Professional women’s hockey in North America took a sharp turn recently, with the announcement that the Mark Walter Group and Billie Jean King Enterprises had acquired the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF), which had been North America’s only professional women’s hockey league.
Walter owns portions of the MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers, the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, the Premier League’s Chelsea FC, and now, the entirety of the PHF.
With the acquisition, it was announced the PHF would cease operations, and assets of the league would now be used to form a yet to be named league alongside members of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA).
In 2019, the PWHPA formed following the dissolution of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League playing a Dream Gap Tour for the past four seasons, while the PHF continued its operations, expanding from five teams to seven with the addition of the 2023 Isobel Cup champion Toronto Six, and the Montreal Force.
Now, all of the world’s top talent will play in a new six-team league scheduled to launch in January 2024. The rapid shift in the landscape of professional women’s hockey will have wide spanning impacts. Here’s a look at what you need to know.
Fans will no longer need to wait for world championships and Olympic competition to see best-on-best women’s hockey. In the new league, North American national team stars like Marie-Philip Poulin and Taylor Heise, and Europeans who were signed to PHF contracts like Alina Muller, Noora Raty, Emma Soderberg and Katerina Mrazova will be on display.
Prior to this acquisition, international players were not able to play in the PWHPA. Now, the world’s best players who are not currently under contract in Europe will be eligible to play. Last season the PHF featured five members of Czechia’s bronze medal winning roster from the world championship, and this coming season had players from 13 nations signed to play.
The new league will also bring the top North American non-national team players together, whether it’s new NCAA graduates like Patty Kazmaier Award winner as the NCAA’s top player Sophie Jacques or national champion Sophie Shirley, PWHPA members like Hannah Brandt, Laura Fortino and Victoria Bach, or longtime PHF stars such as Madison Packer, Jillian Dempsey, Jonna Albers and this year’s PHF most valuable player, Loren Gabel. It will be a deep and talented group of players unseen in the history of women’s hockey.
Hundreds of women set to lose jobs
While best-on-best has a benefit, professional hockey in North America is set to drop from 11 teams to six.
The reduction in roster spots will immediately leave close to 150 women who played professional hockey without jobs next season. The six-team league with 23-player rosters will offer 138 salaried positions, plus a handful of “reserve” roster spots, although those roles will pay only $15,000 per season, an unliveable wage.
The PHF featured roughly 160 players last year and had already signed close to 40 new players from Europe, the NCAA and USports this year. The PWHPA had 97 members last year, and had approximately a dozen top NCAA players waiting to join as well.
With more than 300 professional players between the PWHPA and PHF anticipating roster spots coming into this season, more than half will now be forced to look elsewhere. The problem, however, is due to the late timing of the acquisition, most European rosters are already full, meaning many women’s professional players will be out of the game.
How much will players get paid?
For the first time in North American professional sport, members of the PWHLPA and PWHPA ratified a collective bargaining agreement prior to the founding of a league itself.
The agreement lays out a minimum salary of $35,000, a figure that teams can sign a maximum of nine players to, as well as a stipulation that teams must sign a minimum of six players to contracts of at least $80,000 that will be guaranteed for three years. While the CBA does not include a salary cap, it does outline that teams must adhere to a $55,000 average salary. A variety of bonuses, including $1,000-1,500 for making the All-Star Game, and $5,000 for winning league MVP also exist, along with a $1,500 per month housing stipend.
Salaries are scheduled to increase by 3% annually across the duration of the CBA, which will expire in 2031. One criticized aspect of the CBA is that many players coming from the PHF who had signed historic six-figure contracts will now be taking massive pay cuts to compete in the new league, as well as the fact that contract security does not exist.
According to the CBA, the league and/or teams can terminate standard player agreements "prior to the end of its term because of the quality of the player's on-ice performance."
Questions that need to be answered
While the plan for the new league to launch in 2024 is exciting, many questions still exist for players, fans and the league itself.
One of those questions is looking at where the six teams will be located.
League leadership has stated that three teams will be located in Canada, and three teams in the United States, with Montreal and Toronto as probable locations. In the U.S., Chicago has long been a rumored destination, while cities including Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Minneapolis have also been rumored destinations. While seven franchises existed in the PHF, it’s expected that none of these teams or names will continue to exist.
Another question to be answered is how players will be designated to certain teams.
With a single ownership group overseeing all teams, traditional free agency is unlikely to occur. Rather, a “draft” has been the speculated path. As one national team member told Yahoo Sports, national team members expect to have some influence in choosing their destination, while other players may be placed without a choice. A future draft similar to other professional leagues is also expected to be formed to recruit European and college talent. According to communication sent to all PHF players, a player evaluation advisory committee will be formed to ensure unbiased selection of players for the league from the PWHPA, PHF and NCAA pools will occur.
While the final look is yet to be determined, all women in North America and some Europeans will now be playing in a single North American league beginning in 2024.