Will a new women’s hockey league succeed where others have failed?

Will a new women’s hockey league succeed where others have failed?

The email arrived on June 29 at around 5 p.m.

There will be a town hall meeting with league leadership in three hours. Make your attendance a priority.

Many of the players in the Premier Hockey Federation didn’t think much of the message. Meetings with the leadership of the women’s league had been called before, and they typically covered routine developments. Some players didn’t think twice about skipping the call and going to dinner or the gym.

The players who joined the virtual town hall that evening didn’t have to wait long before league commissioner Reagan Carey dropped news that was anything but routine. “There’s a lot we’re going to be sharing, a lot of info coming your way, and I just want to reinforce what a moment this is for our sport,” she began.

Carey then explained that the PHF was shutting down after eight seasons. The recently signed contracts of over 100 players were being terminated. But then she delivered a silver lining: In the PHF’s place, a new professional women’s hockey league would begin play in January 2024. It would be backed by Mark Walter, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and would consist of franchises in Canada and the United States.

“There was panic, a lot of confusion and heartbreak, honestly,” said one player on the call.

The players, understandably, had questions and, understandably, there was also a sense of deja vu. This new league — later named the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) — is the third since 2007 that has been formed with the hope of creating a sustainable business model around women’s hockey. Before the PWHL, there was the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (2007-2019), then the National Women’s Hockey League (later renamed the Premier Hockey Federation), launched in 2015.

The new entity has announced teams in six markets (Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Boston, Minnesota and New York) and a 24-game schedule starting on Jan. 1. And league leaders are preaching sustainability. “We did this with a very long-term vision in place,” said Stan Kasten, president of the Dodgers and a PWHL advisory board member. “This is not a short-term or long-term thing, it’s permanent.”

Players are hopeful the PWHL will do for women’s hockey what the National Women’s Soccer League did for women’s soccer, bringing stability and growth to the sport in North America. But history has not been kind to earlier efforts. Financial troubles, broken promises, strategic failings and division among the players contributed to the demise of the earlier leagues. For the PWHL to succeed, past mistakes can’t be repeated.

“This might be the most impactful thing that our generation of hockey players will do,” said Brianne Jenner, who will play for the PWHL’s Ottawa franchise.

Tayler Heise was the first pick of the inaugural draft for the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) in September. (Steve Russell / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The Canadian Women’s Hockey League was, technically, not a professional league.

It was formed in 2007 by a group of athletes looking for a place to play. The seven original teams were clustered in the Toronto area, Ottawa and Montreal and played out of community rinks. Players did not receive a salary and paid for their own gear. It was a step above a beer league only because of the Olympians and future Hall of Famers who took the ice each week.

After one season, Brenda Andress, a former player and referee, was brought in to be the league’s commissioner. The league was a registered amateur association and operated as a charity, relying on sponsorship and donations. Costs were kept low; some small bonuses — hundreds not thousands — were paid to the best players, but no one made a living playing in the CWHL.

That model, the thinking went, would make for an easy NHL takeover. In the league’s early years, Andress pitched the idea to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, modeling it after how the NBA had taken on the WNBA in 1996. Bettman told Andress the timing wasn’t right. “Our bottom line was to try to create a business that was beneficial to growing women’s pro hockey and to try to get the NHL to take it over,” Andress said.

According to financial statements acquired by The Athletic, total league expenses in 2015 — the CWHL’s eighth year in existence — were $1.2 million and included travel, staff, advertising and team operations. Most players balanced hockey with full-time jobs. Practices were held late at night and infrequently. Players bought their own skates, sticks and tape. Most league employees were volunteers.

“(I didn’t) have a realistic grasp of what pro hockey is like after graduating (from college),” U.S. Olympian Hilary Knight told The Athletic in 2020. “You think after college you go pro and college is a stepping stone professionally. But it’s the opposite. The professionalism ends when you graduate college.”

Despite the CWHL’s 2010 expansion into Boston, dozens of the best U.S. college players graduated without a pro option. The tryouts for the Boston Blades most years featured Olympians and elite college players fighting for just a few spots. Some seasons, the team’s roster had as many as 40 players at practice and rotating in games.

“There were more women than ever trying to compete for those roster spots. And so many women graduating that were just hanging their skates up,” said Hayley Moore, who played on the first Blades team in 2010-11.

Dani Rylan Kearney (née Rylan) had a different vision for women’s hockey.

She grew up playing hockey on Florida’s Gulf Coast and became the first woman to play for the Metro State Division II men’s hockey team in Denver before a two-year stint with Northeastern University’s women’s program. Energized by the 2014 Sochi Olympics — and after seeing teammates graduating college with nowhere to play — Rylan Kearney first pitched Andress the idea of a New York-based CWHL expansion team. It would be called the Riveters with the iconic Rosie the Riveter as its logo.

