Inside Team USA star Brianna Decker’s move from the PWHPA to the PHF

Team USA star Brianna Decker has joined the Premier Hockey Federation as the team and player development adviser. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for Team USA)

Brianna Decker doesn’t even pause to think it over, because there’s no question in her mind: If the Team USA star was healthy enough to play this season, she’d be suiting up in the Premier Hockey Federation.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Decker says.

That’s big news because it represents a change in opinion from one of the world’s best players: Until recently, Decker was part of a group boycotting the PHF.

It’s now a well-known part of women’s pro hockey history that, back in 2019, many of the biggest stars in the game, including members of the Canadian and American national teams, came together to form the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association. Ever since, the PWHPA has been working toward a sustainable pro league, something its members contend doesn’t exist. In their minds, the PHF (formerly known as the NWHL) wasn’t — and still isn’t — good enough. 

Decker is the first high-profile (and now former) PWHPA member to officially change her opinion on that. She isn’t playing in the PHF because she’s still recovering from a devastating leg injury she suffered earlier this year at the Olympics, but she joined the league in a front office capacity back in August, a part-time role as the PHF’s team and player development adviser.

It was PHF commissioner Reagan Carey who approached Decker with the job offer, and Decker was sold on it in part, she says, because Carey helped turn around Team USA, which won Olympic gold and a slew of world titles while Carey was director of women’s hockey. The offer also came at a time when Decker, 31, had decided she was ready to move on from the PWHPA.

“I felt like the PWHPA hit a bit of a standstill — there’s obviously been talk behind the scenes, but I kind of felt like a lot of us were in the dark a lot,” Decker explains. “When I was around [the PWHPA] in the spring, we had the constant update of: ‘There’s big news coming. There’s big news coming.’ I was like, ‘I need to be active now, and going into this year.’ I think after the Olympic years, we as players are always like, ‘Okay, now we’re going back into whatever situation we’re back to, and if we can have something that’s a little bit more structured, I think that’s what is best.’”

Earlier this year, Sportsnet reported that a new league would come out of the PWHPA and begin play in January of 2023, but PWHPA operations consultant Jayna Hefford recently told Sportsnet the association won’t achieve that “ambitious goal” that quickly

“I would completely disagree that we’re at a standstill,” Hefford said. “I’m really excited about the progress that we’re making and the momentum we have right now.” 

Decker says she is unaware of the PWHPA’s future plans, but she knew she wanted to help pro women’s hockey grow, and Carey got in touch with an offer to do just that. “Honestly, I trust Reagan. She’s a great businesswoman,” Decker says. “You look at what she did for our national team. And she made hires before me with the PHF that I was like, ‘Okay, this looks like the professional standard and the level that I want to be a part of.’ I definitely feel like there’s a bright future. I don’t know what this year looks like for the PWHPA, but for the PHF, we have something in mind that’s going to be great for training and helping athletes.”

Having played in “all the leagues,” as Decker puts it (the now-defunct CWHL, the NWHL when it started up, and most recently the PWHPA), she found a common frustration as a player that she wants to help address in the PHF. “The theme that has been super tough for us has been a lack of structure as far as practices and development,” she says. “I want to be that liaison for the players and the team to be basically keeping tabs on how development is going, and are we getting enough out of practices to become more elite.

“Overall, there are obviously hiccups and bumps, but we’re hoping to get to a point where this is consistently what players are going to get every single year with the PHF. Obviously getting paid is a huge factor, but it’s other things too as far as the hiring process. We had Kacey Bellamy [former Team USA and PWHPA member] over in Denmark recently scouting players. Mel Davidson [former long-time employee of Hockey Canada] was there as well. That just shows you the professionalism we’re trying to start and maintain.”

The PHF’s season opens in November, and with a new expansion franchise set to debut in Montreal, the league now features seven teams, two of them in Canada. Team salary caps have been increased to $750,000, and players can now sign two-year contracts and include signing bonuses in those deals. Of the players who’ve decided to make their salaries public, there are a handful who will make more than $50,000 for the season, as Mike Murphy reports. Back in May, the league’s 2021 MVP Mikyla Grant-Mentis signed with the Buffalo Beauts for $80,000, according to Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek. It’s believed to be the highest-paying contract for a pro women’s hockey player ever.

Decker is expecting to see that growth continue, and she’ll be there to help it along. That she left the PWHPA for the PHF isn’t a move any of her Team USA teammates have criticized. Instead, she says, many reached out to congratulate her on the new role.

“I’m supporting professional women’s hockey and trying to help it in any way. Just because I took the stance of going and helping the PHF doesn’t mean I’m against what the PWHPA is doing. I have a lot of former and current teammates that are involved with that, and I truly just wish we could have one [league],” Decker says. “I think that’s what is going to make women’s professional hockey successful. That’s what we’ve been trying to push for, for a long time. Hopefully we can figure that out sooner than later.”

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Decker says no Team USA players have reached out with questions about the PHF, or told her they might be open to playing there this season.

“Obviously I would love to answer any questions from current PWHPA players who might be interested, but I think our role now is educating some of the younger players coming up through college, who will be graduating next year,” Decker says. “It’s not a matter of, ‘Hey, come play with us and don’t go and play in a different league.’ It’s more so, ‘Here’s what we have to offer, and if this interests you, we would love to have you.’

“In my opinion, that’s what I wanted to get away from, choosing this or that. If there’s going to be two leagues, I think it’s what suits you and works best for you.”

For Decker, if she was healthy that would’ve been the PHF this fall. She’s coaching the girls prep team at her alma mater, Shattuck St. Mary’s, so playing in the weekend-long showcases the PWHPA has planned (two are scheduled: in Montreal in October and in Truro, N.S., in November) wouldn’t have been possible. “I couldn’t leave for a full weekend for a showcase and miss my coaching job,” she explains. “But I can drive up to Minneapolis and play a game on a Sunday night, potentially [for the PHF’s Whitecaps].”

She’s hopeful the PHF is an attractive option for elite players, whether they’re with their national teams or not. “Right now, obviously there’s a lot of national team players who aren’t in the PHF,” she says. “But I also want that to be an option for them because there is going to be proper training. I think it would be really helpful for national team players to play.”

Decker wishes she could be out there herself. The 2018 Olympic gold medallist and six-time world champion has returned to the ice since she broke her left leg in two places and tore ligaments in her left ankle, now with pins and plates in there. But the rehabilitation process has taken time, and there are cuts she’s making on the ice that “haven’t been feeling normal,” as she puts it. She has been told by doctors they will in time, though. “Being back on the ice hasn’t been easy,” she says. “There are days where I don’t notice it, and days where I definitely do.” 

One of the reasons Decker took up the coaching job at her alma mater is because, in addition to an interest in working behind the bench, she knew she’d have access to lots of ice time and teams to skate with.

“If I feel like I can come back from everything, I will,” she says. “Hopefully I can get back this year.”

And in that case, the PHF would have landed one of the biggest stars in the game not only in a front office capacity, but right out there on the ice.

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