The women’s hockey calendar is about to fill up – but inequalities in the professional game remain a problem

Canada's Ella Shelton (right) and Victoria Bach (left), pictured above during the 2021 Women's Ice Hockey World Championship, will compete in several of the sport's significant events over the next two months.  (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - photo credit)

Canada’s Ella Shelton (right) and Victoria Bach (left), pictured above during the 2021 Women’s Ice Hockey World Championship, will compete in several of the sport’s significant events over the next two months. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press – photo credit)

Three major women’s hockey championships will be played in the next two months.

First, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association concludes the Dream Gap Tour with the Secret Cup, beginning March 10th.

Then the Premier Hockey Federation distributes its Isobel Cup in the weeks following the conclusion of the regular season on March 12th.

Finally, the World Championships begin on April 5th in Brampton, Ontario.

And that’s not even including the Rivalry Series, a showdown between Canada and the US that ends in Quebec at the end of February.

Busy times to be sure. But a glaring gap remains: the sport’s best players reside in the PWHPA, while the logistical structure of a league appears to reside in the PHF. Meanwhile, international competition remains the sport’s crown jewel.

professional division

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman recently said his league continued to have concerns about women’s hockey if the factions remain separate.

“Each of them seems determined to go in their own direction. I think for women’s hockey to be successful, everyone needs to maximize their efforts together. Because founding a league is not easy,” he said in January.

Sami Jo Small, a three-time Canadian Olympian and president of the PHF’s Toronto Six, said that while she doesn’t think the split will hurt the sport, she would be interested in uniting with the PWHPA.

“I think it’s not a PHF issue at this point. I think the conversation is very open, and Reagan Carey, our commissioner, has always said that we’re more than open to that conversation and would like to have PWHPA players and join the two factions,” she told CBC Sports .

“It seems like a no-brainer in women’s hockey right now. But it’s not happening, not because of our team.”

PWHPA players, meanwhile, remain committed to creating a “sustainable” professional women’s hockey league that they are working toward.

Victoria Bach, a Milton, Ontario native who has been a PWHPA member since its inception from the ashes of the now-defunct Canada Women’s Hockey League in 2019, said to her, “sustainable” means “being treated like professionals.”

“Having the right visibility, making sure that all the things that we need to do our best and thrive as professional athletes are sort of lined up for us. I think that’s the most important thing,” Bach told CBC Sport.

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Rising interest, investment

Look across the divide and both sides agree that women’s hockey is on the rise. Small said she had never encountered so much interest in the sport.

“More than that, so many young girls playing and participating, so many women going into jobs and sports. I just think it’s such an exciting time for women’s sport in general [and] specifically women’s hockey,” she said.

To that end, the PHF is raising its salary cap to $1.5 million next season. In January, the Six signed recent college grad Daryl Watts, who later revealed her salary next year is a record $150,000.

For comparison, former WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart’s contract with the New York Liberty, signed in February, is reportedly worth $175,000, or about $27,000 less than the league maximum.

Toronto’s Watts was a week away from starting a master’s program in commercial real estate before diving into professional hockey.

“When I was a kid, there wasn’t a pro women’s hockey league to look up to. There were the national teams, but my focus was really on getting a D1 [Division 1] Scholarship to NCAA, go to grad school and then embark on a career path that will allow me to keep making money until I’m 60 and retire,” the 23-year-old told CBC Sports.

“That this league exists now, that the leadership group has set a $1.5 million salary cap, changes my mind.”

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“That’s why we train… to win gold medals”

Canadian PWHPA member Ella Shelton said the current format of the Dream Gap Tour remains a helpful preparation for major championships such as the World Cup, as nearly all Canadian and American national team players are present.

“I’m thinking of going up against Marie-Philip Poulin, playing her one-on-one, fighting with her in the corner. It feels like I’m back in a Hockey Canada practice,” Shelton said.

Shelton could join forces with Poulin at Worlds to help Canada defend their back-to-back titles. Canada is also the reigning Olympic champion.

Both Shelton and Bach said the dressing room allows PWHPA players to separate current affairs from international action, even with regular Rivalry series games popping up.

Bach, who missed out on the Olympic team, is hoping to make the World Cup squad for a third straight year.

“That’s why we train, that’s why we play, to win gold medals and I think that in itself is pretty motivating,” she said.

Small insists the level of talent in the PHF is comparable, although she admitted she was skeptical at first.

“There’s so much talent in North America when it comes to hockey and obviously the national teams pick their teams for a reason, because the players play well together, because the rosters complement each other. That doesn’t necessarily mean those players couldn’t play there,” she said.

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friendly competition

Currently, both the PHF and PWHPA create schedules that allow players to keep other careers alive, meaning they train heavily in the early morning and late afternoon to prepare for the weekend’s games.

Bach is a freshman at Teacher’s College, while Small said some of their players have part-time jobs with the Six.

However, both leagues hope to transition to a full-time format next season, potentially forcing some players to choose between hockey and another profession.

The PHF’s growth in recent years is evident – more teams, more money and more talent, like former American PWHPA player Brittany Howard, have come to the league.

The PWHPA is slower to build — Bach notes that “good things don’t happen overnight” — but it has partnered with the businesses of tennis legend Billie Jean King and Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Walker to fund a full-fledged league .

At the moment there seems to be no bitterness or resentment between the PHF and the PWHPA. However, Small admits to having some awkwardness when around former teammates who are now part of the PWHPA.

“I think competition is always good. I think he forced us to be better,” Small said.


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