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Women's Hockey

Women’s Hockey’s Civil War Has Ended, Messily

Megan Keller #5, Rebecca Johnston #6 and Micah Zandee-Hart #28 of Team Keller celebrate after a 2-1 shootout win in the finals of the PWHPA All-Star Tournament
Chris Tanouye/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images

For over a year, players in the Professional Women's Hockey Players' 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. Thus, the part of their Thursday night announcement laying out plans for the new league to start play in January of 2024 wasn't a huge surprise. But the other part of the announcement was: The investment groups have also bought out the Premier Hockey Federation (formerly the National Women's Hockey League), consolidating the sport's player pool and essentially disbanding what had been the only pro women's hockey league in North America for the last four years. The Athletic reported that PHF ownership did not profit financially from the sale. PWHPA players are voting this weekend on the new league's collective bargaining agreement, which could be ratified tonight.

The acquisition ends a yearslong 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 folded in 2019. Rather than join the NWHL, PWHPA players resolved not to play in any North American professional league until they felt there was an option with a sustainable business model and "the resources that professional hockey demands and deserves." Instead they played a series of barnstorming tours across North American cities. PWHPA rosters featured the active U.S. and Canadian national team members who weren't still playing collegiately; it had the clear advantage in high-profile talent. But there had been a couple of quasi-defections in the last year: Recently retired U.S. assistant captain Brianna Decker joined the PHF as an advisor this spring, and Finnish goaltending great Noora Räty quietly resigned her position on the nine-member PWHPA board in May, when she signed a one-year PHF deal.

Those moves were among a few signs that conditions in the PHF might be improving. The league's latest Isobel Cup final was broadcast on ESPN. A dramatic increase in the salary cap, made possible by a $25 million investment from the PHF's Board of Governors in 2022, allowed teams to hand out six-figure contracts to top players. This January, Wisconsin star Daryl Watts, a winner of the Patty Kazmaier Award given to the best player in D-I women's hockey, announced she'd signed a PHF-record contract that would pay her $150,000 in the 2023–24 season. "I’m also disclosing this because I hope this will attract other players, which will then accumulate into the establishment of one single professional women’s hockey league," she told The Canadian Press at the time.

Even as salaries and conditions improved, PHF players still lacked much say or leverage in their league. Most of the league's teams were owned by one guy, New England–based businessman John Boynton, chairman of the Russian internet company Yandex. In January of 2022, on the 32 Thoughts hockey podcast, former PHF Players' Association executive director Alex Sinatra said that even positive announcements from the league 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 with few details. "One of the top things that the players shared with me from the get-go before I was even the executive director was that they want more transparency and better communication between the Players' Association and the league office," Sinatra said. Sinatra was let go by PHF players shortly after she gave that interview, reportedly because they felt she had made the relationship between the PA and the league sound too adversarial.

But this week's news brought to mind the very evasiveness and discourtesy many of the world's best players were protesting when they refused to play in the league four years ago. PWHPA members were right to be mistrustful. All PHF contracts—more than 100 of them signed in the last couple months—have suddenly been voided. The new league will be made up of six teams to the PHF's seven, and the greater competition for fewer spots means some players who signed those contracts will have no place to play professionally. PHF Commissioner Reagan Carey wrote in a letter to PHF players that the new league will select players via a balanced "Player Evaluation Advisory Committee." 

It's fair to wonder whether the PHF, as it signed players to contracts and watched some of them make major life decisions under the impression they would receive that money, had any intention of following through. To the consternation of agents, PHF contracts were all at-will, and the PHF Players' Association wasn't an official registered union with a CBA, meaning the PHF had no legal obligation to negotiate with them in good faith. Boynton told reporter Erica Ayala that the acquisition talks had been going on for more than six months; all the while, PHF teams had continued to sign players up to the week before Thursday's news. Carey, who will have a leadership role in the new league, said the PHF was just considering "parallel realities," preparing to play the league's scheduled ninth season in the event the deal fell through.

Mark Walter, who has ownership ties to the Dodgers, Sparks, Lakers, and Chelsea F.C., appears to be the largest single backer of the new league, according to a press release that also quotes King and Stan Kasten, president of the Dodgers. Kasten told the AP that Gary Bettman was supportive of the news and offered "all the help he could give us." Bettman refused to take sides in the PWHPA-PHF dispute, but the acquisition clears what Bettman has said was the biggest barrier to NHL involvement in women’s hockey.  

The history of women's professional hockey is defined by transience, and transience imposes costs. The true losses aren't the ones John Boyntons write off on their taxes, but the communities and institutions that turn to 404 pages and fade away. I've followed and written about women's leagues 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, survived the two decades of women's hockey turmoil it did until now. This is why PWHPA players held out for four years, why they were stubborn, why many let prime playing years slip away: The sport and the people who love it deserve something built to last.

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