Women's pro hockey is back, but still facing an uncertain future
Rival factions remain unable to form a unified league
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While most hockey fans are focused on the start of the new NHL season, the women's pro game is returning too. On Saturday and Sunday, Montreal will host the fourth-season opener of the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association's barnstorming Dream Gap Tour. In three weeks, the Premier Hockey Federation begins its eighth season.
The optimism inherent in the start of any sports season is tempered here by the chronic uncertainty about the future of women's pro hockey. Here's a look at where things stand with the two main factions:
Formed from the ruins of the Canadian Women's Hockey League after it folded in 2019, the PWHPA's oft-stated objective remains the formation of a "sustainable" North American women's pro hockey league — preferably one funded by the NHL (much like the NBA subsidizes the WNBA). But, despite having nearly every player from the dominant Canadian and U.S. national teams on its roster (in other words, nearly all of the world's best players), the PWHPA has been unable to achieve that goal.
Back in the spring, the NHL brokered talks between the PWHPA and PHF in hopes that they might collaborate on a unified league. But the PWHPA walked away. Following that, reports suggested a PWHPA-run pro league could launch this January, but that possibility has since been ruled out. "I think our vision with the PWHPA has remained the same since we were founded, and that is to build a league that is professional in all aspects, not just in salary but in the way that players are supported — the facilities, healthcare, all avenues of that," Canadian star Brianne Jenner told CBC Sports' Myles Dichter. "We still don't feel that there is that professional league out there that has everything that we feel makes a league professional."
In the wake of those failed attempts, some tweaks were made to this year's Dream Gap Tour so that it might better resemble a traditional league — for instance, season-long standings and consistent rosters for the four teams. But it remains essentially a series of exhibitions. Still, if you want to watch established Olympic and world-championship stars like Canada's Marie-Philip Poulin, Sarah Nurse and Jenner or the United States' Amanda Kessel, Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield on a more regular basis, the PWHPA's Dream Gap Tour is the only place to do it. (If you're looking for Canadian rising star Sarah Fillier, who led the team in scoring en route to its world-title victory in Denmark this summer, she plays for the University of Princeton.)
For the upcoming season, the PWHPA has a deal with CBC Sports to live-stream every Dream Gap Tour game worldwide on its digital platforms. Coverage of the Montreal stop begins Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app, CBC Gem and CBC Sports' YouTube channel.
The PWHPA's use of the word "sustainable" leaves a lot of room for interpretation, but the rival Premier Hockey Federation appears — on the surface, at least — to be on decent footing. The league, known as the NWHL before rebranding last year, has added a seventh franchise for the upcoming season, with Montreal joining Toronto, Boston, Minnesota, Buffalo, Connecticut and a New Jersey-based team called the Metropolitan Riveters. The PHF recently signed a two-year extension with ESPN that will see the sports-media giant continue to live-stream games (TSN has the Canadian rights). Last season, the Isobel Cup championship final was broadcast on television on ESPN2.
The PHF also raised eyebrows recently when former league MVP Mikyla Grant-Mentis signed with the Buffalo Beauts for a reported $80,000 US — believed to be the biggest salary ever for a women's pro hockey player. Several others are reportedly set to make north of $50,000 this season, and team salary caps have increased to $750,000.
And yet, the PHF's fundamental problem remains: nearly all of the world's best players still refuse to join. For now, anyway. The canary in the coal mine might turn out to be Brianna Decker, the American national-team star and former NWHL MVP who starred in the NHL All-Star Skills Competition a few years ago. Decker won't play this season due to the devastating leg injury she suffered at the Olympics last February, but over the summer she left the PWHPA to take a front-office job with the PHF, becoming the first high-profile player to jump ship. Decker later told Sportsnet's Kristina Rutherford that she would "absolutely" play in the PHF this season if healthy. She added that she felt the PWHPA had "hit a bit of a standstill" and that many of its players "were in the dark a lot." Read more about the struggle between the rival organizations and the upcoming Dream Gap Tour here. Learn more about the state of women's pro sports in Canada by watching the latest episode of Bring It In with Morgan Campbell on CBC Gem.