Last Thursday, women's hockey players from the PHF and PWHPA found out that the Mark Walter Group had acquired "certain assets" of the PHF. The announcement came at the same time PWHPA members began voting to ratify a collective bargaining agreement.
While there are still plenty of questions – many of which don't even have answers at this time – here's some of the information we do know.
How Did We Get Here?
The PWHPA was established in May 2019. Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss have served as advisors to the association since its infancy.
"She [Billie Jean] as one of the first people to come on board and support the players and say, if you guys want to create real change, you've got to form a united voice. Keep the players together, and really fight for change," said PWHPA lead consultant Jayna Hefford.
In early 2022, the PWHPA learned that the Mark Walter Group was interested in looking at their model for professional women's hockey, alongside other advisors and industry experts. The PWHPA signed a letter of intent with the Mark Walter Group in May 2022, but to clear, the Walter Group does not own, nor have they ever owned, the PWHPA, per Hefford. The PWHPA is the players' group – now officially a union – and the Mark Walter Group is the entity planning to own and operate the new professional women's hockey league, now anticipated to launch in January 2024.
Over the years, the PWHPA has been working on compiling a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which was unanimously ratified on Sunday night. That, Hefford said, has been the association's main goal and target this whole time.
Concurrently, and separately, the Walter Group announced last Thursday night that it was acquiring "certain assets" of the PHF.
"Our players found out Thursday night, and I found out shortly before that," Hefford said. "That was completely independent of anything the PWHPA did or knew was happening. The last number of months for us have been about negotiating the CBA, which was really important to both us and the ownership group that we brought it to a place where we got that done, so that we can all feel comfortable moving forward with the certainty that a CBA provides for everyone."
Mark Walter, who owns the Los Angeles Dodgers of MLB and the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA, and his wife Kimbra will financially support the new women's hockey league. Billie Jean King, Ilana Kloss, and Stan Kasten (president of the Dodgers) will serve as board members.
"Billie Jean and Mark have been talking about this for a little more than a year," Kasten said. "They got to working with the PWHPA back then. Around November – I don't know where it stood then – Mark came to me and said, Hey, would you please do this? So I said, okay, and we got to work."
"Billie Jean and Mark are both passionate about women's sports, and they thought this was a great opportunity to do something different and new, and create new opportunities for the best players in the world. That's what we've set out to do," he added.
I asked Kasten how talks began about acquiring the PHF.
"We started kicking things around," Kasten said. "As soon as I got on board, I wanted to find out as much as I could about their status. Over time, we talked about a number of different possibilities. Kind of midway through the process, Mark said to me: We could have an opportunity here to have the best league for all of the best players, let's just buy the PHF to help facilitate that vision."
"Everyone involved – the players, Mark, Billie Jean, PHF owners, everyone – had the vision of one day having one league where all of the best players could play," he added. "Things just kind of fell into place that enabled us to do it."
Creating a new professional women's hockey league undoubtedly comes with its challenges, but the group is ready to pounce on the opportunity now, according to Kasten. "This is when the opportunity arose; I don't know that any other time would've been better or worse," Kasten said. "We have seen, the last couple years, the growth in many women's sports, both professional and amateur. This past year was the 50th anniversary of Title IX."
"As a company, and specifically the Dodgers, we're very invested in women's sports," he added. "This year, we did our third iteration of our Accelerator program, the Trailblazer Accelerator. It's all about women's companies in the world of sports. We have long been paying attention. We've owned the Sparks for eight years now. It was just when the opportunity arose and when it got to both Billie Jean and Mark, we said, yeah, let's jump into this."
The Victory Press reached out to Reagan Carey for an interview about the acquisition but she was unable to schedule time to speak with us prior to publishing this story. According to multiple interviews Carey has given to other outlets (Just Women's Sports, Forbes), the sale of the PHF has been in the works for a long time – at least six months. Carey described operating in "parallel realities" – one in which the PHF continued on in its ninth season, and one in which the league was sold.
The initial reactions to Thursday's news filled the range of emotions. One PHF player told me they were "devastated." A PWHPA representative told me it "came as quite a shock." The call with PHF players was comparable to one where a company announces massive layoffs, with talks of support groups for players and clarifying who will be available to help with questions about visas, contracts, and compensation.
While the news was certainly surprising, another PHF player told me that ultimately, this is what was needed for women's hockey.
"One league is best for the game," they said. "Hard for the players out of jobs, but in the coming weeks, I hope we can lean in to the positivity and the opportunity this will bring the game. Lots of people are out of a job. I might be, too. We don't know."