But during those talks, Rylan Kearney decided to start her own league instead. The Riveters became one of the four founding franchises — New York, Boston, Connecticut and Buffalo — of the National Women’s Hockey League, which was officially announced in March 2015.

The NWHL would be the first professional women’s league that paid its players a regular salary. Initially, teams had a salary cap of $270,000 with player salaries ranging from $10,000 to $26,000.

The league launched as a for-profit entity and was backed by a private group of investors, but an initial lack of transparency over who those investors were created some skepticism among players. Joel Leonoff, the CEO of Paysafe Group, an online payment and gaming company, and the father of player Jamie Leonoff, revealed to ESPNW that he was an investor, but even he did not know who else was involved.

While Rylan Kearney has said she did not intend for the NWHL to compete with the CWHL, that was unavoidable. Many Americans, including Knight, Brianna Decker and Meghan Duggan, left the CWHL for the new league. With the lure of a salary, some Canadians left, too.

The NWHL launched on Oct. 11, 2015; its first game between the New York Riveters and Connecticut Whale was reported to be a sellout at Chelsea Piers in Connecticut. But financial troubles emerged quickly. The league missed a payment to equipment manufacturer Bauer Hockey and just five games into the NWHL’s second season in 2016 the league cut player salaries, some by as much as 50 percent.

Rylan Kearney said that the pay cuts were a “difficult but necessary salary reset,” but the confidence in the league was shaken. Some players re-joined the CWHL; others retired to focus on full-time jobs. Talk about the need to merge the two leagues heated up.

In 2016, Rylan Kearney, Andress and NHL officials met several times over a few months to discuss a singular women’s pro league. Andress was willing to dissolve the CWHL. But the NWHL’s investors needed to be bought out, and the NHL was unwilling to do that.

“We believed the right way for women’s hockey was to belong to the NHL,” Andress said. “But we also had no right to tell Dani to stop running her league.”

NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan Kearney couldn’t come to agreement with CWHL officials about a future path for women’s pro hockey. (Andy Marlin / Getty Images for NWHL)

CWHL leaders came out of those talks feeling the need to pivot to a model that did not rely on being saved by the NHL. “We tried to look at it as an opportunity to bring new money in and build women’s hockey,” Andress said.

That new money came by way of China. With the 2022 Beijing Olympics approaching, the Kunlun Red Star ownership group — in partnership with the Chinese government — cut a deal to operate two China-based teams that would join the CWHL for five seasons and pay an annual fee of $1.8 million.

Armed with that influx, the Canadian league began to pay its players annual stipends ranging from $1,000 to $10,000. That added approximately $600,000 to the league’s expenses. According to the league’s 2018 financial statement, the CWHL spent $4.2 million in 2018 — up from $1.4 million in the previous season. Travel costs increased by $700,000.

Before the start of the 2018-19 season, though, the KRS China group went from operating two teams to one. According to the league’s 2019 financial report, revenue decreased by $1 million. That put “significant strain” on the league’s bottom line, according to a league memo sent in June 2019, and “the CWHL was in severe financial distress.”

On March 31, 2019, one week after the championship game, the CWHL announced that it would cease operations.

Just three days after the CWHL shut down, Rylan Kearney told players on a conference call that the NWHL was prepared to expand into Canada. The league had beefed up its ownership groups, including selling the Buffalo Beauts to Pegula Sports and Entertainment and securing a partnership with the New Jersey Devils and expansion into Minnesota. The league also became more transparent about its investors, revealing that Leonoff, Neil Leibman, co-owner of the Texas Rangers, and Lee Heffernan, a marketing executive, were helping fund the league.

But even as Rylan Kearney was presenting the NWHL as financially secure and the future of women’s professional hockey, bad blood over the 2016 salary cuts and distrust born from the fighting with the CWHL led a huge swath of players to decide that they wanted nothing to do with the league.

On May 2, 2019, more than 200 players announced in a coordinated social media statement that they would not play professionally in North America “until we get the resources professional hockey demands and deserves.” Following that statement, the Pegulas relinquished ownership of the Beauts and the Devils ended their partnership with the Riveters.

It was a massive blow to the NWHL, and it lingered. The boycotting players, who called themselves the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, played exhibition games in various North American cities, reminding fans that many of the stars of the game were not in the NWHL.

Blayre Turnbull (40) and Jocelyne Larocque competed during the PWHPA All-Star Game in Ottawa in 2022. (Chris Tanouye / Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

John Boynton graduated from Harvard in 1988 and founded multiple businesses in Russia, including Yandex, the search engine. Johanna, his wife, was captain of the Harvard women’s hockey team. The Boyntons also coordinated housing for the 2014 U.S. Olympic women’s team that trained in Concord, Mass.

They were hockey aficionados with deep pockets and, in 2019, amid the boycott, they tried to rescue the NWHL. “We were aware of the rift and thought, ‘OK, we really need to solve this,’” John said.

