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Creating the PWHL in Just Six Months: Six Teams, One Draft, and Plenty of Ikea Furniture

TORONTO — The line began at the gates of Mattamy Athletic Centre and stretched a full city block. Women’s hockey fans, after decades of waiting for a best-on-best league, were happy to wait a little longer for the doors to open for the first-ever Professional Women’s Hockey League game. The line was dotted with reminders of the past. There was a Natalie Spooner Toronto Furies jersey from her time in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. Several Toronto Six jerseys representing the Premier Hockey Federation and some from the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association exhibition stops. The people wearing those jerseys from previous eras of women’s professional hockey were on their way into the old Maple Leaf Gardens to celebrate something new: the inaugural game of the PWHL between Toronto and New York. Later, inside the arena, two young girls were locked in. Ella Shelton was on the ice, and the girls — who wore matching Shelton jerseys and waved homemade signs — wanted her attention. Not long before New York left the ice, Shelton finally locked in on them and flipped them a puck.She made their day. Less than an hour later, she made history.
The Team Canada defender from Ingersoll, Ont., scored the first-ever PWHL goal less than 11 minutes into the game. The puck and her stick are headed for the Hockey Hall of Fame. “We’ve come a long way as women’s players and we’re very excited to be a part of that historical moment,” Shelton said after the game. “I hope that young girls look up and go, ‘I want to do that one day and be just like her and play in this league.’” New York ultimately won the game 4-0 — starting goalie Corinne Schroeder’s stick is Hall of Fame-bound, too. The game, between two teams featuring the best players in the world, was a long time coming. The league itself came together in a six-month sprint — a whirlwind of logistics, decision-making and, occasionally, compromises. How do you build a pro sports league in just half a year? The Athletic talked to the people behind the scenes — from the league-builders to the players and staff — to find out. Kendall Coyne Schofield gave birth to her son on July 1. If he’d been born any sooner, the landscape of women’s professional hockey might look much different than it does today. “If Drew came earlier I don’t know if we’d be here,” Brianne Jenner said with a laugh. “She was that integral.” Instead, Coyne Schofield had her son the day before the PWHL and the players’ union ratified a landmark collective bargaining agreement on July 2 — a document that Coyne Schofield “was an engine” behind, according to Jenner, and spent her second and third trimesters negotiating. “There were definitely late nights, early mornings, constant emails, constant phone calls,” Coyne Schofield said. “Every sentence, every word, every letter was so important to all of us.” The players’ union was officially formed in February 2023, months before Mark and Kimbra Walter purchased the PHF, the league ceased operations, and a new women’s pro hockey league was announced in its place. CBA negotiations began shortly after between future league leadership — including Stan Kasten, Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss — and a player-led bargaining committee that included Coyne Schofield, Jenner, Hilary Knight, Sarah Nurse and Liz Knox. According to Kasten, it was Mark Walter, billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and PWHL owner, who really wanted the players to organize and have a collective bargaining agreement “so that the problems we’re trying to fix are memorialized.” Starting with a CBA — which had never been done in a major women’s professional sports league — was part of the players’ long-term vision for the league, too. “So often what we’ve seen in other professional women’s sports leagues is they start off with a league and they’re told, ‘These are the conditions in which you’re going to participate and you don’t have another option, and be grateful for what you have and go play,’” Coyne Schofield said. “We didn’t want to be like that. We wanted to start with our voices at the table and work to build this together.” Monday afternoon’s game at Mattamy Athletic Centre was a sellout. (Mark Blinch / Getty Images)AndPasswordMustBe25CharactersLong

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