NHL needs to make ‘substantial offer’ to unite women’s pro hockey

The Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association and Premier Hockey Federation are set to meet at the request of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek first reported the news, saying the NHL’s intention is to attempt to bring the two sides together. 

TSN also reported during NHL trade deadline day that all three parties will gather in New York on Wednesday.

The meeting comes amidst growing momentum for the sport. 

The Canadian women’s gold-medal victory over the U.S., was Canada’s most-watched event of the Beijing Olympics. The PWHPA also partnered with the Pittsburgh Penguins to stage a Canada-U.S. rematch on March 12. A total of 10 NHL teams have also joined forces with the PWHPA in a similar fashion, including the Calgary Flames, Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs.

In January, the PHF, which has also collaborated with NHL teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins, announced a commitment from its board of governors to invest $25 million US into direct payments and benefits to the league’s players over the next three years. 

Meanwhile, reports in recent weeks have indicated that significant progress has been made toward the launch of a new league in association with the PWHPA. Over the past three seasons the PWHPA has staged the Dream Gap Tour, a barnstorming women’s hockey series designed to showcase the sport as the association ultimately seeks to establish a sustainable professional league for its players.

Women’s hockey leaders have previously requested Bettman get involvement in helping launch a professional league. But once the NHL made clear last year that it was not in a position to operate a women’s league in the foreseeable future, the PWHPA focused its attention to developing a model for an independent league. The PHF, for its part, has begun to emphasize remaining independent as one of its core values.

It’s not currently known what Bettman will propose, but it is expected that at this point only a very substantial offer would motivate the PWHPA to change course and align itself with the NHL and the PHF, a source with direct knowledge of the association’s ongoing internal discussions told CBC Sports. The source also said the PWHPA is confident in its ability to move forward without the NHL’s involvement.

The PHF did not respond to a CBC Sports request for a comment. 

The PHF, which launched in 2015 as the National Women’s Hockey League, rebranded this past off-season. There are currently six teams, with plans to expand to another two clubs, including one expected in Montreal next season.

Team Bauer’s Poulin (29) competes during the PWHPA Dream Gap Tour women’s hockey showcase in Calgary on May, 24, 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

PWHPA carries more leverage

But it’s the PWHPA which carries more leverage. The membership comprises the sport’s biggest stars, including all post-collegiate 2022 Olympians from both Canada and the U.S. Because of this, it has considerable power in determining the game’s future, says Nathan Kalman-Lamb, a Lecturing Fellow at Duke University whose research areas include athletic labour.

“I think they are right to look for the conditions that they consider to be acceptable,” he told CBC Sports. “There’s no reason for them to compromise. They have an incredible degree of solidarity, which is a really precious thing. And they should be leveraging it to maximize what they view to be the best possible outcome.”

While the NHL’s infrastructure and established franchises could help to jump start a women’s league, Ann Pegoraro, the Lang Chair in Sport Management at the University of Guelph, considers that if adequate financial backing is forthcoming from other investors, there may be advantages to launching an independent circuit.

“You have some flexibility in building a completely different model that can utilize what we know about fans today, in terms of their technology use and the fact that they want to watch from anywhere in the country,” she said. “I see a lot of benefits to being able to start a league that’s not encumbered with the traditional trappings of professional sport infrastructure.”

It’s not currently known what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will propose to the PWHPA and PHF. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images )

Many hockey fans reacted to news of the upcoming meeting with optimism, but it’s far from the first such attempt. Previous discussions between the PWHPA and PHF have broken down over differences in business planning and between the organizations’ visions.

The PHF and NHL are leagues governed by owners, whereas the PWHPA is an association of players led by a board of athletes. Kalman-Lamb believes this has a direct impact on the tenor of negotiations, as players and owners have fundamentally different priorities.

“Both [athletes and ownership] would like there to be a league that could pay players to do this work and that would therefore drive revenue that would allow the players to be paid,” he said. “They both need a league for that to happen, but that’s the only reason which they have aligned interests.”

PHF made steady progress

The PHF has made steady progress in recent years, and next season will feature a $750,000 salary cap for each team. Some, including recently announced Toronto Six co-owner and Hockey Hall of Famer Angela James, have suggested that the PHF’s recent commitments offer everything PWHPA members have asked for in a league. But a source indicates that the league the PWHPA envisions would provide conditions and compensation that exceed the PHF’s announced projections.

Ultimately, whether women’s hockey proceeds under a single united banner will likely depend on what the NHL is willing to put forward.

Toronto Six forward Mikyla Grant-Mentis, seen above at the Isobel Cup tournament last March, said she’s already taken advantage of the PHF’s salary cap for the 2021-22 season. (Mary Schwalm/The Associated Press)

Pegoraro, for her part, is skeptical of the league’s sudden renewed interest.

“I think it suggests some arrogance that they think they’re the only ones that can make this work, that the NHL is needed,” she said. “I also think maybe they’re realizing now that there is viability in women’s sport ― even though we’ve been telling them for a long time ― and they want to get in on it.”

If the NHL isn’t willing to make a substantial investment, the most probable outcome would involve two independent women’s leagues. Pegoraro expects that would come with challenges as the entities compete for fan attention and money, but points out that it’s been done before, with one eventually coming out on top.

“I do think that it’s difficult to start with two competing leagues,” she said. “But it’s not unheard of, it’s happened in many other sports.”