The women's hockey calendar is about to get busy — but disparities in the professional game remain an issue
Gap in women's pro game remains ahead of April's world championships
Over the next two months, three significant women's hockey championships will be played.
First, the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association wraps the Dream Gap Tour with the Secret Cup beginning March 10.
Then, the Premier Hockey Federation hands out its Isobel Cup in the weeks after the regular season wraps on March 12.
Finally, the world championships begin April 5 in Brampton, Ont.
And that doesn't even include the Rivalry Series, a seven-game Canada-U.S. showdown that concludes in late February in Quebec.
Busy times, to be sure. But a glaring gap remains: the sport's best players reside in the PWHPA, while the logistical structure of a league appears to be in the PHF. All the while, international competition remains the crown jewel of the sport.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently said his league continues to have concerns about women's hockey if the factions remain separate.
"They each seem intent on going in their own direction. I think in order for women's hockey to be successful, everybody's got to be maximizing the effort together. Because starting a league is not easy," he said in January.
Sami Jo Small, a three-time Canadian Olympian and president of the PHF's Toronto Six, said that while she doesn't think the separation is hurting the sport, she would be interested in a union with the PWHPA.
"I think it's not a PHF issue at this point. I think that the conversation is very open and Reagan Carey, our commissioner, has always said that we're more than open for that conversation and would love to have PWHPA players and join the two factions," she told CBC Sports.
PWHPA players, meanwhile, continue to hold out for the creation of a "sustainable" pro women's hockey league, something they're working toward themselves.
Victoria Bach, a Milton, Ont., native who's been a PWHPA member since its creation from the ashes of the now-defunct Canadian Women's Hockey League in 2019, said "sustainable" to her means being "treated like professionals."
"Having the proper visibility, ensuring that all the things that we need to be at the best of our game and to be successful as a professional athlete are kind of lined up for us. I think that's the most important thing," Bach told CBC Sports.
WATCH | Blayre Turnbull nets short-handed winner in Dream Gap Tour action:
Rising interest, investment
Look past the rift, and both sides agree women's hockey is on the rise. Small said she's never encountered so much interest in the sport.
"More than that, so many young girls that are playing and participating, so many women going into jobs and sport. I just think it's such an exciting time for women's sport in general, [and] women's hockey specifically," she said.
To that end, the PHF is raising its salary cap to $1.5 million US next season. In January, the Six signed recent college graduate Daryl Watts, who later revealed her salary next year is a record $150,000.
Watts, of Toronto, was a week away from beginning a Masters program in commercial real estate before plunging into professional hockey.
"When I was a kid, there was no pro women's hockey league for me to look up to. There was the national teams but really my focus was to get a D1 [Division 1] scholarship to the NCAA, attend grad school and then pursue a career path that I can continue to make money at until I'm like 60 and retire," the 23-year-old told CBC Sports.
"So now for this league to exist, for the leadership group to have established a 1.5 million US salary cap, it changes my view."
WATCH | Six top Force in all-Canadian PHF battle:
'That's why we train ... to win gold medals'
Canadian PWHPA member Ella Shelton said the current Dream Gap Tour format remains helpful preparation for major championships like worlds, since nearly all Canadian and American national-team players are present.
"I think of going against Marie-Philip Poulin, being able to play one-on-one against her, battle with her in the corner. It kind of feels like I'm back at a Hockey Canada practice," Shelton said.
Shelton could team with Poulin at worlds to help Canada defend its two consecutive titles. Canada is also the reigning Olympic champion.
Both Shelton and Bach said PWHPA players are able to keep current affairs separate from international action within the locker room, even as Rivalry series games periodically pop up.
Bach, who missed out on the Olympic team, hopes to make her third straight worlds squad.
"That's why we train, it's why we play, is to win gold medals and I think that's pretty motivating in itself," she said.
Small insists the talent level in the PHF is comparable, though she admitted she was skeptical at first.
"There's so much talent in North America when it comes to hockey, and obviously the national teams are choosing their teams for a reason, because players play well together, because lineups are complementary. It doesn't necessarily mean that these players couldn't play there," she said.
WATCH | Canada beats U.S. for 2nd straight world championship title:
Currently, both the PHF and PWHPA build schedules which allow players to keep other careers alive, meaning plenty of early morning and late-afternoon practices to prepare for weekend games.
Bach is in her first year of teacher's college, while Small said a few of her players on the Six hold part-time jobs.
However, both leagues hope to move to a full-time format next season, possibly forcing some players to choose between hockey and another profession.
The PHF's growth in recent years is obvious — more teams, more money and more talent, like former American PWHPAer Brittany Howard, have come to the league.
The PWHPA is building slower — Bach notes "good thing don't happen overnight" — but it has partnerships with the companies of tennis legend Billie Jean King and Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Walker to fund a full-fledged league.
For now, there doesn't appear to be bitterness or resentment between the PHF and the PWHPA. Small does, however, admit to some awkwardness when she's with former teammates who are now part of the PWHPA.
"I think competition is always good. I think it has forced us to be better," Small said.
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