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Can a new women’s hockey league break the cycle of failure in the sport?

Headline 1: Email on Important Town Hall Meeting

The email arrived on June 29 at around 5 p.m. There will be a town hall meeting with league leadership in three hours. Make your attendance a priority.

Headline 2: Premier Hockey Federation Shuts Down

Many of the players in the Premier Hockey Federation didn’t think much of the message. Meetings with the leadership of the women’s league had been called before, and they typically covered routine developments. Some players didn’t think twice about skipping the call and going to dinner or the gym.

The players who joined the virtual town hall that evening didn’t have to wait long before league commissioner Reagan Carey dropped news that was anything but routine. “There’s a lot we’re going to be sharing, a lot of info coming your way, and I just want to reinforce what a moment this is for our sport,” she began.

Carey then explained that the PHF was shutting down after eight seasons. The recently signed contracts of over 100 players were being terminated. But then she delivered a silver lining: In the PHF’s place, a new professional women’s hockey league would begin play in January 2024. It would be backed by Mark Walter, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and would consist of franchises in Canada and the United States.

“There was panic, a lot of confusion and heartbreak, honestly,” said one player on the call.

The players, understandably, had questions and, understandably, there was also a sense of deja vu. This new league — later named the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) — is the third since 2007 that has been formed with the hope of creating a sustainable business model around women’s hockey. Before the PWHL, there was the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (2007-2019), then the National Women’s Hockey League (later renamed the Premier Hockey Federation), launched in 2015.

The new entity has announced teams in six markets (Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Boston, Minnesota and New York) and a 24-game schedule starting on Jan. 1. And league leaders are preaching sustainability. “We did this with a very long-term vision in place,” said Stan Kasten, president of the Dodgers and a PWHL advisory board member. “This is not a short-term or long-term thing, it’s permanent.”

Players are hopeful the PWHL will do for women’s hockey what the National Women’s Soccer League did for women’s soccer, bringing stability and growth to the sport in North America. But history has not been kind to earlier efforts. Financial troubles, broken promises, strategic failings and division among the players contributed to the demise of the earlier leagues. For the PWHL to succeed, past mistakes can’t be repeated.

“This might be the most impactful thing that our generation of hockey players will do,” said Brianne Jenner, who will play for the PWHL’s Ottawa franchise. Tayler Heise was the first pick of the inaugural draft for the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) in September. (Steve Russell / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The Canadian Women’s Hockey League was, technically, not a professional league.

It was formed in 2007 by a group of athletes looking for a place to play. The seven original teams were clustered in the Toronto area, Ottawa and Montreal and played out of community rinks. Players did not receive a salary and paid for their own gear. It was a step above a beer league only because of the Olympians and future Hall of Famers who took the ice each week.

After one season, Brenda Andress, a former player and referee, was brought in to be the league’s commissioner. The league was a registered amateur association and operated as a charity, relying on sponsorship and donations. Costs were kept low; some small bonuses — hundreds not thousands — were paid to the best players, but no one made a living playing in the CWHL. That model, the thinking went, would make for an easy NHL takeover. In the league’s early years, Andress pitched the idea to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, modeling it after how the NBA had taken on the WNBA in 1996. Bettman told Andress the timing wasn’t right. “Our bottom line was to try to create a business that was beneficial to growing women’s pro hockey and to try to get the NHL to take it over,” Andress said.

According to financial statements acquired by The Athletic, total league expenses in 2015 — the CWHL’s eighth year in existence — were $1.2 million and included travel, staff, advertising and team operations. Most players balanced hockey with full-time jobs. Practices were held late at night and infrequently. Players bought their own skates, sticks and tape. Most league employees were volunteers.


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