When members of the inaugural National Women’s Hockey League take the ice in November, they won’t be representing the same league they’ve known the past six seasons.
The NWHL announced a drastic rebrand Tuesday, shifting to a “Premier Hockey Federation” moniker and removing the word “women” from its name. The news release still referred to it as a women’s league and to women’s hockey numerous times.
When reached for comment, several league players declined to comment on the record.
Commissioner Tyler Tumminia, who stepped into the role last fall, replacing league founder Dani Rylan, said the shift was intended to remove gender from the conversation.
“The Premier Hockey Federation is home to some of the best professional athletes in the world who deserve to be recognized for their abilities and to be empowered as equals in sport,” Tumminia said in a statement. “This league has come a long way since its inception in 2015, and we believe that this is the right time and the right message as we strengthen our commitment to growing the game and inspiring youth.”
Founded in 2015 with Boston, Connecticut, Buffalo, and New Jersey/New York franchises, the league added Minnesota and Toronto and is slated to bring in Montreal after this season. It was the first women’s hockey league to pay players a salary.
In addition to Rylan’s departure this offseason, the league also lost former deputy commissioner and Boston president Hayley Moore, deputy commissioner Michelle Picard and several other staffers following the sixth season.
Approaching Year 7, the league has been mired in controversy around Toronto president and former coach Digit Murphy, who had associated with a transphobic organization. It sparked a conversation within the league about gender inclusivity, despite Murphy’s current involvement still in the league. Even so, the removal of “women” from the league name has been reasoned more toward not acknowledging gender at all.
“From an opportunity standpoint, it’s huge,” said Metropolitan Riveters captain Madison Packer in the league’s statement. “I understand and appreciate not having to define ourselves as female athletes anymore. Now we are defining players based on skill and what they bring to the game. This is about recognizing that regardless of gender, athletes are talented.”
Even with the gender removal in the league name, the news release still cited a “w” in the logo to represent women. The league release also stated it was the first to remove the gendered term from its name, despite National Pro Fastpitch rebranding from the Women’s Pro Softball League, and pro softball now existing as a part of Athletes Unlimited.
“We’re excited to build on all of our momentum from the last year, ‘Raise the W’ and embark on this new era with our athletes, teams, partners and fans,” Tumminia said in the league statement. “No labels, no limits.”
The jarring change has been met with mixed reviews. Minnesota goalie Amanda Leveille said, “Excited to play. Nothing but love love for the game and the PHF.”
Others expressed frustration, with one responding, “There wasn’t much messaging for the direction this is going.”
Left unanswered is how much player input was considered in the rebrand. The league had previously split sponsorship deals with the players 50-50 after breaking even. The NWHL Players Association, which advocated for that involvement, has been left without a head since Anya Packer, who is married to Madison Packer, left the role to become Metropolitan Riveters president in April.
Multiple players contacted Tuesday said they had not heard progress on a new head for the association, so the change in branding came without representation from the players association.
“There’s been no updates,” one player said. “At least, they haven’t told us about any.”
One source mentioned the PHF was still working on finding a “good candidate” for the role but didn’t elaborate on who was leading that process.
The NWHL became the only professional women’s hockey league in North America when the Canadian Women’s Hockey League ceased operation in March 2019. A couple months later, many players from the CWHL announced the debut of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, with players who vowed not to play in the NWHL, citing professionalism concerns.
Since that time, the NWHL has played two seasons — one cut short due to COVID-19 the day before the Isobel Cup, the other a COVID-infiltrated bubble in Lake Placid, New York — and the PWHPA has hosted two North American tours.
The PWHPA has often lobbied for NHL involvement, something the NHL has said it would avoid as long as there were other women’s hockey leagues operating. When reached Tuesday about the PHF name change, the NHL commented it would not be “appropriate for us to comment on another league’s decisions.”
The PHF’s seventh season and first under its new name begins Nov. 6, as Boston looks to defend its second Isobel Cup title. Whether the trophy name will be the same as the past six seasons isn’t clear; what is clear is the league that takes the ice in November, aside from the players on the ice, will be markedly different than the one that opened its doors in 2015.