Reagan Carey’s hockey history mirrors that of so many other women who grew up in and around the game:
She grew up playing on the boys team without a squad of her own, getting game-ready in an arena bathroom instead of a locker room, and pondering a future with opportunities very different from those open to her male peers.
Now, as the new commissioner of the Premier Hockey Federation, she not only sees a future much brighter for women’s players of today and tomorrow — she’s shaping it.
“To even think that there might be a women’s professional league wasn’t really on the minds of us when we were younger,” Carey told Sportsnet earlier this month after the PHF announced her hiring. “And now to see it grow into what it is today and then the opportunity to lead that is really special.”
Carey’s life in sports has seen her hold leadership positions in the NBA and NHL, and most recently with USA Hockey as director and GM of the women’s national teams from 2010 until 2018.
“Anything I’ve pursued in my career has really come down to people and purpose. And I’ve worked, whether it’s a grassroots level or the Olympic level or my time in the NHL, all of it, there is really a sense of purpose for me,” she said.
Her purpose is now fixed on ushering in another new era for the PHF, which will embark on its eighth season this fall. Carey takes the reins from former commissioner Tyler Tumminia, whose two-year stint at the helm saw sweeping changes league-wide including the introduction of new business and ownership models, expansion to Toronto and the promise of more to come, a full rebrand and name change, and the announcement of a $25-million investment in the league complete with salary cap and benefits.
We caught up with Carey to talk about her path to the PHF and how she envisions the way forward.
EMILY SADLER: How did talks first start, about you joining the PHF as commissioner?
REAGAN CAREY: I got a few calls from a few leaders in sport, kind of expressing that this might be a good opportunity to take a harder look at. I’m certainly aware of the women’s professional hockey landscape and keep tabs on it … So, I had the opportunity to just look at it a little closer and then had some initial meetings where I got to really get to know the people involved a bit more, and the vision and the commitment for the future.
From there, just like anything, you know when you’re energized about an opportunity and can see a path forward and how you could be a contributor to what the vision is and maybe add to that. So, following that, it was a pretty quick road to where we are today.
Over the course of your time at USA Hockey, you oversaw a lot of growth and success in women’s hockey. How has that experience influenced how you approach this job with the PHF?
I think what made it successful was our commitment to “we” and that togetherness aspect of it.
The players, early on when I got there, I asked them to come up with what kind of legacy they wanted to leave and why this was important to be part of USA Hockey. And part of what they came up with was that it was an opportunity to be part of something bigger than themselves. We knew that winning was important, but important so that they had a greater platform to be able to do great things in their home communities and even on the global scale. So, we were really mission-driven and purpose-driven. I hope that same initiative will help us reach even new, greater heights here with the PHF.
What has the transition process been like to have the handing over of the torch, if you will, with now-former commissioner Tyler Tumminia?
I talked to her before taking the job and had the opportunity to really pick her brain a bit about all the experiences she had in that role. She was very generous with her time and shared her thoughts and insights and was just really helpful in my decision process, as well as knowing that she was willing to help in any way and be a good teammate moving forward.
She’s really passionate about the league and she should be — and I believe she is — proud of the accomplishments she made in her time in the leadership role she had. She really lifted the league from some of the early issues the NWHL had. I give Dani Rylan [Kearney] a lot of credit — she was brave and bold and went out there to say, “Hey, women need to get paid,” and started that path ahead. Yeah, it was imperfect in many ways, it had misfires and some obstacles to work through like any new business or any new franchise would. But without that, we wouldn’t have gotten to the opportunity where leadership and ownership changed and could really capitalize on what was started there. So, it’s all part of the history and where we’re headed with everything.
As you look ahead to your first season, how do you pinpoint priority No. 1?
I’m still gathering notes and listening. And that won’t take forever — I wish I could spend more time on it, but realistically we also have to be mindful of the time we have ahead to get things done.
But I think if I answer that in a bit of a different way, I think communication and transparency is really at the core of our success.
I’ve shared letters in the last week with the alumni that I know, not just PHF, but the national team and Olympians, and reached out to the college and university coaches as well as obviously everybody within the PHF community and NHL as well. My commitment is to make sure everybody is fully aware of what we value, what we’re doing, and the areas that we still need to improve upon so that we can welcome all the support in doing that and get there faster … being committed to that communication and just shoring up the processes that are required to have as close to a flawless season as you can have and one that builds trust and reliability within the people that are invested in our league.
You have relationships with some U.S. national team players and some of the leading voices who are currently in the PWHPA. Have you reached out to some of those players, and do you foresee potentially some bridges being formed there?
Yeah, absolutely. I have a ton of respect for that player pool and I’ve always supported them. We’ve had opportunities to prove that along the way and I’ll continue to support them. I’ve said consistently, I truly believe anybody who’s working to the betterment of women’s hockey, I see them as a teammate regardless of the jersey they’re wearing or the entity they’re affiliated with at the time. So, I see it as all positive.
