over national sport organizations to rely on private investment, a tact that former player Diana Matheson and Christine Sinclair's start-up Canadian women's pro soccer league is now attempting.

"You need multi millions with a long-term commitment to make this work and an appetite to make it work. Not just, 'Oh, you know, we're a secondary show where we're going to support this, it's a good thing to have and it's a nice thing to do,'" Walzak said. "No, this is a business and should be treated equally like a business."

To that end, Walzak said the league, with its barnstorming Dream Gap Tour, should continue to rely on sponsors as it does now with teams such as Harvey's and Scotiabank, and a trophy called the Secret Cup named after a deodorant brand.

"I gotta tell you, I hope they're not paying $250,000, like it better be in the millions. Pay a million dollars for this. Otherwise you're taking advantage of the women's teams. So let's invest and demonstrate the investment and be fair and also be respectful to the women's game."

Secret announced a $1-million sponsorship in 2020, but contributions in recent years were not made public.

Walzak also noted that a strong broadcast partner that will air every single game is crucial. The CWHL was limited to a single "game of the week" on traditional TV.

NBA backing

The WNBA operates slightly differently as it is backed by the NBA.

Tammy Sutton-Brown, a Markham, Ont., native who joined the WNBA four years after its inception and became the first-ever Canadian champion, said the NBA's support was "major."

A basketball player drives to the net.
Sutton-Brown appears in a 2008 WNBA game with the Indiana Fever. (Jerry S. Mendoza/The Associated Press)

"[It] definitely means a lot and definitely helped out. And you see now NBA players attending [WNBA] games in their market and supporting their sisters," she told CBC Sports.

The WNBA started in 1997, a year after the American women won Olympic gold in Atlanta, and brought with it recognizable stars such as Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Rebecca Lobo. It now airs nationally in the U.S. on ESPN, and in Canada on TSN.

Sutton-Brown credited those players with driving interest in the sport.

"I think it just rolled from there and I think when I started playing, there was a lot of momentum. You saw tons of fans coming out each and every year. You got more and more fans and it was a great space to be in."

'Everybody's accountable'

Walzak said she continues to advocate for women's hockey and remains affected by the decision to shutter the CWHL.

"It was the toughest and saddest, most emotional — even though we had to make a very, very, very tough business decision at the time that I had to make in my career and it still bothers me to this day. So I want to see them succeed."

Small took three years after the CWHL's collapse to return to the sport.

"I think what it taught me was that the lessons that we learn through sport are so valuable and that the friendships we make along the way are so incredible. And that what we can do within women's sport and what we can do as women is so limitless," she said.

For now, Walzak is cautiously optimistic about a possible PWHPA league.

"Right now, this is an exciting time. But everybody's accountable to make this work."

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