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What you need to know about new ice hockey league

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What is the PWHL and why has it been established?

The Professional Women’s Hockey League aims to give the world’s best women’s players the opportunity to pursue the game full time. There are six founding teams, based in New York, Toronto, Boston Montreal, Ottawa, and Minnesota. “Professional” women’s players in the past have generally had to hold down outside jobs to make ends meet. The new league follows the collapse of one of its predecessors, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWH) in 2019 and a strike by 200 players who refused to join the other league at the time, the US-based National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL). In a joint statement posted via social media, the players called for the creation of “a sustainable professional league for Women’s Hockey.” They also complained of a lack of health insurance and salaries as low as $2,000 (€1825) per season.

Why is there optimism surrounding the league when its predecessors failed?

In contrast to what went before, this is a single league aiming to pool the world’s top women’s ice hockey talent and maximize corporate sponsorship. In recent years, two leagues, the CWHL and the NWHL (rebranded as the Premier Hockey Federation or PHF in 2021) had competed for the top talent. The fracturing of corporate sponsorship between the two leagues was seen as a key factor in their financial instability. On the other hand, the PWHL has considerable financial clout behind it, as all six franchises are owned by the Mark Walter Group. Mark Walter is the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and part owner of Premier League club Chelsea. Former women’s tennis No. 1 player and equal rights activist Billie Jean King provides extra credibility as one of the new league’s board members.

How much are the players being paid?

Under the collective bargaining agreement between the PWHL and the PWHL Players’ Association, players’ salaries are to range between $35,000 and $80,000, excluding bonuses. These are to rise by 3% annually throughout the duration of the eight-year agreement. Based on an average salary of $55,000, the PWHL’s salary cap ($1.265 million) is lower than what the PHL said it was prepared to offer ($1.5 million) before it closed down last summer. And even that, of course, was a pittance compared to what players in the top men’s league, the National Hockey League, earn. However, the league’s backers point to the financial clout behind the league and the stability that the collective bargaining agreement, the first in women’s professional hockey, offers.

New York forward Elizabeth Giguere attempts a shot on Toronto goaltender Kristen Campbell
New York (in white) easily beat hosts Toronto in the first-ever PWHL gameImage: IMAGO/ZUMA Press

Why don’t the teams have nicknames (yet)?

The reason given is the speed with which the new league hit the ice. Having bought out the PHF (which then disbanded) last July, the PWHL was officially launched on August 29, 2023. From then the race was on to hire team’s front-office staff and hold a draft to fill the six squads. Trademark applications complete with team nicknames were filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office in October. However, the league later announced that all would take to the ice with just the names of their respective cities emblazoned across the front of their sweaters. It is thought that the teams will get nicknames and logos in time for the league’s second season.

What is the format and when will the first PWHL champions be crowned?

The opening game was on January 1, when tennis legend Billie Jean King took part in the ceremonial faceoff as Toronto hosted New York – which the New Yorkers would go on to win 4-0. Each team are to play a 24-game regular season, which is to be followed by playoffs to determine a champion – to be completed by June at the latest. With the bulk of the players also members of their respective national teams, the league is to be put on pause for the IIHF Women’s World Championship in the United States from April 3 to 14.

Who are some of the stars to watch?

Among those expected to be the PWHL’s top stars in its inaugural campaign are:

Twenty-three-year-old Taylor Heise, who was picked No. 1 by Minnesota in the league’s September draft. Heise was US college hockey’s 2022 MVP and the MVP as she led Team USA to last year’s Women’s World Championship.

At the other end of her career is Boston’s Hilary Knight, an Olympic gold medalist and nine-time World Championship winner for the United States. Now 34, she was named the first recipient of the newly created IIHF Female Player of the Year in 2023.

Marie-Philip Poulin captained Canada’s gold-medal winning team at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing. The now 32-year-old will be aiming to help Montreal compete for the inaugural PWHL title.

Toronto’s veteran Canadian forward Sarah Nurse, 28, is seen as one of the world’s best players – and will be recognizable to non-women’s hockey fans as one of the faces on the EA Sports NHL 23 video game.

Daryl Watts had been set to earn a record $150,00 in the second year of a two-year contract with the Toronto Six of the PHF – but never collected due to the league shutting down. The 24-year-old Watts won’t earn nearly that in her first season with Ottawa. However, the forward seems to have taken the financial loss in stride, saying in a media call that the PWHL will be good for the women’s game.

“In 10 years, this league will have way more money than the PHF had,” she said.

Edited by: Matt Pearson

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