"But THIS, this is what we have worked for," they said. "One league – all our resources and the best players poured into one spot. This is that moment. It may not look how we wanted. It may have been messed up in its delivery. But this is what the game needs. We will get through this. The ones that don't – that's hard. I care about those people deeply. But they'll be okay; they will always have a spot in what we've built. It just might look different."
"Lots to still process," they continued. "I wish more would focus on the positive. We already know a lot is scary and unfair, we don't need people to go in on that. We need people to celebrate the good that's been done and the players who got us here. That's how you honor the players who don't get a roster spot next year. Celebrate what they've built and how it's coming together, finally, after all this work, to build one incredible home to women's hockey."
On Sunday afternoon, PHF players from across the league Tweeted the following statement from a coalition of veteran PHF players. Per Alex Azzi, this coalition was formed of players hand-picked by the league. It is separate from the PHFPA.
Many of the contracts signed by PHF players for the 2022-23 season were for record high salaries and included some of the best players in the sport, many of whom were slated to make their professional debut – players like Alina Müller, for example, who has just finished her NCAA eligibility at age 25. As Mikyla Grant-Mentis told the CBC, "People made investments, bought houses, bought cars and stuff, and now we don't even know if we'll be able to have money to pay for it." What was in the works for a long time, according to both the new league's board members and the PHF front office, came as a complete surprise to most players on both sides. But the PHF players in particular were affected by this sudden change since their commitments for the next calendar year were apparently firm. (Another detail per the CBC article linked above: some players knew sooner than others. Madison Packer found out on Tuesday. The PHF and its teams continued to make player signing announcements on Wednesday via social media.)
What Happens Next?
The PWHPA – which is a union – officially and unanimously ratified its CBA on Sunday night. The full terms have not been made public yet, but Hefford said she thinks the intention is that it will be a public document. (The NHL CBA is public, as is that of the NWSLPA, to give an example from a women's league.) This is believed to be the first CBA in professional women's hockey in North America. This may also be the first union CBA in North American sports history that has been put in place before the league has begun operations.
(Editor's note: The Victory Press is working to acquire a copy of the CBA at this time and will review its contents in a future article.)
So what happens from here? A lot of moving pieces, and a lot of work to do.
"Now that they've ratified the CBA, the union will continue on with everything they need to do to really establish themselves," Hefford said. "As the union, that will be the voice of the players and the future league."
"On the league side, there's obviously a lot of work to do, from building out front offices, building out teams, figuring out player distribution, drafts, markets, locations, facilities – all of that. All of that stuff needs to be done," Hefford added. "There's obviously a lot still to do, and I think we expect in the next 30 to 60 days, there'll be an announcement, much bigger than what we saw the other day, that includes all of those details that I think everybody wants to know."
Hefford said she expects to be in hockey operations in the new league, though nothing has been announced at this point. Many of the details for the new league are still being finalized, though the plan is to have six teams, including three in the United States and three in Canada.
"There's been a lot of work looking into potential markets, and they're being, I would say, narrowed, but they're not there yet. None have been commented to players," Hefford said. "In 30 to 60 days, everyone will have the ability to know, but there's still some work to do."
All six teams – assuming there are six – will be owned by the single entity.
"We own the league and all of the teams," Kasten said. "We really thought that would be better to ensure that all of them compete at a fair level, with everyone having an opportunity – with no one having an owner that either wanted to go too low, too high or lead with a different vision for his team than we all have as organizers of the league."
"I think everyone who has really thought it through thinks that's a really good way for us to get this off in the best possible way," he added. "To make everyone understand how competitive the games will be, how competitive the league will be. I don't know that we will ever have individual owners. I also don't know that we won't."
While it's reported that the new league will start with six teams, Kasten said the focus is to learn through the first year and go from there, with a focus on professionalism and sustainability.
"Our plans are to grow this league as soon as is practical," he said. "We want to get our formula right. This year, we're going to be doing a lot of learning of what would be the best practices for all of us. In my first meeting [with our negotiating players], I said, I'm gonna make a lot of mistakes in year one, but we will learn from that. We will fix it, and by year two, we should have our formula down in a way that really feels well done, well-run, very professional."
"From there, we can launch into talks about expanding, not just in whatever part of the country we start with, but increasingly expanding domestically, and eventually even internationally," he added. "I like to say that when we view the creation of this league, we certainly weren't thinking of it as a short-term venture. We're not even thinking of it as a long-term venture. We're thinking of it as permanent. That's what our plan is."
"A developmental league, I think would really be helpful for us," Kasten added. "As you know, that's one of the challenges in year one – injuries pop up. Where do we get a replacement? We have built something in to cover that in year one, but longer-term, any way we can expand the outreach of the league, any way we can expand opportunities for women athletes in the future, we're going to be looking at."
