Kaleigh Fratkin and The Boston Pride raising the Isobel Cup after winning in 2019.
Professional Women’s hockey has come a long way, but there is still a long way to go. There is often surprise that there is not only one, but two professional leagues. But who are these leagues? Why are there two? This article will give an overview of both leagues and where they currently stand with a quick summary at the bottom.
To begin, a professional women's hockey league is significant because men’s hockey has historically been and continues to be prioritized in the hockey world, while women’s hockey players are pushed to the sidelines. As professional women's hockey has grown the impact has been seen. For example, the Boston Pride in Boston has consistently sold out games and there is no shortage of love and support for the team. A professional women’s hockey league also has an impact on the children who grow up watching the sport. Young hockey players watch and aspire to be like those they see on the TV and are held on a pedestal in their community. The growing popularity of women’s hockey brings more girls into the sport because they see women out there playing an incredibly high level of hockey and being celebrated for it. Let’s get into it:
The Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) was founded in 2015 under the name National Women's Hockey League (NWHL). This name was changed before the 2021 season, marking the first professional women’s league in North America to not include gender in the name. The league commissioner Tyler Tumminia said, “The Premier Hockey Federation is home to some of the best professional athletes in the world who deserve to be recognized for their abilities and to be empowered as equals in sport.” The new logo features three stars which resemble a crown and a “W” to show how the league and women’s hockey is rising.
In the leagues first year (2015-2016) it included four teams — the Metropolitan Riveters, the Boston Pride, the Buffalo Beauts, and the Connecticut Whale. In 2016, the New York Riveters relocated to New Jersey, and the following year the first true expansion team, the Minnesota Whitecaps, was added. 2019 marked a big year for the PHF as they added their first canadien team, but lost many players to a new league, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA). The most recent team to be added was the Montreal Force this season.
Throughout the season these teams have a very similar goal to that of the National Hockey League’s (NHL) teams. The Stanley Cup is one of the most famous trophies in sports and arguably one of the most difficult to win. The trophy is named after Lord Frederick Aurther Stanley. The Stanley Cup is awarded as the championship trophy in the NHL. Lord Stanley’s daughter, Lady Isobel, who was one of the firsts female hockey players in Canada gave the PHF champion’s trophy it’s name: The Isobel Cup. The front of the cup reads, "The Lady Isobel Gathorne-Hardy Cup 1875-1963. This Cup shall be awarded annually to the greatest professional women's hockey team in North America. All who pursue this Cup, pursue a dream; a dream born with Isobel, that shall never die. EST. 2016.” It’s champions include the Boston Pride (2016, 2021, 2022), the Buffalo Beauts (2017), the Metropolitan Riveters (2018), and the Minnesota White Caps (2019).
In similar structure as the NHL, the PHF briefly entertained a draft for new players, but decided to scrap it after the 2022 season. Instead it has unrestricted free agency for all players. The current salary cap for a PHF team is 750,000 dollars. While this is incredible growth since the 2021 season’s 150,000 dollars cap there is still much to be done as the current salary cap is the minimum an individual NHL player must be paid. Recently, the PHF announced its plan to double the salary cap for the upcoming season to 1.5 million dollars. The salary cap has its pros and cons. Without the draft the PHF is in a spot where many great players out of college will look nearby for a team. For example, the dominant Boston Pride currently have a roster made up of mostly players that played in the northeast, specifically Boston. Another issue of this is that since the salary cap can not provide a living wage for most players. From coaches to nurses these players are busy juggling being a professional athlete with separate careers and jobs. Increasing the salary cap will allow them to be paid for the work they do.
The Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) was formed after the fall of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) in 2019. Many players including Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne were torn about their options. The PHF, especially in its beginning stages had a very similar problem to the CWHL, incredible lack of funding and sponsorships. Due to this inadequate funding, promises of a players union and health insurance were not being met, and player salaries were continuously being cut. In May of 2019 over 200 players announced they would not be playing in the PHF’s upcoming season. A couple weeks later the PWHPA was formed. It is important to note that the PHF had made incredible progress as detailed above and now is able to offer a more professional environment that the players have earned.
The PWHPA has a different format then the PHF. For example, it is primarily run through past and present players Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne Schofield, Sarah Nurse, Kimberly Sass, Noora Raty, Brianne Jenner, Alyssa Gagliardi, Karell Emard, and Jocelyne Lamoureux Davidson. One of the main problems with the PHF was representation. Liz Knox was quoted saying, “We don’t make enough to have no say in this.” The PWHPA model of a player run league allows for player needs to be heard and met in a way that is sustainable. Kristin Richards was also quoted on this saying that having trust in the boards to prioritize the players is an important part of the league.
The league has run through the Dream Gap Tour, which previously had players split up into five regional teams. A lot of work has been done behind the scenes in order to push the league towards a traditional format. This current 2022-2023 season has a change in the roster selection. The four team will include Team Adidas, Team Harvey’s, Team Scotiabank, and Team Sonnet. In order to accommodate for the August timeline of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship, rosters are decided by an experienced selection committee. Afterward the top 100 players were invited to join the league. This new set up allows for great players to finally team up.
Now it has been recognized that running two leagues does have its cons. It is difficult to elevate women's hockey as a professional sport if there isn’t a collective league. The split causes each league to get only half the support that could be provided to the game as a whole. In a situation like this where viewership and fans to bring in money has been an issue, one league would help to advance the league past these issues. Many teams in the NHL have sponsored and shared support, for example the Boston Bruins with the Pride, and eleven NHL teams with the PWHPA. Furthermore, the NHL has begun to recognize and include female hockey players in the annual all star game. Despite all of these positive efforts unity remains a problem. The NHL has stated that they would gladly provide a great amount of financial assistance, but under the condition that the leagues merge. This past spring the PHF and PWHPA were together trying to find a common ground to unite, but the truth is they have different priorities. Even with the consistently growing salary cap, PWHPA representatives are unhappy with the lack of a cap floor or minimum salary. Another conflict includes ownership. PWHPA players do not like that certain groups (BTM Partners) own multiple teams, creating a conflict of interest. This group also includes a chairman of Yandex, a Russian technology company that the NHL has ended all partnerships with.
The PWHPA also has the goal of centralizing the talent and “resources, infrastructure, and pay that allows players to truly be professional athletes year-round, versus requiring athletes to work extra job to make a living and practice late at night to accommodate players’ 9-5 jobs.” Further uncertainties such as league commissioner stepping down and PHF players association director being fired led to the PWHPA’s unanimous decision to end further collaboration.