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Women’s Hockey Reaches New Heights

January 1st, 2024, saw the first faceoff of the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PHWL). The new league has been coming for a long time. It has proven to be a profitable, growing organization with crowds of increasing size for women’s professional hockey. 

Women’s hockey in Canada and the United States was tough to come by as leagues came and went for very short stints with unstable wages. The PWHL has thus far proven to be different than the female leagues which have folded before it, creating a world of possibility for the next generation of women hockey stars holding signs and wearing team jerseys -or their own jerseys- in the crowds. 

Younger generations of women and girls playing hockey get to see in real-time a potential professional career they might someday have, a potential professional career they can strive for. For so long, this goal has been reserved for their brothers, who have had professionals to relate to their whole lives. 

“The PWHL doesn’t create any immediate opportunities for our league players; however, it gives our girls a goal to work for,” said Ashton Liskie, President of the Manitoba Women’s Junior Hockey League. “The MWJHL is a developmental league that offers a place to play for girls who want to continue to play hockey after high school and while going to Secondary School.” 

While it is currently unknown what sort of professional aspirations players in the MWJHL have, the PWHL has created an opportunity for women playing hockey that draws fans in a way former leagues simply could not. 

“It is very important to the growth of the female game to have a professional league. It gives the young players someone to look up to and a league to dream about playing in.”  

While it is too early to tell what the lasting impact of the PWHL has on minor league hockey across Canada, the hope is that young women and girls will now see an opportunity for themselves. For so long, the only way to see Canadian women playing hockey was by tuning in to international tournaments whereas now games can be seen regularly on TSN or CBC. 

“Hopefully, the female numbers skyrocket in minor hockey; this will help grow the game,” Liskie said of the league. 

According to Hockey Canada, 89,000 women and girls play hockey across the country. When the camera at PWHL games pans to the crowd, it is a mixed group, but seen at every game are thousands of girls who look up to these players with admiration, watching as the glass ceiling of professional hockey shatters before their eyes. 

Among the first 18 players to sign PWHL contracts was Canadians Olympic gold medalist Sarah Nurse. Nurse was a part of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League which folded in 2019, only a year after her first Olympic appearance where Canada’s women took a silver medal. 

Nurse and many of the women she had played with for the Olympic team established the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association to play in hopes a legitimate, large-scale league would come to be. At the time, there was the National Women’s Hockey League, which saw massive pay reductions for players after the second season. The league later rebranded as the Premier Hockey Federation, but many who were associated with Team Canada felt it was unstable and less than what they thought was possible for a professional women’s league. The PHF tried rebranding again and again, including major leadership changes to entice female athletes to join their ranks, but eventually folded.  

Many of these same players have signed with the PWHL. They have faith that it is a sturdy, stable league that will only grow from this first season. Players are set to earn between $35,000 and $80,000 per year, with the league averaging $55,000 annually. 

The six founding franchises in the Professional Women’s Hockey League are Boston, Montreal, Minnesota, Ottawa, New York and Toronto. As of now, none of the teams have official names, and each of the jerseys brandishes the name of the city they’re playing for. The league came together so quickly over the course of about six months that there was no time to spend deciding names, according to Sarah Nurse, who currently plays for Toronto and sits on the executive committee for the league’s labour union. 

The inaugural draft took place in September after a brief free-agency period. Each team was required to sign 28 players by November. 268 players were available to be picked up as free agents or drafted, and 168 roster spots were available among the six teams. The first overall pick in the PWHL draft, Taylor Heise was selected by Minnesota. She scored the first goal in franchise history, an historic mark for the team and for Heise herself who was drafted out of the University of Minnesota. 

While the draft system is an annual process in leagues to select athletes from the minor and collegiate level to bring into the professional league, the first year of the PWHL was also heavily based on free-agent signings as there were plenty of women in Canada and the United States capable of playing at a professional level who were under no contract elsewhere. 

The format for the 2024 draft will be seven rounds, bringing 42 new players into the league from the collegiate level. The 2023 draft had 15 rounds, with 90 players being drafted. The remainder were signed as free agents. Going into the 2023 draft, 85 per cent of eligible skaters had previous professional experience with either the PHF PWHPA or in European leagues. 

It only makes sense for a cross-border women’s hockey league to come to be as Canada and the United States have dominated women’s hockey at the Olympic level since it entered the games in 1998. In the seven Olympic games held since, Canada and the United States have played in the gold medal final every time except for the 2006 Torino games, in which Canada beat Sweden for the gold. Over seven Olympic games, Canada has five gold medals and two silver, while the United States has 2 gold and four silver medals. 

As of March 19th, the PWHL says that between the 52 games played this season, the total attendance has been 281,242, an average of 5,409 attendees per game. This per-game average has increased at a steady rate since the first puck drop in January. At the end of January, the average attendance through the first 22 games of the league’s existence averaged under 5,000, and at the start of March, the average was barely more than 5,200 per game. 

In February, the league set a new standard for women’s hockey after a game at Scotiabank Arena between Montreal and Toronto, which had 19,285 fans in attendance, setting the record for the highest attendance at a women’s hockey game. The previous record was 18,013, set in 2013 at the final game of the women’s world championship in Ottawa between Canada and Finland. According to The Hockey News, this record is set to be broken again as Toronto will play Montreal in a sold-out Bell Centre in front of 21,000 fans. 

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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