An introduction before we get to the good stuff: I'm James Domizio, and I’ll be writing for the Victory Press about the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) and the proposed Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL). I'm an award-winning student journalist pursuing a bachelor’s degree in communication and media studies.
I've been a die-hard hockey fan since 2013 and a journalist since 2019. Hockey and journalism go hand-in-hand for me, as I fell in love with both while reading Yahoo's Puck Daddy column in eighth grade.
My coverage of the PWHL will aim to be similarly digestible, delivered in weekly round-ups of scores, stats, and news on every team. I want to act as a conduit and curator for information pertaining to the league, and I hope to travel to the opening games of the PWHL's inaugural season as well as the league's first playoff series.
I joined the Victory Press partly because of its Ethical Coverage Policies, which honor gender identity, denounce abusers, and disavow all forms of bigotry. Now is not the time to strive for journalistic neutrality, but rather a time to do everything we can to make the world safer and better for marginalized groups.
While I'm relatively new to following women's hockey, I am beyond excited to listen and learn from those in the space with more knowledge of the sport and those with lived experiences beyond my own.
A Brief PWHPA Refresher
The PWHPA was founded by more than 200 players on May 20, 2019 in response to two main prompts — the shuttering of the Canadian Women's Hockey League, and criticisms of the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL, now known as the Premier Hockey Federation, or PHF).
A Tale of Two Leagues
When the National Hockey League (NHL) informed the PWHPA and NWHL in May 2021 that they would only support the operation of a women's hockey league if the two entities came together, Sportnet's Jeff Marek reported that PWHPA Operations Consultant Jayna Hefford and NWHL Commissioner Tyler Tumminia were taking part in discussions.
But even after the NHL asked the leagues again in March 2022 to merge and become one, the PWHPA's board voted unanimously to not collaborate with the PHF going forward.
As reported by Hailey Salvian at The Athletic, the PWHPA made their decision due to the PHF's lack of a "tangible plan" and sufficient current infrastructure. They also took issue with the controversial chairman of the PHF's board of directors: John Boynton, who they felt could jeopardize sponsorships necessary to start a partnership.
Boynton owns multiple PHF teams and recently added funds to a three-year, $25 million commitment to the PHF. He's also a founding shareholder, non-executive director, and chairman of Yandex, Russia's largest internet company. The monopolistic company is chiefly known for its ubiquitous search engine, but it also hosts websites and apps for music streaming, e-commerce, artificial intelligence, ride-hailing, navigation, advertising, email, and more.
After coming under fire for making algorithmic changes in support of Vladimir Putin during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Yandex restructured in December 2022 and is now under state control. But in the fifteen months since the invasion began, Boynton hasn't publicly commented on it, ignoring NBC Sports' March 2022 request for comment on Yandex suppressing information and if he plans to step down from the company. In a March 2023 interview with The Hockey News' Ian Kennedy, no questions were asked about Yandex or the invasion.
The Dream Gap Tour Era
In 2020, the PWHPA began their first showcase series: the Dream Gap Tour. Across six cities, the PWHPA's players competed in all-star-style scrimmages and skills competitions, with the final stop of the tour presented in partnership with the Arizona Coyotes.
The 2021 Secret Dream Gap Tour was named for its new sponsor — deodorant company Secret — and saw each team divided up by region. The PWHPA played at NHL arenas in partnership with four teams (New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and Calgary), and Team Bauer of the Montreal region won the championship.
The next Secret Dream Gap Tour took place in 2021-2022 across five cities in partnership with three NHL teams (Toronto, Ottawa, and Washington). Each regional team's name rights were handed to sponsors, and Team Harvey's of Montreal won the championship.
The 2022-2023 Secret Dream Gap Tour, said to be the last iteration of the tour, saw players divided onto four new region-agnostic teams — adidas, Scotiabank, Sonnet, and eventual champion Harvey's. The 20-game regular season and subsequent championship weekend took place across 17 cities in partnership with seven NHL teams (Pittsburgh, Ottawa, Tampa, Washington, LA, Anaheim, and Seattle), five OHL teams (Owen Sound, Peterborough, Niagara, Barrie, and Kitchener), and one AHL team (Coachella Valley).
The 2022-2023 PWHPA season was the first to feature a proper championship structure and the tracking of stats and standings. In other firsts, Gatorade Canada partnered with the PWHPA, and CCM provided full sets of equipment for any player without a sponsorship as the official equipment supplier of the 2022-2023 season.
A New Day Dawns
On April 16, 2022, Jeff Marek reported that the PWHPA had settled on an initial league model: six American and Canadian teams, comprised of 23 players and three coaches, would play a 32-game season planned to start in January of 2023. Contracts would be $35,000 at minimum, $55,000 on average, and each would come with benefits.
A month later, The Athletic's Hailey Salvian reported on May 24, 2022 that the PWHPA had entered a formal partnership with Billie Jean King Enterprises and The Mark Walter Group with the goal of starting a new professional women's hockey league. The updated league model corroborated Marek's April report and offered new information on the proposed league's playoff format, in which four teams would compete in three best-of-five series.
Salvian confirmed in October 2022 that the PWHPA was still working with their new investing partners.
It's All Starting to Come Together (Maybe)
According to Hailey Salvian's February 13 report, the PWHPA organized a formal union and began to work with their investors to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) for league play to begin in fall 2023.
On February 26, Jeff Marek reported that the PWHPA's new league would be called the PWHL and that it would likely feature two Canadian teams and four American teams. Marek said he expected the first major announcement during the PWHPA Championship (May 9-May 11) or the IIHF Women's World Championship (April 5-April 16).
While no PWHPA press releases were issued then, or since, Ian Kennedy reported on April 19 about a contract for "promotional activities and certain related tasks" obtained from a PWHPA member. The non-mandatory contract offers payment of $24,000 from its signing date to August 31, 2023, and all members of the PWHPA's Dream Gap Tour reportedly signed the contract.
The contract offers employment "on behalf of the Professional Women's Hockey League," but it is not a contract for the proposed 2023-2024 season, as the CBA for the league has not yet been ratified.
The document proposes an inaugural season starting in Fall 2023 and ending in Spring 2024 that depends on a number of factors, including the availability of players, facilities, equipment, and sponsorships. According to the contract, the PWHPA "expects to offer" players PWHL roster spots, but employment is not guaranteed and depends on conditions including "ability to play well enough to make a competitive roster."
Signees are restricted from playing for any other "league, governing body, tour, or exhibitor during the Inaugural Season," with an exception made for national teams. Similar language appeared as recently as 2021 in the NWHL/PHF's standard player contract, which featured non-compete clauses specific to North American leagues.
The PWHL's First Real Rumor
In an April 21 tweet by The Ice Garden's Dan Rice, the reporter claims to have heard multiple times that the six cities most likely to host PWHL teams were Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania; Toronto and London in Ontario; Washington, DC; and Montreal, Quebec.
However, Hailey Salvian reported the same day that the list of cities circulating online "have not been confirmed or communicated to players at this time."
It's now late May, and we are still waiting to hear about the proposed CBA and further details about the PWHL and potential team cities. While the NWHL/PHF tends to wait until the last possible minute to announce pertinent details regarding their operations, that precedent is hopefully not one a new league would seek to emulate.
With many top European players (and a few ex-members of the PHWPA) slated to join the PHF in 2023-24, the timeline is getting tight for players who are making decisions about what to do over the next hockey season. If the PWHL is really planning on launching in 2023, the time to make the announcement is yesterday. Or the day before.
(Photo credit: PWHPA)