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Women’s Pro Hockey, Part 1: How We Got Here

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Women’s Pro Hockey | Father holding daughters hand, going into an ice rink - SkateGuard

SkateGuard co-founder Mike Jaczko and I work in financial markets. There are times in markets when you have a thesis about what SHOULD happen. And then it doesn’t. You watch the screen, and while the market doesn’t necessarily move against you, it just refuses to move in the direction you think it should. It simply marks time. Meanders back and forth. Gives you a head fake in one direction, only to veer back in the other. Markets have a way of reminding you that the inevitable does not necessarily mean imminent.

The newly announced Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) has felt inevitable for years now. Momentum is firmly on the side of women’s athletics. The women’s hockey gold medal game was the most watched event of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, pulling in 2.7 million people in Canada[1] alone. For reference, in the 2023 NHL Playoffs, the first-round series for the Toronto Maple Leafs drew an average of three million viewers. The Edmonton Oilers first-round series drew 1.7 million people on average. The Winnipeg Jets drew 980,000 on average (all figures are for Canadian viewers.)[2]

The women’s hockey world has been reminding us for a long time that the inevitable isn’t imminent. This time, though, it certainly feels real.

One of the big challenges up to now has been the NHL’s stance that it will support a women’s league only if it were one, unified pro league in North America. For years, that has not been the case. The Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) was founded in 2015 (as the National Women’s Hockey League) and for much of the past eight years has been the only women’s professional hockey league in North America. However, the vast majority of the top players in the women’s game have not had faith in the direction and business model of the PHF. Instead, they chose to align themselves under the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA), which held exhibitions around North America to help promote the sport, with the hope of attracting enough interest from key stakeholders to make sustainable women’s professional hockey a reality.

This deadlock appears to have resolved itself earlier this year when the intellectual property of the PHF was purchased by the Mark Walter Group (whose namesake is the CEO of Guggenheim Partners, has a net worth of nearly US$6 billion, and has extensive experience in women’s sports through his ownership of the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA) and BJK Enterprises (“BJK” being Billie Jean King, the legendary tennis star and a titan in women’s sports advocacy). After purchasing the PHF’s intellectual property, the partnership joined forces with the PWHPA to found the PWHL.

These are the types of interests that can give women’s hockey a great chance to thrive. The ownership group has proven itself to be motivated to make women’s sports succeed. They have the capital to make it happen. They have the kind of profile that an entity like the NHL will feel comfortable working with.

It has been a long time coming, but I firmly believe that we will look back on this era and this group as laying the foundation for a thriving women’s game. I look forward to the day when my daughter, currently a very active two-year-old, will become a fan of a robust, thriving PWHL that came about because of the hard work, careful and creative thought, and tireless determination of earlier generations of women hockey players. 

Who knows? She might even play in it someday.

In Part 2 of this post, I’ll take a closer look at the structure of the PWHL, my thoughts on the cities selected, the people empowered to direct the first iteration of the league, and a couple of the things I think they can do to continue to help the women’s game thrive!

[1] CBC’s Year in Review Women’s Sport

[2] Sportsnet PR

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