Women's pro hockey in North America key to strengthening international game, says IIHF

Team Bauer Marie-Philip Poulin, right, checks Team Sonnet Nicole Kosta during first period PWHPA Dream Tour hockey action in Calgary, Monday, May 24, 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

HERNING, Denmark — A unified North American women's pro hockey league could bolster the international game in the same way the NHL does on the men's side, says the International Ice Hockey Federation's women's committee chair.

But the IIHF is a bystander in the current division between the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association and Premier Hockey League.

The PWHPA of roughly 150 members currently doesn't want to join the PHF, which is expanding to seven teams in its eighth season.

"To be honest, we haven't too much influence on what they are doing in Canada and the U.S.,'' IIHF council member Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer said.

"We are in contact with both organizations and we would be very happy if they could find somehow an agreement and somehow join their sponsors, their knowledge, to build one really strong league.''

About 30 per cent of NHL players were from outside North America in 2021-22. One reason the men have 25-player rosters for their world championship is so countries can add players to their teams after the first round of NHL playoffs.

A North American women's league featuring Canadian and American stars, and also providing jobs to players outside the continent, can strengthen the international game, Kolbenheyer told The Canadian Press.

"That could be a very important league for all national-team players, not only for the North Americans, but also for other nations,'' she said. "The best players could play there and then help their teams coming back to the world championships.''

The majority of the Canada's team and half the U.S. roster at the world championship in Denmark are affiliated with the PWHPA, while seven PHF players are sprinkled across non-North American rosters.

Czechia upsetting Finland to be in the women's world championship final four for the first time indicates competition tightening behind usual finalists Canada and the U.S.

The Czechs, with four PHF players in their lineup, take on the United States and defending champion Canada meets Switzerland in Saturday's semifinals. The medal games follow Sunday in Herning, Denmark.

The competitive gap between the Canadian and U.S. women and the rest of the world hasn't appreciably closed recently, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic contracting women's camps, leagues, games and international tournaments for almost two years.

Kolbenheyer observed the pandemic's toll on women's hockey during Beijing's Olympic Games in February.

"Especially after two years of COVID, I also could feel that somehow the players were not as well prepared,'' she said. "I would say we were expecting a bit more development compared to the previous Olympics.

"We could see really good games, but we could also feel a little bit that players missed a lot of training, and also competition during those COVID times.''

The women's international hockey calendar is now flush with competition, however.

The postponement of the 2021 women's championship to August last year combined with the introduction of an August world championship into this Olympic year has the women playing for a third major IIHF title in the span of a year, and six months after the Olympic tournament.

"It's definitely a little bit of a weird time for hockey, but for us, the more tournaments the better,'' U.S. forward Amanda Kessel said. "We have limited opportunities to play on the national level so any chance that we get we're going to take it.''

There are players in Denmark who felt ready to ready to play a world championship in its regular April time slot less than two months after the Winter Olympics.

"I think I would prefer closer to the Olympics,'' U.S. captain Kendall Coyne Schofield said. "I think you want to capitalize on the moment, strike while it's hot, play right after the Olympic Games. Everyone's in tip-top, peak-performance shape coming off the Olympic Games.''

Next April's 2023 women's championship in Canada in a city to be announced is yet another major tournament in a matter of months for the women. The U.S. will host it in April, 2024.

Women's pro hockey, the 2026 Olympic Games and the timing of that year's world championship are intertwined.

Canadian forward Brianne Jenner envisions playing enough high-level pro hockey by then to potentially replace Hockey Canada's pre-Olympic, six-month centralization of 30 players.

A regular season and playoffs, the Olympic Games in February and an April world championship in one season isn't daunting to her.

"I think we don't play near enough hockey games,'' Jenner said. "The more games we can play the better.

"Having a world championship in April makes sense I think.''

Kolbenheyer said the IIHF will reflect on the timing of the 2026 world championship.

"We all know August is a quite challenging time just before the season,'' she said. "The fans are maybe on holidays still. This is not 100 per cent that we're going to play the next one in 2026 in August.''

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