Brianne Jenner spent large parts of her summer on conference calls and in group chats, keeping in what she describes as constant communication with other members of the PWHPA board as they arranged the coming season. It's not quite how she'd envisioned her career panning out.
"I didn't think, when I was growing up in hockey, that I would still be kind of in a generation of pioneers," she acknowledges. "But it's something that we're taking up where we're picking up the torch, and we're trying to leave the game better than when we found it."
For the PWHPA, that process started with a collective stance this past spring, and continues through the Dream Gap Tour, a series of mini tournaments each featuring four teams and roughly 80 of the association's athletes. Players based in Calgary, Montreal, and Toronto will take to the ice at Westwood Arena for the first stop of the tour, dubbed the Unifor Showcase, from September 21-22. The Toronto tournament will feature some of the best in the game, with rosters that largely mirror the four semi-finalists from last year's CWHL season.
This time, they'll be representing Team Johnston, Team Poulin, Team Jenner, and Team Knox. The reasoning behind that naming convention, according to Jenner, is twofold. Not all of the PWHPA's training hubs have equal numbers of players, so while this particular showcase's rosters line up well with specific regions, that may not ring true for the rest. But it's also about highlighting the athletes and their efforts.
"Part of the logic there was that this movement is about the players and about this current generation and what we're trying to accomplish," she explains. "At the same time, while we're largely coming from different geographic areas, we do have that flexibility to move players around and to have different teams for each showcase. I think that'll be kind of exciting to see some different combinations."
Travel and accommodations will be fully covered for the participating players, along with pre-game meals and other basic amenities that have sometimes been lacking at the club level. It's ultimately about allowing them to perform at their best. The premise of the Dream Gap Tour centres on providing opportunities to young girls, and in its effort to achieve that, the PWHPA is intent on displaying an incredible calibre of hockey. While some marketing efforts in women's sports have historically thrown athleticism to the wayside and focused near-exclusively on inspiring kids, Jenner draws a distinction between those limitations and the PWHPA's own emphasis on the future.
"A lot of times, female athletes can kind of be thrown into the box of sort of only being role models and not being appealing to a wider audience, and I certainly disagree with that," she notes. "Where we're connecting it to being role models, and to inspiring the next generation, is we're trying to build something that they can dream of playing in. So not just being there as inspiration for them as they go about their minor hockey careers, but really putting the work in to try to build something that they can dream about playing in professionally, just like young boys dream about the NHL."
To that end, the PWHPA's far-reaching unity comes after years of increased collaboration between players across the hockey world. While only a handful of federations currently support their women's teams as full-time athletes ― a battle that continues to be waged at the national level ― a genuinely professional league would offer that potential to a much wider range of players, regardless of where they come from.
"We recognize that the growth in our sport really kind of has to happen at the professional club level," says Jenner. "We've taken international women's hockey to a great space, and we're really proud of what we've done in that arena, but we all recognize that we want to make sure that more than 20 Canadian players and 20 American players can do this for a living. We want to expand that. We want to make a pro league that captivates an audience, showcases our talent, that young girls can dream of playing in one day. So I think we're all on the same page there, and we recognize that we have to do that together. It's going to take all the top players working together and communicating and putting this goal first."
The Dream Gap Tour, of course, is just one part of that process. But it's a big step for a group of athletes who have organized a season for themselves, on the principle that waiting isn't good enough, not anymore. Many of the players who will participate in the Unifor Showcase were forced to contemplate early retirement mere months ago in a pattern that's been repeated every year, even without the dramatics of a league folding, because professional women's hockey has simply never been a viable path. This time, though, they took the future of the sport into their own hands.
Together with dozens of the world's top players, they've taken the opportunity to prolong their careers while actively working to leave something better behind. Building a truly professional women's hockey league is crucial, but there's a message in this movement that's just as important as whatever they ultimately manage to create.
When the next generation of women's hockey players inherits the league the PWHPA intends to spark, Jenner hopes they'll also learn from its origins. "I think that's what you always hope for your younger generation: that they don't just settle for the status quo, but they see how they can improve things and make it better."
(Photo credit: Shanna Martin-Book)