Apr 28, 2020 - Sports

The battle over the future of women's professional hockey

Kendall Baker, author of Sports

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Women's hockey takes the world by storm every four years at the Winter Olympics — and then basically falls off the radar — but the outcome of an ongoing feud between two leagues could change that, especially if the NHL gets more involved.

Driving the news: The National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) is expanding to Toronto, as the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) continues its boycott of the current situation while hoping that a new league and support structure emerges.

Meet the NWHL: The U.S.-based league was established in 2015, and when the Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL) shut down last year after 12 seasons, the NWHL became the only women's pro hockey league in North America.

  • Six franchises: Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan (N.J.) Riveters, Minnesota Whitecaps and now Toronto (no name yet).
  • Signs of growth: The 2019-20 season was the NWHL's most promising yet, with the league increasing its salary cap (top players made around $15,000), introducing a 50-50 revenue split for league-wide sponsorship and media deals and signing a multi-year media rights deal with Twitch. The Whitecaps also became the NWHL's first profitable team.

Meet the PWHPA: After the CWHL shut down last May, roughly 175 women's players — including some of the sport's biggest names — announced that they would forego participation in any North American league "until we get the resources professional hockey demands and deserves."

  • A month later, the PWHPA was formed to provide a unified voice for the boycotting players and push for the creation of a new league.
  • Since that has yet to happen, the PWHPA is planning counter-programming for the second straight season (think: exhibition showcases, etc).

The big picture: Four of the NWHL's six teams have partnerships with NHL teams, but the NWHL ultimately believes that a women's professional hockey league "should be built from the ground to stand on its own."

  • Conversely, the PWHPA is widely believed to be holding out hope for the creation of a so-called WNHL — modeled after the WNBA and directly tied to the NHL, which has been sitting on the "WNHL" trademark since 1998.
  • "We believe there needs to be an affiliation with the NHL," PWHPA leader Jayna Hefford told CBC Sports last week. "History tells us the only women's leagues that survive are aligned with established men's leagues."

The bottom line: "It's hard to ignore 200 athletes forgoing the primes of their careers because they believe it's what's best for their sport. But if a new league doesn't emerge soon, the PWHPA may see many of its players defect and return to the NWHL," Just Women's Sports founder Haley Rosen tells Axios.

  • On that last point: Toronto's first five signings were all initially part of the PWHPA — a reminder that the clock is ticking.

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