Women’s hockey reforms, for better or worse

The PHF has been bought out by the PWPHA’s parent company, but what’s next ain’t exactly clear

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Photo: Arielle Bader/Tampa Bay Times (AP)

A pro women’s hockey league in North America has been something of an ungettable dream. Or at least having one unified one has been. There was the CWHL in Canada, but that folded. There was the NWHL, which became the PHF, but it ran alongside the CWHL and never with it. When the CWHL folded, the PWHPA was formed as those players did not want to be part of the PHF, as they didn’t feel it was professional enough or what the best players in the world deserved.

Those days appear to be behind everyone now, as stories broke last night that the parent company of the PWHPA, the Mark Walter Group, and Billie Jean King Enterprises, are taking over the PHF. This isn’t a merger so much as a buyout, and the PWHPA is reportedly only a step or two from ratifying a new CBA for the new league.


That doesn’t mean it’s all roses. Every player in the PHF has seen their contracts voided, and unless there’s an expansion of the league from the seven teams the PHF had, there isn’t going to be a spot for everyone There are just shy of 80 players signed up with the PWHPA, according to their website, which is enough to fill out most but not all of the roster spots on seven teams. That’s if the new league keeps seven teams. Those that were already signed up with the PWHPA would seem to be guaranteed to get a spot, thanks to that ratified CBA, so one would think. Certainly the quality of the league will shoot up, but there are players who were professional hockey players yesterday and aren’t going to be tomorrow.

The PHF certainly had its problems, and it took many years for them to get their players a living wage or proper medical care. According to Shayna Goldman of The Athletic, the league may have had serious financial problems and was even on the verge of bankruptcy, which the buyout from the PWHPA would save them from.


That doesn’t mean the PWHPA is a perfect solution. For their entire existence, they’ve been clamoring for a WNBA setup where the NHL would either partner with them to form a league or simply back it as the NBA did. The NHL had repeatedly said it wouldn’t wade in while there were two organizations and would wait for some sort of merger. But that’s not automatic.

One, no one should be in a rush to work with the NHL given their business sense. Two, while Bettman and Daly may say all the right things there’s no guarantee that NHL owners are going to want to take this on in their hometowns simply because. The NBA was willing to take on the financial loss for a while until the WNBA established itself. The NHL does not have the same patience, at least in a lot of markets. The NWSL has proven a women’s league can make it on its own should it find a group of owners willing to stick it out, though with some obvious problems too, that aren’t limited to those who just happen to already own a team in the men’s league.

And it’s still hockey. It’s got a niche audience already, and it won’t really have the option of playing in the offseason the way the WNBA does. People aren’t going to hockey games in August, at least not likely. It also doesn’t get the international buzz that soccer does. People watch the gold medal game between Canada and the US every four years, but that’s also in the midst of the rest of the Olympics. The women’s World Cup gets a whole month of build in something of a desert on the sporting calendar to grab everyone’s attention. It’s a better launching platform. The challenges are mountainous, let’s say.

All we really know is that there will be one organization now. Which is probably better than splitting up the world’s best talent. But many players will not have a place to play. A hail mary of a link-up with the NHL isn’t a business plan. In many ways, they’re starting from scratch. Here’s hoping.


Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate