PHF All-Star event highlights growth of women's professional hockey
Team Canada claimed the crown at the PHF's 2023 All-Star event in Toronto last weekend.
TORONTO — Looking around the Mattamy Athletic Centre, better known as the old Maple Leafs Gardens, there were sights and sounds of hope for the growth of professional women’s sport, specifically hockey, in Canada this week.
The Premier Hockey Federation (PHF), North America’s only professional women’s hockey league hosted their All-Star weekend in Toronto this week, including an event at the Hockey Hall of Fame, community activities, and the culmination, a three-team All-Star tournament featuring league stars from Canada, USA, and the World.
The All-Star event came just over a month after the league announced a doubling of its salary cap from $750,000 per team this season to $1.5 million next year. It’s unprecedented growth for the PHF, now in its eighth season, which is allowing athletes to focus solely on hockey and is attracting more talent to the league. For veterans of the league, such as Boston Pride captain Jillian Dempsey, the salary increase and growth are achievements they were unsure would come in their careers.
“It feels like this was something I possibly wouldn’t even see in my playing career,” said Dempsey, a former league MVP who has played with Boston in all eights seasons of the league’s existence. “In the past four years, not even considering since year one, we’ve made significant growth and the salary cap is the most obvious to point to, but there are so many little things reflecting that progress as well. It’s a real testament to the work happening behind the scenes.”
Improvements for players this season included medical benefits, a focus on professional training facilities, continued expansion including adding the Montreal Force, and an expanded All-Star event.
Initially, the league had planned to expand to eight, instead of seven teams this season. According to another league veteran, five-time All-Star Madison Packer, who captains the Metropolitan Riveters, however, the league’s focus on doing things well, not just quickly, is crucial. To Packer, the salary cap, expansion, and investment in marketing women’s professional hockey are all signs of bigger things to come.
“It’s huge, it’s a sign that things are sustainable,” said Packer of league and salary cap expansion. “With this current ownership and investing group, they’re willing to spend money to make money, that’s the biggest thing. They’re investing in us, and they’re investing in the future. They’re not expecting an immediate return, but they see the big picture.”
After a long, and at times tenuous separation, Packer also believes that it’s only a matter of time before members of the PWHPA and PHF find themselves playing collaboratively in one league, the PHF.
“It’s a process, and eventually, we’ll have everyone playing in the same spot,” she said. “I think in the next two years we’ll have one league, but it’s about continuing to do things in the right way.”
Several of the leading players in the league this season, including All-Star tournament MVP Loren Gabel, Brittany Howard, Ann-Sophie Bettez, and Sydney Brodt, all joined the PHF this season after spending time with the PWHPA. The league has also gained multiple Patty Kazmaier winners, given to the top player in the NCAA hockey, including Elizabeth Giguere (2020), Gabel (2019), and 2018 winner Daryl Watts, who recently signed the largest contract in women’s professional hockey history with the Toronto Six, inking a deal paying $150,000 USD annually.
According to the players themselves, the structure, professionalism, and amenities of the PHF were driving factors in choosing to turn pro and play in the league.
“For me, it was about the resources and to be able to participate and play hockey as a full-time job,” said Toronto Six forward Brittany Howard. “It’s huge, it allows me to focus on hockey rather than juggling around multiple things, it allows me the time to focus on being an athlete.
"It just shows the investment and the growth in women’s hockey.”
“Since I graduated in 2019, I really missed the structure and playing games,” said Gabel, who has seven points in seven games while representing Canada’s national team, and is currently leading the PHF in scoring after playing the last three seasons with the PWHPA. “I wanted to be in a league where I was practicing with the same people, playing with the same people, having games and structured practices every day, it’s been a great experience and I’m happy I made the decision I did. The PHF is a really great place to play.”
Not only are veterans making the move to the PHF, but an increasing number of graduating stars are also choosing the league, including All-Star Jade Downie-Landry who was the Canadian University Player of the Year last season before signing with the Montreal Force, and Boston Pride netminder Corrine Schroeder, who has represented Canada internationally and was a First Team All-USCHO star in her senior NCAA season last year with Quinnipiac. For Schroeder as a goalie, it was the opportunity to play more games, and face more shots that enticed her to the PHF.
