Talks with select NHL teams and major corporate sponsors have intensified in the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association’s bid to form a league within the next year, two people with direct knowledge of discussions told The Associated Press.
While progress is being made, one of the people said an announcement is not imminent, while also cautioning against placing a timeline on when a proposed league made up of the world’s top players could be ready for opening faceoff.
“No timeline, but we’re getting closer,” said the person, who like the other AP source spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the discussions are private.
In a text, PWHPA executive Jayna Hefford declined to comment Wednesday.
Details of how the proposed league would operate are unknown, though the most ideal scenario would involve NHL franchises on both sides of the border co-sponsoring women’s teams competing in a regular-season schedule followed by playoffs.
What’s also unclear is when and how long a PWHPA league’s season would run. The top players have U.S. and Canadian national team commitments, including competing at the women’s world championships in August, as well as a yet-to-be scheduled series of rivalry games expected to be played in November.
The NHL, as an entity, has backed off funding a pro women’s league after the coronavirus pandemic blew a major hole in its budget. That hasn’t stopped the league from supporting women’s hockey, which most recently included the U.S. women’s team taking part in the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 and paying for a charter flight for the team to travel from its Minnesota base to Los Angeles en route to the Beijing Olympics last month.
It also hasn’t stopped NHL franchises from forming their own partnerships. The PWHPA lists 10 NHL teams as partners, including Washington, the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Chicago and Philadelphia.
The establishment of a partially NHL-backed league attracting top international players would be considered a game-changer for women’s hockey.
It would be separate from the six-team Premier Hockey Federation, which was founded in 2015, and remains North America’s only women’s professional hockey league. In January, the PHF announced it is expanding to eight teams, and more than doubling its salary cap per team to $750,000 next season.
PWHPA members have mostly balked at joining the PHF while in pursuit of establishing their own league in which players receive livable wages, health care and have dedicated access to training and practice facilities.
The PWHPA was formed three years ago following the demise of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. In that time, the association has attracted enough corporate and media broadcasting partnerships to base players in five hub cities — two in the U.S. and three in Canada — to practice and compete against each other expense-free in a series of barn-storming weekend events across the continent.
The most recent “Dream Gap Tour” stop was in Ottawa last weekend, with another scheduled for Washington, D.C., this weekend.
The PWHPA is also hosting a “Rivalry Rematch” game between the United States and Canada set for Pittsburgh on March 12. It will be the cross-border rivals’ first meeting since Canada won Olympic gold with a 3-2 victory over the Americans last month.
The buzz over the PWHPA inching closer to forming a league grew immediately in the aftermath of Canada’s victory.
Canadian forward Brianne Jenner cited corporate support in both the PWHPA and PHF by saying, “I think we’re not that far off.”
“I think there is a market out there, and a lot of people want to see this level of of women’s hockey on a regular basis,” she added.
Canada coach Troy Ryan urged corporate sponsors to get on board.
“The girls deserve an opportunity to be professional athletes,” Ryan said. “I think if anyone is smart out there, corporate sponsors or donors or business people, they would back it as a business plan because I think there’s a viable market out there for it.”
U.S. captain Kendall Coyne Schofield grew emotional in stressing how important it is for women’s hockey to take advantage of the boost in attention the sport gets following the Olympics.
“Women’s hockey cannot be silent after these two weeks,” Coyne Schofield said. “We need to continue to push for visibility. We need to continue to fight for women’s hockey because it’s not good enough. It can’t end after the Olympic Games.”