For more than a year, players from the Women’s Professional Players Hockey Association have been in negotiations with investment firms Billie Jean King Enterprises and the Mark Walter Group to launch a new women’s hockey league. So the part of his Thursday night announcement laying out plans for the new league to start play in January 2024 wasn’t much of a surprise. But the other part of the announcement was: The investment groups also bought the Premier Hockey Federation (formerly the National Women’s Hockey League), consolidating the sport’s player pool and essentially dissolving what had been the only professional women’s hockey league in North America for the past four years. The Athletic reported that the PHF property made no financial gain from the sale. PWHPA players will vote this weekend on the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, which could be ratified tonight.
The acquisition ends a year-long women’s hockey schism, in which talent was split between the PHF and the PWHPA. The PWHPA was formed after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League closed in 2019. Rather than join the NWHL, PWHPA players decided not to play in any North American professional league until they felt there was an option with a model of sustainable business and “the resources that hockey professionals demand and deserve”. Instead they played a series of tours of North American cities. PWHPA rosters featured active members of the US and Canadian national teams not yet playing at the collegiate level; he had the clear advantage in high-profile talent. But there have been a couple of near-defections in the past year: recently retired US assistant captain Brianna Decker joined the PHF as an adviser this spring, and Finnish goalkeeper great Noora Räty quietly resigned from her position at the nine-member PWHPA board in May. her, when she signed a one-year contract with PHF.
Those moves were some of the signs that conditions at the PHF might be improving. The league’s last Isobel Cup final was broadcast on ESPN. A dramatic salary cap increase, made possible by a $25 million investment from the PHF Board of Governors in 2022, allowed teams to award top players six-figure contracts. This January, Wisconsin star Daryl Watts, winner of the Patty Kazmaier Award given to the best DI women’s hockey player, announced that she had signed a record-breaking PHF contract that would pay her $150,000 in the 2023-24 season. “I’m also disclosing this because I hope it will attract other players, which will then accumulate in the establishment of a single professional women’s hockey league,” he told The Canadian Press at the time.
Even though wages and conditions improved, PHF players still lacked much influence in their league. Most of the teams in the league were owned by one guy, New England businessman John Boynton, president of the Russian Internet company Yandex. In January, in the 32 thoughts hockey podcast, former PHF Players Association executive director Alex Sinatra said even the league’s positive announcements had been shrouded in secrecy and confusion. News of the $25 million investment or the league’s trading card sponsorship with Upper Deck, for example, reached players with little notice and few details. “One of the main things that the players shared with me early on, even before I was CEO, was that they want more transparency and better communication between the Players Association and the league office,” Sinatra said. The PHF players fired Sinatra shortly after he gave that interview, allegedly because they felt he had made the AP-league relationship sound too antagonistic.
But this week’s news reminded me of the same evasions and rudeness that many of the world’s best players protested when they refused to play in the league four years ago. PWHPA members were right to be wary. All of PHF’s contracts, more than 100 of them signed in the last two months, were suddenly cancelled. The new league will be made up of six teams against the PHF’s seven, and the increased competition for fewer spots means that some players who signed those contracts will not have a place to play professionally. PHF Commissioner Reagan Carey wrote in a letter to PHF players that the new league will select players through a balanced “Player Evaluation Advisory Committee.”
It’s fair to wonder if the PHF, having signed players to contracts and seen some of them make major life decisions under the impression that they would receive that money, had any intention of moving forward. Toward agents’ dismay, the PHF contracts were all at will, and the PHF Players Association was not an officially registered union with a CBA, meaning that the PHF was not legally required to bargain with them in good faith. Boynton told reporter Erica Ayala that acquisition talks had dragged on for more than six months; Meanwhile, PHF teams continued to sign players up until the week before Thursday’s news. Carey, who will take a leadership role in the new league, said the PHF was only considering “parallel realities,” preparing to play the league’s scheduled ninth season should the deal fall through.
Mark Walter, who has ownership ties to the Dodgers, Sparks, Lakers and Chelsea FC, appears to be the biggest single sponsor of the new league, according to a news release that also cites King and Dodgers president Stan Kasten. Kasten told the AP that Gary Bettman stood by the story and offered “all the help he could give us.” Bettman has refused to take sides in the PWHPA-PHF dispute, but the acquisition clears up what Bettman has said was the biggest barrier to NHL participation in women’s hockey.
The history of women’s professional hockey is defined by transience, and transience imposes costs. The real losses are not those that John Boynton writes off on his taxes, but the communities and institutions that go to 404 pages and vanish. I’ve been following and writing about women’s garters long enough to know how fragile they can be. It seems like a small miracle that the Minnesota Whitecaps, a PHF team that actually predates the league, have survived the two decades of women’s hockey turmoil that they have so far. This is why PWHPA players held out for four years, why they were stubborn, why so many let their best years of playing slip away: the game and the people who love it deserve something built to last.
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