“As a goalie, I didn’t think I was going to get a whole lot, I thought I’d maybe get ten games at most,” she said of considering the PWHPA for this season. “Here I’ve played a lot already and gained experience in games, not just practice. I think it’s a growing league that’s really picking up a lot of big names, whether it’s Patty Kazmaier winners or national team players. It’s really heading in the right direction, and I think as the calibre and competitiveness continues to grow, it will keep heading in that direction.”
With players now earning liveable wages, league officials expect more PWHPA and European players to make the move to the PHF for next season. As evidenced by Team World at the All-Star game, which featured Olympians and national team members from six nations, talent from across the globe is already gravitating toward the league.
“In Europe, it’s still kind of a young sport for women’s hockey, we’re trying to catch USA and Canada, and it’s going to take a few years, but at the U-18 level it’s developing so much and I think we are doing a good job in general in Europe developing, and with social media, we can get the word out more, and you’ll see the women’s hockey picture getting bigger and bigger,” said Katerina Mrasozva, an Olympian and member of the Czechian national team, which shocked the World last year winning bronze at the World Championships. Mrasova is in her first season in the league with the Connecticut Whale and was named captain of Team World at the recent All-Star celebrations.
As growth continues, it’s the Canadian market that provides perhaps the largest opportunities for the league.
"Amongst women's sports eyeing expansion within the Canadian market, hockey and football (soccer) will likely have the best traction throughout the country," said Josh Walker, Co-Founder and President of Sports Innovation Lab, which focuses on studying growth opportunities and fan engagement in women’s sport.
PHF commissioner Reagan Carey also told The Hockey News earlier this season that the league is “eager to continue to grow our presence in Canada,” following the successful expansion into Toronto and Montreal in recent seasons.
“There’s a lot of people calling with interest and a lot of people inquiring… there are more options now for the league,” said Carey. “I see expansion as being part of that strategic plan in the near future – it’s just a matter of making sure we’re going to the right places and working with the right people.”
As Gabel said, the opportunity to build more Canadian and United States rivalries, similar to the competitiveness between national teams, is a key to building the league’s fan base.
“Adding Canadian teams was huge, having that cross-border rivalry is something that’s so big in hockey,” said Gabel, referencing the rivalries that are already growing between her Boston Pride and teams in Montreal and Toronto, similar to the Original Six rivalries in the NHL. “To have that reinvigorated on the women’s side makes for intense battles every time we play them. Expansion is key moving forward, we want to have as many opportunities for women to continue playing professionally as possible, and the fan bases are growing as well.”
The opportunity for further PHF expansion in Canada and border cities, with an eventual eye on the West coast, is coming. In fact, professional women’s sport is seeing a boom in Canada and North America, not only in hockey, but in soccer and basketball as well. With the National Women’s Soccer League announcing an expansion to Boston, San Francisco, and Utah this week, each club paying a $50 million expansion fee, and plans in the works for a professional women’s soccer league in Canada advancing, with an eye on an inaugural season in 2025, the growth continues.
This spring, the Women’s National Basketball Association will play its first game on Canadian soil, an exhibition match-up in Toronto, which the WNBA admits is a test run for a possible expansion franchise in the city.
“Obviously, we’re working here in the off-season on expansion. It’s one of the things I’m asked about the most by both the media and fans and I get DMs all the time from fans who want a team in their market, which I’ve said from the beginning, a league of our size and scale in a country of our size and scale, leading the women’s sports momentum, we’re going to expand at the right time,” said WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert of her current 12-team league.
For the PHF, Ottawa might be the next logical Canadian city for expansion, continuing to build the league’s regional footprint, while border cities such as Detroit are also intriguing options.
Whether the PHF expands to eight teams following this season or waits until 2024-2025, growth is coming. Eventually, that growth will also include either a new professional women’s league launched by the PWHPA, or the merger of the two groups. Regardless of how it looks logistically, women’s professional hockey is on the rise and is here to stay in Canada.
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