I’ve reached out to that group in advance to just acknowledge that I’ll always be cheering for them, but also explain what we’re doing here at the PHF. I think the reason for that group initially going in their own direction made sense at the time — they needed more out of the league and they deserved more out of the league. Years later, we’re in a spot where that opportunity to recognize what is needed and to build on that and to make this professional league a place and the best home for the elite women’s hockey players is what we’re building and what in a lot of cases has been built already. So, I think it’s an interesting time.
It’s certainly something that requires a lot of respect for all involved, because I don’t think anybody’s out there trying to make it more difficult. But my hope is the communication just continues to stay open. I’m always going to have an open door and a collaborative mindset.
A lot of the language around women’s professional hockey is focused on one league. What is your perspective on a future of women’s hockey that could potentially have two?
I think, unfortunately, it turns into a bit of a negative light for women’s hockey.
In a short amount of time there’s so much growth and there’s so much opportunity in women’s professional hockey and so much interest from investors and partners. And I think that’s where the real story is. You know, five years ago people were saying, “Hey, women need to get paid to play.” And the PHF has answered that call, and “We need to see more women’s hockey on TV — not just during the Olympics,” and that has been answered in the last few years. And same with medical care. All these things are important, but it was not that long ago where that wasn’t even possible. Now that’s happening, and now we have potentially even more opportunities in other areas.
Right now the PHF is the only league that exists for women’s hockey, so the reality is there is one league. The PW has put on some terrific events and have highlighted the game in a lot of different ways and I am completely aware that their goal is to use that momentum to create a league as well. So I think it’s, again, it’s just an opportunity.
What it looks like in five more years from now will be just as different as it did five years ago [compared] to today. So, it’ll keep evolving. And my hope is that everybody that’s in a leadership position within these areas continue to recognize that working together is the way to go.
You recently named Mel Davidson as director of league and hockey operations, which means two longtime national team leaders coming together in collaboration.
We’ve got a pretty good undefeated track record, when you put us together [laughs].
How did that process go to bring her on board, and what do you see her bringing to the league in her new role?
Mel stands alone. What she’s done for the game is just unprecedented — for just one person, how much change she’s affected for the good of the sport.
She spearheaded so many development camps and mentoring camps, not just for players of national teams from all over the world to then mentor other countries, but also coaches and just the support staff that’s required, too — video coaches, athletic training, all these things that really build winning programs.
The amount of respect I have for Mel, and the selfless approach she’s taken to growing the sport, is just huge. And to have somebody like that that really understands how to navigate all of the different angles of the sport — I mean, no one knows it better than her. So, I’m excited for just the wealth of knowledge and experience and passion she’s going to bring to the PHF.
I want to touch a little bit on expansion talks. I’m assuming that you can’t tell me where you’re expanding to… but is there a date that we could expect an announcement?
There’s not. But I can tell you that’s a priority … to just have a timeline for that. I know it’s critical. It’s critical for us as a league, but also for the player pool, and just the logistics of everything. I’m going to assess, too, you know, the pros and cons of expansion right now. I know those plans have been made prior to me getting here, but we really want to make sure that we’re doing everything that’s in the best interests of the moment, but also the sustainability of the league and those evaluations and conversations with all the potential expansion markets will be made quickly and hopefully we’ll have some answers one way or another here in the very near future.
Is there potentially a case where we don’t see expansion in season eight, but perhaps push it down the road?
It would be premature to answer that, but I think everything’s on the table.
As you map out your game plan for the PHF going forward, how much are you learning from other women’s leagues that you’re looking at – or, vice versa, is there something that you think the PHF does so well that other leagues can kind of take away from that?
I’m a huge believer in learning from those who have walked the path before you. We did that with our national team, bringing in not just alumni from USA Hockey and Olympians, but also women’s soccer and a lot of different sports and also in business just to help us navigate our path in the most efficient way we could. I’m sure that we’ll make mistakes moving forward, but I’m pretty committed to ensuring it’s not mistakes that have already been made by another women’s league along the way. So hopefully we’ll make our own, and new ones that somebody else can benefit from down the line.
But what I think is going to be especially unique with women’s sports is just the relationships and the desire to root for each other and champion each other. There’s just such a positive momentum right now that I know all the leaders in different women’s professional sports — the ones that have been longstanding as well the ones that are emerging — I have no doubt that we’re going to be communicating quite a bit to help each other out and to provide pointers and share best practices in a way that brings us all to a new level as quickly as we can.
As you embark on this next chapter – for both you and the league – what is your message you want to put forth?
I think I would reflect back to a similar messaging that our players came up with with USA Hockey, which was just that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. This is our moment on a journey of a long path. And, you know, it’s our responsibility to contribute positively and to respect those that paved the way for us. So I think it’s just an opportunity to recognize that it’s more than just what it means to us — which is very important — but, you know, we’re really lighting a lot of torches for those who are coming next, but also in the moment right now. It’s just an exciting time to be part of it and I hope that the players that are in the PHF can really feel that energy and responsibility as well. And from what I’ve seen and the conversations I’ve had, they certainly do.”