PWHL: Women’s hockey finds winning formula with new pro league

With the playoffs over, a team has won its first Walter Cup championship — but for the women’s pro league, their inaugural season has already been a victory.

When the buzzer sounded at the Montreal Bell Center, sports history was made: a record 21,105 people attended a professional women’s hockey game.

April’s game between Montreal and Toronto ended the inaugural season of the six-team Women’s Hockey League (PWHL).

The league’s first success, which spans both the United States and Canada, comes as interest in women’s sports grows — and previous attempts to create a professional women’s league fizzled and ultimately failed due to low participation and financial problems.

The league’s regular season games in Boston, New York, Minnesota, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa drew a total of nearly 393,000 fans.

“This season has been a season of firsts and multiple records,” Jayna Hefford, the league’s vice president of hockey operations, told the BBC. “We’re still excited and surprised.”

Mrs. Hefford, a former professional player and five-time Olympian who is a Hall of Famer, attributed the league’s early success in part to a dedicated and diverse fan base that often had no prior exposure to women’s hockey.

“It’s a welcoming environment,” he said. “We also find older generations of women who have never had the opportunity to do something like this and are now becoming huge fans.”

Among those who say they found a new love for hockey through the PWHL is Treena Grevatt, a native of Gloucestershire, England, who immigrated to Canada in 2000.

Speaking to the BBC from her home in Ottawa , Ms. Grevatt said hockey and the men’s National Hockey League, or NHL, never resonated with her.

“I would be social if I got a free ticket,” he said.

Everything changed, he remembers, when a friend told him a PWHL team was heading to Canada’s capital.

“I want to support professional women’s sports … this is really the first opportunity where I’ve had to put my money where my mouth is,” she said.

Choking back tears, Grevatt said his first game was “ridiculously emotional” and that he was touched by his peers in the crowd, which ranged from former athletes to young children, boys and girls.

“There were a lot of former athletes who never had this opportunity, and little kids had signs like ‘thank you for giving me something to dream about,'” she added. “The atmosphere was phenomenal. I would put it that way.”

Unlike previous attempts to create a professional women’s league, the PWHL has significant financial backing, as the league and all six teams are owned by the Mark Walter Group, led by Los Angeles Dodgers billionaire owner and co-owner. of Chelsea

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Unlike previous women’s hockey leagues – where players had to take other jobs to make up for low wages. – the contract between the PWHL and its union means that players will be paid between 35,000 and 80,000 dollars without bonuses. During the eight-year contract, this figure increases by 3% every year.

While the numbers and the league’s $1.26 million salary cap are low compared to the multi-million dollar deals often made in the NHL, they have proven to be a major draw for the league’s equity defenders. a game

“It sends a signal to the rest of the hockey community,” said PWHL owner Heidi Van Regan, who lives in Montreal. “It breaks the glass ceiling. It’s not just about the players either, it’s women who want to be hosts, have a blog or a podcast to talk about hockey all day.”

“Obviously we’re still not even,” Mrs. Van Regan added. “But when you’re at the games and you watch the broadcast, you see that they’re trying to get women in a lot of different roles. The players are kind of leading the way.”

There are no challenges in the league though.

In some markets – notably Boston and New York in the US – the PWHL has received a more muted response and must compete with several other professional teams in a crowded market.

“It’s either going up or it’s going down,” said lifelong hockey fan Jim DeLise of New York.

Citing New York as an example, Mr. DeLise said the league “has to work a little harder” to attract attention in some sports markets.

“They [PWHL] didn’t get the exposure they needed in the beginning. Nobody even knew there was a team in New York. I think they dropped the ball with that,” he said. “Where’s the ad? I don’t see anything.”

The league is currently winding down its inaugural season as the playoffs begin.

The two playoff winners — currently between Montreal, Toronto, Boston and Minnesota — will battle for the PWHL Finals and the Walter Cup later this month.

Thanks to the success of the inaugural season, the PWHL has a solid outlook for the future, leaving the door open to an expanded league and hopefully a larger fan base in the United States, Canada and possibly beyond.

“I’m hoping that in the next five to 10 years we’ll be filling buildings consistently, not just as a special event,” Hefford said, referring to the Montreal game in April.

“The demand is already there. But we’re being thoughtful and strategic about it.”

But like many fans, Ms. Hefford said she believes the message the PWHL is getting is perhaps bigger than any ticket sales or sponsorship.

“The generation playing in this league now probably grew up not seeing women’s hockey and dreamed of playing in the NHL to win the Stanley Cup. Or saw the Olympics every four years,” he said.

“But now we see it on TV almost every night of the week,” he added. “This is what young girls see – a realistic career. We are motivated by getting them excited about the game.”.

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