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PWHPA head Jayna Hefford speaks in Toronto on Oct. 23, 2019.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Surviving the COVID-19 pandemic has been harder for women’s pro sports than men’s because of the financial gap between the two.

Women’s hockey in Canada was already in transition before the pandemic threatened to halt its progress.

The Professional Women’s Hockey Players' Association (PWHPA) will continue its pursuit of a pro league this winter with a sponsorship of $1-million by the deodorant company Secret.

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The PWHPA and the company claims it is the largest corporate commitment ever made in North American professional women’s hockey history.

“It gives our players a lot of confidence that we are moving forward,” said Hockey Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford, who is the PWHPA’s operations consultant.

“It allows us to continue the planning process and that’s crucial during these times.”

Roughly 180 players, including Canadian and American national-team players, formed the PWHPA in the wake of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folding in 2019.

Their goal is a league that pays them enough to be full-time professional players with the same competitive, medical and insurance supports the male pros get.

The players refuse to join the U.S.-based NWHL, which has expanded into Canada this season with the Toronto Six. The NWHL’s sixth season is scheduled to start in January.

“NWHL is primarily funded by investors and to a lesser degree sponsorships, whereas the PWHPA is solely dependent on sponsorship,” Hefford said.

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“Based on all publicly available information, Secret is the largest sponsorship in women’s hockey in North America.”

The company was a sponsor of the PWHPA’s inaugural Dream Gap Tour last winter.

PWHPA players participated in a series of showcase tournaments and exhibition games in both Canada and the United States to promote their game and their aims.

Players weren’t paid, but expenses were covered.

The sponsorship means players will be paid prize money in the next Dream Gap Tour starting in early 2021, Hefford said.

Six tournaments, and possibly a seventh, are planned. The money also helps the PWHPA continue operations and market its players.

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“We’ve seen women more greatly impacted through COVID and certainly in sports, that’s been exacerbated,” Secret senior brand director Lisa Reid said.

"We’re providing a million dollars of support to the PWHPA to really further the cause of women trying to establish a sustainable and equitable future for women in hockey in Canada, through a sustainable league.

“Equal sweat deserves equal opportunity.”

PWHPA players are operating out of North American hub cities Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Minneapolis and Hudson, N.H.

The PWHPA pays for ice time and skills sessions with coaches.

The level of training depends on the number of COVID-19 infections in their region and the public-health restrictions in place.

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“Every region is different. We abide by local, regional, provincial, state and federal regulations,” Hefford said.

“Some are in small groups training right now and some are in full-team training.”

Canada’s mandatory 14-day quarantine for people arriving from outside the country makes scheduling games between Canadian and American teams complicated not only for the PWHPA, but for each country’s hockey federation.

The best-of-five Rivalry Series between Canada and the U.S. women’s teams last winter has been the only international competition for both teams since the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The 2020 world championship in Halifax and Truro, N.S., was postponed to 2021 because of the pandemic.

The 2019 Four Nations Cup in Sweden was cancelled because of a dispute between the host country’s team and its federation.

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“We have 38 Olympians in our five regions, we have over 60 national-team players, so this is where the best players are playing,” Hefford said.

“We continue to do everything we can to support their training needs, and specifically to those players who will go on to play in international events.”

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