On a sun-drenched Florida Friday afternoon, it was a sea of sunglasses and bright floral shirts as women from the Premier Hockey Federation stepped off team buses ready to suit up and begin their Isobel Cup playoff tournament.
Its franchises are in cold-weather places – Toronto, Boston, Buffalo, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Minnesota. This year-end championship tournament takes place in balmy Wesley Chapel, a suburb 30 kilometres north of downtown Tampa, at AdventHealth Center Ice, a four-pad arena bustling with young hockey players and figure skaters. The PHF is playing on the biggest pad, which holds a standing crowd of about 650 people. Tickets to the event are free.
It wasn’t quite full for the first preliminary round Friday afternoon, but the fans were loud and engaged, dancing to the pumping music, shaking free tambourines or sipping beers from the restaurant. Cameras captured the games to broadcast on ESPN+ in the United States and TSN Direct in Canada. The centre-ice faceoff circle was painted with a tropical fluorescent pink and orange logo – featuring the Isobel Cup trophy amid palm trees and the Tampa skyline – which glowed when the arena dimmed.
Formerly the National Women’s Hockey League, this six-team pro league rebranded to the PHF in this, its seventh, season. The players joke that it also stands for People Having Fun. This is their big weekend in the spotlight, culminating with the championship game on Monday night.
“Making Waves” is the marketing line for the weekend. It’s also, fittingly, what female hockey players are doing right now – fighting to make a living as pros in a sustainable league. Women’s hockey is enjoying peak attention, boosted by the recent Winter Olympics and poised to take the next step. But it is unclear what next season looks like – especially with the PHF’s commissioner set to step down and a meeting among hockey executives from rival groups earlier this week looking for a common ground.
The women battling for the Isobel Cup aren’t the same players who won medals with the Canadian and U.S. teams in Beijing. Those athletes are part of a different group – the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, which has been working toward its own pro league, holding a showcase tour and talking to its own investors. Representatives from the PHF and the PWHPA met in New York on Wednesday, by invitation of the NHL, to explore working together. When contacted by The Globe and Mail, no one from the NHL, the PHF or the PWHPA would comment on the meeting.
The PHF has made some big promises to its players: expansion to eight teams (including one in Montreal) for 2022-23, along with a club salary cap of US$750,000, full health care benefits, facility upgrades, new equipment, and increased ice time. They’ve announced a new BIPOC ownership group for the Toronto franchise. The league’s board of governors has vowed to invest US$25-million over the next three years from its owners to enhance the player experience.
John Boynton, the chair of PHF’s board of directors, says the clubs hope to break even in three years.
“I love taking risk,” Boynton said of investing in the PHF. He’s an entrepreneur and investor in several companies, including some in Russia, with which he says he is still actively involved.
“We are serious about enabling them to be full-time professional hockey players and so increasing the salary cap to $750,000 is a big step in the right direction.”
Most PHF players balance their hockey with another job. Mallory Souliotis of the Boston Pride, for instance, is a biochemist researching new cancer treatments. Teammate Jillian Dempsey is a teacher. Taylor Accursi of the Buffalo Beauts is an OPP officer.
Boynton said while the average salary in the PHF would be about $37,000 under the new cap, he projected some stars might make upward of $80,000 next season. He’d like to see one league with all the best players.
“Women’s pro hockey is at a very fragile stage of development,” Boynton said. “And if there are two separate leagues, we’re dividing fans, dividing sponsors, it’s confusing and I just think that the sport as a whole is not going to get the kind of support or be able to build the kind of momentum that would be possible if we were working together.”
Boynton said some potential sponsors have told the PHF, “if there’s unification we will write a cheque that is much bigger than we’re going to write if there is no unification.”
Hockey Hall of Famer Angela James has been vocal about it, too, wishing both groups could work together. She’s an assistant coach for the Toronto Six but also part of the BIPOC ownership group taking over the Six with former NHL player and now Sportsnet broadcaster Anthony Stewart, former NHL coach Ted Nolan and Bernice Carnegie of the Carnegie Institute. She’s the daughter of Black NHL pioneer Herb Carnegie. James worries that having the groups pull in two directions “makes women’s hockey look like a joke.”
“If you’re in it, for the betterment of the game and the betterment of the players, then you should come together,” James said at Six practice. “And then look at the power that you would have.”
PHF commissioner Ty Tumminia, who after 18 months on the job is leaving of her own volition, said her discussions with the PWHPA were always “organic and respectful.”
“It’s not one meeting where you walk out and all of a sudden ‘we’re united.’ In order to truly grow something and build it takes time – a long time usually – but it’s so complex. In parts we may agree, and in others, the direction may not be there,” she said. “I think it just needs time and trust in order for that to happen. Or maybe it won’t. The PWHPA might have its own initiative and want to create its own league.”
If the PWHPA announces its own league, it would have a huge impact on the PHF. The attention of fans and media would be divided. And players would have to decide where to play.
“I’ve spent very little of my attention on that – it’s all on my team, and I’ve got a job to do,” said veteran Connecticut Whale player Shannon Doyle. “When I graduated from college it was play pro in Europe or nothing, so I think women’s hockey is in a much better place than when we found it. ... a little progress every year. Look at the NHL – it wasn’t built overnight.”
“I think that if we want to grow the women’s game, we have to come together,” said Toronto defenceman Saroya Tinker. “I think that we kind of fall into the patriarchy of society feuding against each other when we don’t come together. I think if we want to see the top level of competition, we’re going to have to come together at one point or another.”