The Boyntons, through their company BTM Partners, started with ownership of the Boston Pride in 2019. The Boyntons later backed league expansion into Toronto and Montreal and took over control of the Metropolitan Riveters. Eventually, Boynton’s BTM Partners owned four of the league’s seven teams; two others were sold to existing investors.

John became chairman of the NWHL’s board of governors and Johanna a board member, with designs on making the league attractive to the boycotting players. The league raised the salary cap to $150,000 in 2020-21 and increased team operating budgets. And in October 2020, Rylan Kearney was ousted as commissioner. A few months later, she was no longer working in the league she founded.

“I think the influential people who took over the league were misled to believe that I was the big bad wolf and that I was the reason the NHL wasn’t involved, that I was the reason the PWHPA wouldn’t play in the league, and that I was the reason that women’s hockey was bifurcated,” she said. “I think they thought that as soon as I was removed that the NHL would run in and that the PWHPA players would join the league and that everybody would start singing ‘Kumbaya.’”

That didn’t happen.

In March 2022, the league, now rebranded as the Premier Hockey Federation, made headlines when it announced the Toronto Six were purchased by an all BIPOC ownership group led by retired NHL player Anthony Stewart, Hockey Hall of Famer Angela James and others for a reported $3 million to $5 million. That announcement came before an official agreement was struck. The deal eventually fell through, and the BTM Partners retained majority ownership of the team.

There were other missteps, most notably the Lake Placid “bubble” in 2020-21 that turned into a public health fiasco. The league planned to have a two-week season in a controlled environment, with the playoffs broadcast on NBC Sports. But the low salaries meant players could not take time off from their full-time jobs to quarantine. Only days into the season, multiple players tested positive for COVID-19 and the season was suspended.

“I quit because of Lake Placid,” said one former league staffer who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to the media. “It was never anything but a big show to the (boycotting players). ‘Look at us, we’re on NBC.’ ‘Look at us, we’re thriving through the pandemic.’ And at that point, there weren’t any health benefits for players. There was no care whatsoever, and they just kept charging on.”

The salary cap was up to $300,000 per team for the 2021-22 season, and the board of governors made a commitment to inject $25 million over the next three seasons, but the league remained hamstrung because a huge collection of the sports’ best players continued to boycott the league.

That dispute came to a head in March 2022 when some of the boycotting players and PHF officials met in New York at Bettman’s behest to discuss joining forces. Those talks went nowhere. The boycotting players voted unanimously to end discussions about collaborating with the PHF.

In November, only a few weeks into the 2022-23 PHF season, John Boynton received a call from Kasten, the Dodgers president, who revealed that he’d been working with Walter to create a new women’s hockey league. “He asked if we would be interested in selling,” Boynton said.

That was the first of a series of conversations over nearly eight months. But before the new league was officially formed, the PHF announced a $1.5 million salary cap for the 2023-24 season and started signing players to new contracts. Dozens of players signed deals that would make hockey their full-time job. Some quit their day jobs; others bought homes or moved to new cities. It was one reason the announcement of the new league in the virtual town hall in June caused panic and confusion.

“We simply had to be ready to operate a full season in the event that things didn’t work out,” Boynton said, adding. “Until there is unification, there is no way a league could succeed financially. The fact that women’s hockey was viewed as a hot mess before discouraged partners from getting involved. … Now that the controversy that had enveloped women’s hockey is gone, sponsors will be able to get involved in a much bigger way. Broadcast opportunities will be bigger. That means faster growth.”

That is the rosy vision, and players want to share it. But so many have lived through rough times, stops and starts before.

Walter’s involvement is a plus, as he has the money — a net worth of $5.8 billion, according to Forbes — and sports business acumen that earlier league leaders lacked.

The league’s eight-year collective-bargaining agreement puts the average player salary at $55,000, which gives teams a $1.265 million salary cap. The CBA also includes moving and housing stipends, among other benefits.

“Every team will get the full equal support of the ownership because we own all of the teams,” Kasten said. “We do not have big-budget teams and small-budget teams. Everyone will be on equal footing.”

Kasten would not divulge details but said the league will have “robust budgets” for staffing, promotion, marketing, game operations and other operational costs, and already has over 100 employees — far more than any predecessor. The PWHL has announced partnerships with Canadian Tire Corporation and CCM Hockey.

The league has yet to announce a broadcast deal, and its six teams do not have names and logos yet, despite the Jan. 1 opener between Toronto and New York at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto being a mere 26 days away.

Still, when the puck drops for that game it will mark something new: a women’s professional league available to and supported by all the players, with no competitor, backed by a well-funded owner. To many players, it feels like the ice has finally been cleared.

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic. Photos: Nick Lachance, R.J. Johnston / Toronto Star via Getty Images; Bruce Bennett / Getty; Spencer Colby / Associated Press)

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