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Women’s Pro Hockey, Part 2: Where We’re Going

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Female hockey player scoring against goalie - SkateGuard

I sit here writing this on the day after the inaugural PWHL draft. Ninety young women heard their names called yesterday. It’s the kind of moment that many of these women deserved years ago.

Take second overall pick Jocelyne Larocque. She is a three-time Olympic medallist (two gold medals) and a long-time member of the Canadian national team, and she has been one of the best women’s hockey players on the planet for 15-plus years. She had to wait until age 35 for her real draft moment.

I qualify the Professional Women’s Hockey League event as a “real” draft moment because Larocque has been drafted before. She went sixth overall in the 2012 CWHL (Canadian Women’s Hockey League) draft, a league that offered no compensation outside of the coverage of a few expenses [1].

This time at least feels different. As I discussed in Part 1 of this blog post, the PWHL has real financial backing and seems to have a plan to be viable. Let’s dive into why that appears to be the case.

First, I am very happy to see that the league is going to the hockey hotbeds of North America. The six league-owned teams will be located in:

  • NewYork
  • Toronto
  • Boston
  • Montreal
  • Minnesota(Twin Cities)
  • Ottawa

When new leagues are formed, sometimes they adopt the strategy of trying to become the big fish in a small market. I have personally never been a fan of this approach. In an era where streaming rights and television money are of utmost importance, you want your teams in the biggest markets. These six PWHL cities are among the largest hockey markets in North America. The 3/3 split between Canadian teams and U.S. teams provides nice balance. From a logistics perspective, I think it makes sense to keep the teams somewhat geographically consolidated. Overall, I think the league did a great job picking cities for its “original 6” franchises.

My only additional comment regarding location would be that hopefully women’s hockey grows to the point where the league can expand (more on that below), and when it does, I hope it can address the appalling lack of women’s hockey in the state of Michigan. There are currently seven men’s Division 1 NCAA programs in the state and ZERO women’s programs. Again, appalling.

The decision to keep the league to six teams feels prudent. Pushing all of the top women’s hockey talent on to six rosters should keep the level of play very high! It should also allow some exciting rivalries to develop, and some additional intriguing storylines when it comes time for the Olympics and World Championships. (Who didn’t love teammates like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane doing battle in the Olympics?)

The players won’t be the only world-class talent employed by the league. In the past, some staffing decisions made at virtually every level of administration in the women’s hockey world have seemed political, at times bordering on clannish. This time around, the appointments to the six general manager positions, as well as the head coaching appointments, feel very much based on merit. Taken as a whole, the PWHL team management and coaching staff reflects a great balance of individuals who have had success on and off the ice in both men’s and women’s hockey, and all have resumes that suggest credibility and a high degree of competency, and are being compensated accordingly.  

On the topic of credibility, there are times when upstart leagues try to align their schedules to serve as a “bridge” in the off-season of another major league (see what the XFL and USFL have done relative to the NFL season). I have always felt this gives these leagues a bit of an “afterthought” label. In the northern hemisphere, hockey season is in the fall, winter and spring months, and given that, the decision to have the season run from November through May is, in my view, the correct one. Note that the inaugural season is expected to run from January to June 2024.

Finally, the biggest thing I hope for this league is that it leans in completely when it comes to marketing their star players, allow them the bandwidth to create their own brands, and encourage them to allow their true personalities to shine. The NHL has left so much to be desired in this area over the years. Nothing would make me happier than to see the PWHL show them how it’s done! Fans love their teams, obviously, but I have long argued that people care most about the players, specifically the star players. Let’s hope that the PWHL doesn’t railroad players into providing the same boilerplate, cookie-cutter answers in interviews. That it encourages all players to engage on social media. That it ignores the “hockey dinosaurs” who want to complain about stars “making it about themselves.” It’s 2023. People want personality, not subordination. There are signs that the PWHL and its players have got this right. The league is the first women’s league to launch with a Collective Bargaining Agreement in place. The importance of this cannot be overstated. The people backing this league clearly see the importance of mutually beneficial working conditions. Let’s hope that extends to letting the players voices be heard.

In Part 1 of this discussion, I mentioned how the announcement of this kind of women’s professional hockey league has felt inevitable but for quite some time proved not to be imminent. Credit must be given to those involved; they have clearly used that time to make sure they got this right. They appear to have given current and future generations of women’s players the best chance to have a league that is economically viable, exciting, and modern.

Women’s hockey deserves this, and given the ever-increasing popularity of women’s athletics, the time is now.

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