Pro Women's Hockey League season deemed a success, though challenges remain entering Year 2

Stan Kasten never promised the inaugural season of the Professional Women’s Hockey League would go off without a few hitches.

While challenges remain, the PWHL advisory board member could also boast on Friday how attendance figures, merchandise sales, and, most important, the on-ice product, exceeded many expectations.

“I will tell you that yes, it exceeded what we thought we were going to exceed,” Kasten said during a news conference held before Minnesota hosted Boston in Game 3 of the league's best-of-five championship series, which is tied at 1.

“The last time I was here, I told you that I thought that day really convinced us we were going to make this work,” Kasten said of Minnesota’s first home game attracting a crowd of 13,316 on Jan. 6. “But even then, I couldn’t have imagined how the year would play out.”

The six-team PWHL is riding high following a season in which it averaged 5,448 fans per game, including a women’s hockey record of 21,105 to Montreal’s Bell Centre last month; reached sponsorship deals with more than 40 companies; didn't have its playoff race settled until the final regular-season game; and was honored Wednesday as the sports breakthrough of the year by the Sports Business Journal.

Now comes the hard part as the PWHL approaches its first full offseason needing to address several major issues ranging from identifying permanent venues, to having little room to fit an influx of more than 150 players declaring for the draft next month.

Stay tuned was the common takeaway from Kasten and senior VP of hockey operations Jayna Hefford on most issues, although the PWHL did announce that it would hold its draft in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 10 followed by its awards ceremony a day later.

Team nicknames and logos, which were held up in the rush to launch the league, are also coming, but no timetable was revealed.

Kasten and Hefford, however, were unable to go into specifics on venues. Toronto has already outgrown its current 2,500-seat home, and New York struggled with attendance while splitting its home games between Connecticut, Long Island and New Jersey.

“When the season’s over, we’re going to review everything, every city, every venue that we’re in and we’re going to try to improve,” Kasten said, while calling the New York venue situation as not ideal.

A person involved in discussions told The Associated Press that the PWHL is focused on having New York play in one facility, either UBS Arena — home of the NHL's Islanders — or the Devils’ Prudential Center, with the potential of playing select games at Madison Square Garden. The person also said the league is in talks to have Toronto move into the 8,000-seat Coca-Cola Coliseum, which served as the team’s home in the playoffs.

The person spoke to The AP on the condition of anonymity because the talks are private.

A more complicated issue is finding room for the influx of new prospects — college graduates and Europeans — to a league that isn’t considering expansion until Season 3 at the earliest.

Hefford said the league continues discussions with hockey stakeholders — including the International Ice Hockey Federation — to have players who don’t make the cut play elsewhere, including Europe.

The PWHL will go from each team playing 24 games to at least 30 next year, with the season expected to open in early December at the latest. And there's the promise the league will schedule more neutral site games after playing in Detroit and Pittsburgh this year.

The PWHL faced a time crunch entering its first season after being established 11 months ago, when the league’s primary financial backer, Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Walter, bought out the competing women’s pro league, the Premier Hockey Federation. That gave league officials just six months to identify its six sites, hire league and team staff and fill rosters.

The year went by so quickly, Hefford found it difficult to put into perspective until Wednesday, when she and league officials accepted the SBJ award.

“I said to friends and family that I’ve never been part of something like that,” said Hefford, who won four Olympic gold medals representing Canada.

“To care so much about something that you’re not out on the ice trying to win, it was a really special moment for a lot of us,” Hefford added. “That gave us an opportunity to reflect back on everything that has happened this year, and how significant an impact we’ve had.”


AP Women’s Hockey:

John Wawrow, The Associated Press