Montreal Force kicks off expansion season in Premier Hockey Federation women's league

Montreal is about to drop the puck in women's professional hockey with the expansion Force upping the Premier Hockey League's Canadian content to two clubs.

The Force and third-year Toronto Six open their seasons Saturday in a seven-team league starting its eighth season.

The U.S.-based Metropolitan Riveters, Boston Pride, Connecticut Whale, Minnesota Whitecaps and Buffalo Beauts round out the PHF, which was the NWHL before a 2021 rebranding.

Montreal drew several players away from the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association (PWHPA) for its inaugural campaign.

Montreal captain Ann-Sophie Bettez, who played for Canada's world championship team in 2019, was among 10 PWHPA transfers to the Force.

After the Canadian Women's Hockey League collapsed in 2019 and took her Montreal Les Canadiennes with it, Bettez joined the PWHPA that rose from the ashes seeking a sustainable league offering a living wage and the competitive supports the male pros get.

Bettez participated in the PWHPA's Dream Gap Tour showcase tournaments and games. The 35-year-old forward from Sept-Iles, Que., says she was attracted by the regular games the PHF offered.

"I wanted to play with a team that I practice every week with, we get better as a team and play for a championship," Bettez told The Canadian Press. "This is mainly what I was striving for at this point in my career.

"In the past, having Dream Gap Tours was the alternative because we didn't have anything else here in Montreal. We've had a lot of practices, not many games, and to me, that's what I wanted to do."

The Force start their 24-game regular season on the road Saturday and Sunday in Buffalo against the Beauts.

The Six, coached and managed by Hockey Hall of Famers Geraldine Heaney and Angela James respectively, open at home with a two-game set against the Minnesota Whitecaps.

The PWHPA, whose 82 members include Canadian and U.S. national-team players, will compete in a four-team Dream Gap Tour tournament Friday to Sunday in Truro, N.S.

The PHF raised its salary cap ceiling this season from US$300,000 to $750,000 (C$1 million) per team.

On a maximum roster of 25 players, that's an average of C$40,000 per player.

Covering players' health-care premiums, allowing of two-year contracts instead of one and the possibility of signing bonuses up to 10 per cent of total contract value were among other sweeteners.

Players have an equity stake in the PHF's profitability and retain commercial control of their own image. They can opt to make their contract terms public.

For those who have, salaries range from US$13,500 to the $80,000, one-year contract former Six forward Mikyla Grant-Mentis of Brampton, Ont., signed with Buffalo in the off-season.

"Our players are making a lot of money and are now full-time hockey players," new Six president Sami Jo Small said.

"The expectations are much higher from both ends, from both management towards the players and the players themselves and how much time they devote to this.

"The only people that have jobs are the ones that had careers prior and don't necessarily want to give those careers up to be able to do this."

Bettez continues to work as a financial planner. Six veteran forward Emma Woods is a personal trainer.

Woods's hockey salary is US$44,340 this season. She feels she can finally say she plays hockey for a living.

"When someone asks me 'what do you do?', it's not 'I do this and I play hockey,'" Woods said. "I'm so much more confident saying I'm a professional hockey player."

The Force and Six both practice three times a week with additional strength and conditioning sessions in their schedules. The Six's home rink is Canlan Sports at York University.

Montreal is a road team in their expansion year with 23 of 24 "home" games played away from Verdun Auditorium in St. Laurent, Sept-Iles, Rimouski, Rivière-du-Loup, Saint-Jérôme, Gatineau and Quebec City.

The Force told The Canadian Press in a statement that home games outside of metro Montreal makes women's hockey accessible "so the girls can have heroes to look up too and know it's OK for them to enjoy playing hockey and that they can also have a future has pro players.

"Also, a lot of the women on the team come from different regions."

Former McGill and national women's team coach Peter Smith is the Force's first head coach.

"Even though I've coached a lot of those players before, it's still a different environment and a different situation," Smith said. "You're starting to build a base and that's been really good.

"We've got a hard-working group, we've got lots of skill and age-wise, it's a diverse group from 22 to 35. I think we're going to be really competitive."

The Six (16-3-1) finished second by a point to the Whale last season before falling in an Isobel Cup semifinal to the eventual champion Pride.

"We want to win the Isobel Cup and bring it back to Canada for the first time," Woods said. "That's going to be on our minds all season long."

The U.S.-based BTM Partners own both Canadian teams, plus the Pride and Riveters. The PHF's constitution currently allows for ownership of multiple teams.

The Six announced in March its sale to new ownership led by James, former NHL player Anthony Stewart and coach Ted Nolan, but that was later walked back to BTM retaining majority control and the James group holding a minority stake.

Quebec's TVA Sports will broadcast Force games. ESPN has the rights to PHF games for the next two seasons, which gives international rights to TSN.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2022.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press