Professional women’s hockey has been through the ringer these past few years, but the future looks brighter than ever.
In 2019, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded after 12 seasons of operation. The National Women’s Hockey League, now known as the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF), was an option, but 200 of the game’s top players joined forces to boycott the league that was founded in 2015.
"We cannot make a sustainable living playing in the current state of the professional game," said the players in a shared statement at the time.
"Having no health insurance and making as low as two thousand dollars a season means players can’t adequately train and prepare to play at the highest level. Because of that, together as players, we will not play in any professional league in North America this season until we get the resources that professional hockey demands and deserves."
The PHF would continue to operate, but the global pandemic hurt the league severely. The 2020 Isobel Cup Final got axed because of COVID-19. The 2021 campaign was a tournament in a bubble in Lake Placid, N.Y., but it quickly fell apart as several teams had outbreaks. Play was suspended for nearly two months before the league headed to Brighton, Mass., at the end of March for a two-day single elimination playoff with the top four teams.
On Tuesday, there was finally some positive news. The PHF announced their board of governors will invest mre than US$25 million in direct payments and benefits to its players over the next three years. It’s the largest one-time independent investment that pro women’s hockey has ever received. There will be an investment of US$7.5 million in salary and benefits for the 2022-23 season, which will see the six teams in the league have their salary cap rise from US$300,000 to US$750,000.
"I think all of our jaws dropped with excitement," said Kayla Friesen, a Winnipegger who plays forward for the Boston Pride. The 23-year-old was the second overall pick in the league’s 2020 draft by the Connecticut Whale.
"… It helps us all a lot financially. With insurance involved and paid maternity leave, that’s huge. That’s something that’s been talked about by a lot of players the past couple years. So, to finally see it get put in place and to see them back us up is awesome. It gives us a lot of hope for where this league can go."
Morden’s Taylor Woods, a 27-year-old defenceman for the Toronto Six who was recently named a league all-star, played three seasons in the CWHL before signing on with the PHF in 2020. Over the years, Woods, a strength and conditioning coach on the side, has seen several teammates step away as they couldn’t balance a full-time job and pro hockey at the same time.
Woods and the Six currently sit on top of the PHF standings with a 9-1-1 record at the midway point of the season.
"I have to plan playing around coaching. Playing hours take up coaching hours and coaching hours take up playing hours. Juggling and time managing that, I have to have patience with my clients, my jobs, and coaching staff. It hasn’t been easy, but with this investment, it makes it a lot easier," Woods said.
"It makes it a lot more positive to buy into that mission knowing that they’re fighting for our cause. We’re gonna get there. They have that three-year plan and it seems pretty solid right now so we’ll see where it goes."
The league will also be adding two franchises, one in Montreal and another in a U.S. market, prior to next season. It’s been a year of promising announcements as the PHF recently signed a deal with Upper Deck to have the first-ever professional women’s hockey trading cards produced. An agreement has also been made with Warrior to become the PHF’s official equipment partner. As for the broadcasting side of things, ESPN+ became the exclusive home of PHF games in the United States. TSN signed on to air the PHF in Canada.
This is the most optimistic that Woods has felt about the women’s game since turning pro.
"It just shows that little bit more of stability. But then it also shows they’re saying ‘You know what, we see where this product is going. We see that the skill is there and we want to invest in you so you can take more time to develop that skill, develop that product to be the game that we know it can be,’" said Woods.
"It’s just a great step."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.