The Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association has told some members it is planning to announce after the Winter Olympics that it will form a new league to debut in the fall, according to multiple sources.
PWHPA chairperson Jayna Hefford declined a request to speak to The Seattle Times for this story.
The PWHPA has been working to find investors for a new league that would be more traditionally in opposition to the Premier Hockey Federation, which recently announced a $25 million commitment from its Board of Governors to player salaries and health care over the next three seasons. There will be no salary floor or minimum individual player salaries in the PHF.
The PHF board is comprised of team owners Miles Arnone (Boston), Tobin Kelly (Connecticut), John Boynton (Metropolitan), Johanna Boynton (Toronto), Neil Leibman (Minnesota), and Andy Scurto (Buffalo).
Toronto Six owner Johanna Boynton said the timing of the PHF announcement ahead of the Olympics was intentional, though it had more to do with increased visibility than how it would affect national-team and PWHPA players.
“The Olympics are a moment in time when people really follow women’s hockey,” Boynton said. “They’re one of the few team sports in the Winter Olympics, and it gets a lot of coverage and a lot of support for those Games, so we knew that it was really important. … What we’re doing is putting our heads down to do what’s best for the sport and best for the future of women’s professional hockey. And so that is one league, and that is a real professional experience and investment in that and the timing of the Olympics, it’s more than that.”
The PHF directly messaged some PWHPA players on Twitter and Instagram after their investment announcement, according to multiple players. Most ignored or deleted the messages, but a few expressed interest in the higher salaries promised.
Montreal-based PWHPA players targeted due to the incoming expansion team particularly were less interested.
“When I opened the message, I had already seen the announcement on social media,” PWHPA goalie Kimberly Sass said. “It seemed like an automated marketing initiative, but nevertheless it is nice to receive and to read about the change occurring. … On our end, the PWHPA remains committed to advocate for the improvement of pro women’s hockey conditions, and to contributing to the foundation of a future league that will properly showcase the talent of women’s hockey.”
The new PHF salaries project to average around $32,000 per player with eight teams, since the league announced its intention to expand to Montreal and one U.S.-based city for its eighth season, and according to sources that team will be based in the Eastern time zone.
The salary cap would go up from $300,000 to $750,000 per team, less than a year after it doubled from $150,000. Currently, the PHF offers workers’ compensation to players for hockey-related injuries, but starting next season it would offer full health care for the first time. Because the PHF and PHFPA are not unionized, there is no collective-bargaining agreement or legal commitment to the investment.
Generally, the announcement was met with praise from PHF players on social media, and in discussions with The Seattle Times. PHF Players Association director Alex Sinatra didn’t speak with the league about the announcement until four days later. On Monday, players had been taken aback by an email distributed to media regarding an announcement about the future of the PHF.
“It’s not even surprising anymore,” said one player who wished to remain anonymous about the lack of communication. “Every time something like this happens, we aren’t made aware of it.”
Sinatra said the PHF board had brought a plan similar to the announcement to her the week ahead but didn’t tell her it intended for it to be announced so soon. She said she was waiting with everyone else Monday, trying to determine what was going on.
“We didn’t have a heads up on the announcement,” she said. “And we were a little on edge. That kind of concerned us a little bit. We thought, ‘Oh no, what could this possibly mean?’ And you know, it turned out to be a wonderful announcement. But surprises can be good or bad. … I’ve never really been a fan of surprises.”
PHF commissioner Ty Tumminia, who did not respond to a request for comment, told The Athletic last week that all PHF teams had spent fully to the cap this season, but league sources said at least two PHF teams hadn’t spent entirely to the cap.
The investment will come directly from the board of governors, and on Wednesday Boynton said she expects some of it will be the result of sponsorship revenue. Boynton said the league also has a deal to air games on ESPN+, though no details were disclosed. Attendance this season has been down, possibly affected by COVID-19 concerns, and it has been restricted in Toronto since December.
“If we’re going to be able to make this commitment you want to move with as much speed as you can to get out there, and there’s obviously a lot of details that we still have to work on,” Kelly said. “And those details have to get ironed out as we approach our next season, and plans are already under way for that to be heard in part of the plan.”
PHF salaries are not made public. The PHF will not make all player salaries public in the future, meaning there is no sure way to know if teams will spend all the way to the cap.
Some players believe the PHF announcement was a preemptive response to rumors of the new league that likely would attract most of the national-team players who have been reluctant to play in the PHF. Since the formation of the PWHPA in 2019, there have been a few defectors, but only two Team USA players in Katie Burt and Kali Flanagan.
Both organizations have players who have played in the other. The PWHPA doesn’t pay salaries but awards an undisclosed amount of prize money for winning tournaments. Its new league would have teams in six home markets, much like the current PHF.
The PHF has a history of cutting salaries, though, and that has created mistrust from players. In the second year of the then-NWHL, the league announced it would half the salaries that were announced in the middle of the season. Many players expressed frustration, and for some it was enough to burn the bridge for good.
The current PHF Players Association does not believe that is a concern.
“We haven’t really discussed it any more than that is something that happened (in the past) and players sometimes are wary because of past experience, because everyone’s human, but the front office is different,” Sinatra said. “The ownership structure is different than that in the second year, and the commissioner’s office is different, so it’s very difficult to kind of compare what happened in the past with different ownership and different structure and different league office personnel.”
The PWHPA was after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which ceased operation in March 2019. During that time there were calls for “One League,” but when that single league was the NWHL, many prominent players didn’t want to play in it and formed the PWHPA, hoping it would lead to a new league.
There also has been hope that the NHL would finance or invest in the league, though it has said it would not get involved in women’s hockey while the leagues are fragmented.
Still, some players believe the NHL would be involved in a new PWHPA-backed league. When reached this week, an NHL spokesperson declined to comment.
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