Women’s hockey stars, PWHPA ‘patient’ in search for long-term league plan

Marie-Philip Poulin. (Nicole Osborne/CP)

Getting Marie-Philip Poulin, Kendall Coyne Schofield, Shannon Szabados and countless other of hockey’s best talents back on the ice in a professional league setting isn’t as straightforward as you may think.

Let’s get the big one out of the way early. Lately, a good number of elite players who are sitting out this season of pro women’s hockey in North America, and others who have jointly formed the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA), have been more vocal about their desire to see the NHL step in and start a women’s league. But there’s no sign that’s going to happen.

The NHL has numerous times made its stance clear on whether it would be willing start a women’s league of its own. On Wednesday, NHL commissioner Bill Daly reiterated the league’s position in an email with Sportsnet: The NHL doesn’t have a business plan for a women’s hockey league that it would operate, Daly said, and while the American-based National Women’s Hockey League is in existence, the NHL has no plans to start up a women’s league.

Daly also said that, with PWHPA members now being more vocal about their desire to have the NHL involved in creating a sustainable league, the NHL doesn’t feel any added pressure to do so.

If the NHL has no plans to step in, the PWHPA is going to have to look for an answer elsewhere.

Imagine — this is entirely hypothetical — that a multi-billionaire notices that some 140 of the world’s best hockey players aren’t playing in a league this year, and offers up the support and cash to start a pro league in North America with resources and promotion unlike women’s hockey has ever seen. You would think that would be a near-perfect solution.

Well, not necessarily, says Jayna Hefford, the Hall of Famer who’s also the operations consultant for the PWHPA. Hefford says that a billionaire’s offer might not get the women back on the ice because the hypothetical wouldn’t necessarily set up the game for future generations.

“I think our concern is that this [women’s professional hockey] becomes something that is long-term, and it’s not a two-year, a five-year, a 10-year, a 15-year plan,” Hefford said in a recent interview with Sportsnet. “[Women’s professional hockey] is something that is going to exist. Sometimes, the problem with private wealth is that it can be interesting and it can be fun for a while,” she adds, but notes it has to be “a long-term investment and you have to be patient.”

Patience has been key for anyone involved in helping to grow women’s hockey — especially this season for Poulin and Coyne Schofield and Natalie Spooner and Brianna Decker and Hilary Knight and Sarah Nurse (the list goes on). The women have played only a handful of games, part of the PWHPA’s Dream Gap Tour, which has staged weekend-long showcases in three cities so far.

The showcases resume in 2020, and the PWHPA has announced Toronto and Philadelphia as future stops. As the PWHPA announced on Wednesday, the Toronto event will be the association’s largest to date, six games played from Jan. 11-12 and with Secret Deodorant as the title sponsor. (“Secret believes equal sweat deserves equal opportunity,” Lisa Reid, Secret Canada’s brand director, said in a release.)

The Secret Showcase will feature six teams of 120 players in all for a two-day showcase, and Poulin, Spooner, Knight, Decker and Coyne-Schofield will be among the participants. Four of the games will take place at Herb Carnegie Arena, while another game will be in partnership with the Rogers Hometown Hockey Tour stop that same weekend in Vaughan at the Al Palladini Centre. The site of the final game in the series will be announced later.

Before the showcases start back up, teams featuring national-team stars like Nurse and Laura Fortino will be squaring off on Nov. 23 at Toronto’s York University, an event put on in conjunction with the North York Storm, a local minor-hockey association. The following Saturday will see the PWHPA move to Orangeville, Ont., a game featuring Brianne Jenner and Spooner, presented by the PWHPA, Orangeville Tigers and B Social Snackbar Dufferin. In the new year, on Jan. 4, Hefford’s hometown of Kingston, Ont., will play host to an event organized by the PWHPA and the Greater Kingston Girls Hockey Association.

And while games and showcases are upcoming and players are practising in their local areas, Hefford underscores the fact that this season hasn’t been easy on the players who opted not to appear in any pro women’s league based in North America — the NWHL is the lone option — because they want a league they feel will be around for future generations.

“This is a tough year for these guys and they often put on a brave face and they smile and they interact with people and they sign autographs and they take pictures and they do all the things that they need to, because they’re great ambassadors for the game,” she said. “But this has been really difficult for them.”

The three weekend-long tour stops already in the books were all hosted in small venues, like Westwood Arena in Toronto, which has a capacity of 200 fans at most. All the events sold out, and Hefford says some bigger venues may be featured in the future, but the PWHPA isn’t expecting to sell out NHL-sized rinks without the resources required to promote events.

“When you look at the big picture, we don’t have that structure we need right now to have 18,000 people. But somewhere down the road, if we had that support and infrastructure, could we? Of course it’s possible,” she said. “We’ll never know until we make the investment.”

And back to that investment. It’s clear the PWHPA needs to find a partner it believes can build a sustainable league for the future. There’s no doubt in Hefford’s mind that the NHL could be the answer.

“I believe they support the game. I believe they want to see it grow,” she said. “But, unfortunately it’s their timeline on where they see they may step in potentially in a bigger way. We continue to have a great relationship with them and we’ll continue to work together to try to build women’s hockey.”

As for what PWHPA wants that future league to look like, Hefford says they don’t have a business plan or proposal drawn up: “We would need a partner in that.”

She retired from hockey as the CWHL’s all-time leader in goals and points (her records have since been broken) and she was commissioner of the league before it folded last season. In her final seasons playing, Hefford remembers rumblings of an “NHL-type league” for women, she says. “Players have been hoping for a long time to have something with the infrastructure, the resources to give them that platform.”

But it’s been nothing but rumours and rumblings, ever since.

“You try to be as patient as you can and hopefully you’re making progress and you’re moving forward,” Hefford said. “I think that’s what we have to focus on right now.”

For the next couple of months, PWHPA members will be playing and training in their local regions, ahead of upcoming showcase events. “This isn’t the solution for the sport by any means,” Hefford said.

The question for the PWHPA remains: What is the solution, and how can many of the best female hockey players in the world get there?

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