Stars from the two powerhouses of women’s hockey have barely unwound after the Beijing Olympics but are already set to hit the ice on Saturday for an unofficial rematch.
Millions tuned in to watch Canadian stars such as Marie-Philip Poulin and Sarah Nurse beat the rival American team, led by Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne-Schofield, 3-2 in the gold-medal final. It’s been less than a month, but the players feel it’s important to take advantage of their Olympic glow and remain in the spotlight.
Saturday’s game, with the Pittsburgh Penguins playing host, marks the first time the rival players will have faced off so quickly after an Olympics. It’s not an officially sanctioned event, but an exhibition organized by the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA). The player-led group, with help from corporate sponsors and 10 NHL clubs, has been initiating showcase games across North America on its Dream Gap Tour since late 2019. The games are designed to strengthen relationships among the stake holders, draw potential investors and strategize about what a female pro hockey league could look like.
“We’re definitely getting a lot closer,” said Jayna Hefford, Hockey Hall of Famer and PWHPA operations consultant. “We feel like there’s a lot of momentum right now. We’ve spent the last year really doing the hard work quietly behind the scenes.
“We certainly are looking towards next hockey season. We’ve never swayed from that. We know these players need a place to play.”
While Hockey Canada and USA Hockey have organized exhibition games for the women before each Olympics, they have never scheduled rematches immediately afterward. Neither federation is involved in Saturday’s game. The women won’t be wearing the usual Nike national team jerseys. Instead, the players will sport Adidas PWHPA-branded jerseys: the Canadians in red and black, the Americans in red, white and blue.
The women are heated rivals in international competition – evident as the Canadians celebrated gold on the Beijing ice while the Americans watched in agony from their bench. But off the ice those national team players have been unified since meeting at the 2019 women’s world championship to decide what to do after the sudden closing of their Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
They decided then not to play in the newly rebranded Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) – because they didn’t believe it could provide a livable income and other resources they wanted. Today, the PHF says it has a solid league framework and has addressed all of the reservations the women had about playing there – from improving travel to securing independent club owners, and raising the salary cap to US$750,000 a team for next season. Hockey Hall of Famers Willie O’Ree and Angela James recently bought into PHF franchises, and James was disappointed the PWHPA hasn’t joined forces to build the game.
“In our minds what our vision for this is, it just doesn’t exist right now, and we don’t think our athletes need to compromise on what they feel is important,” Hefford said. “Half of these players are still devastated after [losing gold] in Beijing, but they’re still going to show up in Pittsburgh and it shows how powerful this movement is.”
For this weekend’s showcase, the Penguins have covered travel, arranged TV broadcasts and ticket sales. The club has a hotel partner to provide rooms, and existing relationships with local girls’ hockey programs to stage a youth clinic. The women will be paid for their time in Pittsburgh, although the PWHPA declines to say how much.
“This is about recognizing the fact that we need to do a better job, especially from our position of privilege within the NHL and the men’s hockey program that has been running for decades,” said Kevin Acklin, the Penguins chief operating officer and general counsel. “It’s not good enough just to talk the talk. You’ve got to spend money and take risks and support efforts like growing women’s hockey.”
Acklin says the Penguins have had discussions about creating a women’s pro franchise in Pittsburgh, but do not have a timeline. Saturday’s event fits the Penguins’ mission to widen hockey participation and the fan base, and the club sees the female game as an area of untapped potential.
Acklin points to signs such as an 80-per-cent growth in participation in girls’ hockey programs in the Pittsburgh market over the past 15 years, and the impressive TV audiences in North America for the late-night Olympic gold-medal final. NBC averaged 3.54 million viewers, more than any televised hockey game in the United States since 2019, just behind the title-clinching game of the 2021 Stanley Cup final. In Canada, 2.7 million watched on CBC.
Brands have shown huge interest in women’s hockey, too – including Tim Hortons, Sobey’s, Mattel, Scotiabank and EA Sports. Hockey Canada says it noticed spikes in sales of its women’s jersey during the Olympics and also increased social-media activity.
The PWHPA began planning Saturday’s event before Beijing. It looked to other instances in which athletes capitalized on Olympic popularity with post-Games showcases. It was also helped by its advisers at the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, and Ballard Spahr, the same law firm that helped the U.S. women’s soccer team spearhead its victory tours. The hockey players also took note of Simone Biles leading a cast of star gymnasts in the Gold Over America Tour after the Tokyo Olympics, and figure skaters fresh off the Winter Games touring with Stars on Ice.
This is the only PWHPA event involving the Olympians, although a few of them are NCAA players – including young Canadian star Sarah Fillier – so under NCAA rules are ineligible to play Saturday because they would be compensated.
Hefford said the PWHPA initially aimed for a post-Olympic tour with multiple games on both sides of the border in partnership with NHL teams, but that proved difficult. Canada’s NHL clubs have been hit hard by COVID-19 restrictions, still in place when talks were held.
Timing is tight, too, for the women during this unconventional year. They need to squeeze in a short off-season before getting back in peak shape for the world championship – newly added for women during an Olympic year, and scheduled for August in Denmark.
The players have been busy since Beijing. Some women nursed injuries. Others travelled to their home towns to show off their medals. Several were invited to community events or to drop pucks at NHL games. Many squeezed in a post-Olympic vacation – including a big group of the Canadians who enjoyed a four-day getaway in Mexico. The gold medalists will leave Pittsburgh immediately after Saturday’s game to travel to Hamilton, where they will be honoured at the outdoor NHL Heritage Classic.
“It just makes sense,” said Canadian defender Renata Fast, from Burlington, Ont. “The Olympics is the most attention that we get and it’s still fresh in people’s minds, so there is a short window to build momentum off of it before people move on to the next big thing.”
Ann Pegoraro, the Lang Chair in Sport Management at the University of Guelph, hopes the players are open-minded about a business model, and not just relying on the things that have made men’s sports leagues successful. She suggests the women focus less on home-and-away games and traditional media, and consider instead centralized competitions, investing in digital disruption, top broadcast equipment, and streaming. She added that many corporate sponsors are realigning their values and finding big returns on investment in women’s sports.
“It does still seem that we are relying on men’s hockey to try to prop up the women’s hockey and I don’t see that that these women necessarily need that,” Pegoraro said. “I think what they need to think about is a different league model. Don’t try to get people to buy tickets and show up at 25 home games in every market each year. Get them to show up at five amazing big centralized events and sell them out.”
Hefford said the PWHPA is having discussions with potential investors, but cautioned that concrete results will take time. “Any potential investor does a lot of due diligence to make sure they want to be a part of a significant investment like this, so it’s not a fast process,” Hefford said. “But we certainly do feel there’s a lot of positive momentum right now and we’re working as quick as we can to have something for these players as soon as possible.”