"Our eyes are not just going to be on domestic development, but also eventually on international development," he said. "That's why this year, we've made it clear that we are going to have this league open, of course, to the PW players, which is the group with whom we began. But players from any source will be eligible to play in the league – including the PHF players, [recent] collegiate players, international players. We expect to have a pretty broad cross-section. We're already going over lists and names."
Hefford couldn't say whether the new teams could have any branding or the same name as any of the now-former PHF teams, but noted that everything is on the table and everything is being explored, a sentiment shared by Kasten.
"It's a new league, whether we use any old things or not," Kasten said. "We're sifting through a number of possibilities. I gave myself 30 to 60 days before we really unveil any of the details, although I've got to tell you, along the way, I'm sure we'll be dropping some breadcrumbs."
"We're hard at work on those kinds of things – finalizing the cities and the arenas, finalizing the league name and of course, the team names," he added, noting to expect a big launch in August 2023.
As Hefford noted, from the beginning, the PWHPA has always said that having NHL support, such as the support of an NHL team in a specific market, would be important.
"I hope we have the NHL support in every market we're in, assuming the NHL is out there," she said. "Hopefully we have NHL support moving forward with the league. I know there's been some positive conversations. We certainly hope they'll be a part of what we're building."
For the Players
With an expected six teams in the new league come January, it's clear that there simply will not be enough roster spots for everyone who played in both the PWHPA and PHF this past hockey season. That goes across the board – for PWHPA members, for players coming from the PHF, for NCAA grads and USports grads, and for international players. The plain and simple fact is this: not everyone will make it. And that's not news.
"This was always about creating a league for the best players in the world," Hefford said. "We have players in our association that have stuck with the vision, knowing that maybe they don't fit into that reality when it happens, but it's always been the vision, and we haven't swayed from that."
"This should be a celebration of women's hockey," Hefford added. "This is clearly what the market has told us they want. Fans have been talking about it for years, partners have been talking about it for years. Other stakeholders have been talking about it for years."
"There was always a realization that players were going to lose out on opportunities, especially in the short-term. My hope is that we're going to create an even bigger ecosystem than we've ever had," she added. "I don't know what that looks like, if it's a minor league or what not, down the road. That's how I envision things. In the short-term, there's going to be lost opportunities, there's no doubt about it. But that's a realization that [the PWHPA] always knew was going to happen if there became one league."
"This was the reality of having one league, and now it's about moving forward," she added. "It's about being excited that the best players in the world are going to be supported in a way like they've never been before. It's about celebrating an ownership group that brings the type of capital that's required to really make something like this work long-term, and an ownership group that believes in these women and the sport and in what we can achieve together."
"Our sport will never be the same after this," Hefford added. "This is one of the most significant moments in women's hockey, maybe after the Olympic debut. This is huge."
"It's tough, it's unfortunate, and we understand are empathetic toward people in situations that have had contracts terminated and different things, but this is clearly what the market's demanded," Hefford reiterated. "We're moving forward and looking forward and excited about what this opportunity is going to be for players, for fans, for media, for people that are going to have opportunities in the game that otherwise didn't at the professional level."
"There's an amount of misinformation out there," Hefford said. "Yes, there's all the PWHPA players. Yes, there's all the PHF players. But there are also boatloads of international players, a boatload of NCAA players. This is not about the PWHPA and the PHF. This is about every player who wants to try to be a part of this... The PWHPA vision has always been, from day one, the best players in the world. It doesn't matter where you came from, doesn't matter where you played last year. All these narratives that are out there are just wrong. It's about the best players in the world."
"PWHPA players have not been promised anything, have not and will not get preferential treatment. They were under contract this past season, but moving forward, just like every other player, you have to make a roster to be under any kind of contract," she added. "This is about the best in the world playing in one league, and that's how it'll happen."
As a result of their current contracts ending, there will not be any financial support for PWHPA players who don't make the new league. Logically, this makes sense, since their current contracts ended and nothing had been signed for next season yet. Their situation is very different compared to the PHF players who had signed contracts for next season, which have now been voided. Those players, if they do not play in another professional league next season, will receive some compensation, reported as one-twelfth of their salary, or $5000 (whichever is a higher amount), and part of a $1 million pool.
According to Hefford, the plan is to have players in the team markets by early November. Figuring out player distribution – "whether that's a draft or free agency, or maybe a combination of both" in Hefford's words – will happen in advance of November. The intent is to have puck drop in the new league on January 1, 2024.