The state of professional women’s hockey


Members of the PHF Boston Pride celebrate victory over the Connecticut Whale for their second consecutive Isobel Cup title in March.ap images

The NHL’s New York offices have hosted countless negotiating sessions over the years between team owners and the world’s top ice hockey players. The one Commissioner Gary Bettman called in March was vastly different.


The session involved the leaders of North America’s only professional women’s hockey league, the Premier Hockey Federation, and a breakaway group of elite women’s players known as the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association. It wasn’t about how billions of dollars in hockey-related revenue would be divided or how many years players would need to work before negotiating eight-figure free-agent contracts. It was about whether women’s hockey has a viable future at the professional level. Bettman’s message to those in attendance was simple: You need each other to make this work.

“In a fragmented marketplace, in an embryonic situation with not all of the energy pulled in the same way, there’s concern about the success either of the organizations can have,” Bettman said in a press conference last month.

Despite the concern Bettman noted, the two groups will continue to work separately toward the goal of building their own viable and sustainable professional women’s hockey leagues.

The six-team PHF, the first league to pay players to compete, is headed into its eighth season with more pledged financing than ever before, but without the participation of the U.S. and Canadian Olympians whose gold medal matchup at this year’s Beijing Games drew a larger audience than 10 of the 11 Stanley Cup Final games played in 2020 and 2021.

Those players make up the PWHPA. In 2019, they decided they’d rather sit out of professional hockey altogether than join the PHF (then known as the National Women’s Hockey League).Last month, the PWHPA signed a letter of intent with the Mark Walter Group, whose namesake is the controlling owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Billie Jean King Enterprises to work together to form a new league.

Maddie Rooney (left) and Nicole Hensley enter the ice during the 2021 PWHPA Secret Dream Gap Tour at United Center.getty images

Table of Contents

Not the same league

PHF leadership believes the league has come a long way since it first dropped the puck in 2015 as the NWHL, and acknowledges there were missteps along the way.

The league started with four teams, each with a salary cap of $270,000 and a minimum salary of $10,000 per player. It quickly ran into financial trouble, however, and was forced to cut players’ already modest pay during the 2016 season to remain solvent. It wasn’t until last season, the league’s seventh, that the salary cap rebounded to its initial level. In addition to receiving less than a living wage — most players still have other jobs outside hockey — players were faced with subpar working conditions in the early years and did not receive full health benefits.

It was after the 2019 dissolution of the rival Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which was troubled by many of the same issues, that 200 of the top women’s players formed the PWHPA and announced their plans to boycott professional hockey altogether until a higher quality and more sustainable league emerged.

“The players’ expectations of what was needed at a minimum consistently wasn’t met in those early years,” said Reagan Carey, who started in her role as the PHF’s third commissioner last month. “But the league that’s before us today is quite different than it was then when the players decided they needed to try something different.”

Reagan Careyap images

In 2019, the league’s founding investors began divesting teams to outside buyers, transitioning from a single-entity ownership structure to an individual team ownership model. While two groups currently own multiple franchises, the league’s plan is to find well-capitalized local ownership for each club. It also expects to expand from six teams to eight, possibly as early as the upcoming 2022-23 season.

Entering next season, the current roster of owners pledged to spend $25 million over the next three seasons on player pay and benefits, including new health and dental plans. The salary cap for the coming season will increase by 150% to $750,000 per team, with a floor of $562,500, and players will earn equity in their teams.

The league has made commercial strides since the transition. Board of governors Chairman John Boynton, whose BTM Partners owns three of the league’s six teams, said sponsorship revenue has increased roughly tenfold since his group first invested in 2019. All of the league’s games last season streamed on ESPN+, with the championship game airing on ESPN2 in the U.S. and TSN2 in Canada.

Jayna Heffordgetty images

In a presentation at the Sloan Analytics Conference earlier this year, Johanna Neilson Boynton, also a partner in BTM and John Boynton’s wife, said leadership expects all clubs to break even in the next two to three seasons, with revenue made up of 62.5% from sponsorship, 15.8% each from media rights and attendance and 5.9% from merchandise.

The Boyntons are bullish on sponsorship, with brands more interested than ever in supporting the values of women’s empowerment and equality. Among the league’s major sponsors are Warrior, Discover Financial Services, Geico and Principal Financial Group. The league’s biggest weakness is at the gate, as teams are tenants in small rinks that seat between 500 and 3,000 fans.

“We’re putting long-term facilities programs in place for each of our markets, with the intention that in some period of time, each team should have full control over its facility, but that’s not the kind of problem you solve in six months,” John Boynton said.

Power to the players

Members of the PWHPA acknowledge the PHF of today isn’t the same one they refused to join in 2019. Still, PWHPA leadership has stressed that players need to have a larger role in shaping the sport’s future.

While the PHF players do have their own association, it’s not a formal union that collectively bargains with ownership. The fact that the PHF Players’ Association was not represented in the boardroom during the meeting with the NHL also rubbed members of the PWHPA the wrong way.


Reagan Carey
PHF Commissioner
Carey was hired as the league’s third commissioner earlier this year, replacing Tyler Tumminia. She is a familiar face to many of the PWHPA’s American players from her previous work as USA Hockey’s director of women’s ice hockey and general manager of the U.S. national women’s team. She plans to lead the league’s expansion from six teams to eight as early as the upcoming season.
John and Johanna Neilson Boynton
PHF Board of Governors, BTM Partners
Johanna, a former women’s hockey captain at Harvard, and her husband, John, first invested in the PHF in 2019 and have been instrumental in charting a new course for the league following mismanagement in the early years. BTM Partners, which also includes Miles Arnone and Bryant McBride, owns three of the league’s six teams — the Boston Pride, Metropolitan Riveters and Toronto Six. The group reached an agreement to sell the Six to a local ownership group earlier this year, a deal that is in the closing process, and plans to divest one more team to a well-capitalized local ownership group.
Jayna Hefford
PWHPA Operations Consultant
Hefford, a retired player with four Olympic gold medals for Canada, has been one of the PWHPA’s primary voices in the development of a business plan for a new player-led league in conjunction with Deloitte and Scotiabank. She also led the group’s delegation in meetings with the NHL about potential collaboration with the PHF, after which the group opted to move forward on its own. If their vision comes to fruition, expect Hefford to serve in a lead role in the new league.

The PWHPA has played around 15 intrasquad matches for audiences across the continent with increasing sponsor support over the past three years, including some hosted by NHL clubs. In addition to Procter & Gamble’s Secret deodorant brand, which served as the title sponsor for the PWHPA Dream Gap Tours in 2021 and 2022, the group has received support from Bauer, Scotiabank, Adidas, Sonnet Insurance and Harveys Supermarkets.

The group also has been working with Deloitte and Scotiabank to develop a business plan for a full-fledged league of its own. The partnership with the Walter Group and BJK Enterprises represents a major step forward in those efforts.

A source said that prior to the signing of the letter of intent, the players’ work with advisers centered around an investor-operator model similar to the one utilized by MLS. That plan called for a six-team league, with a minimum player salary of $30,000 and an average of $55,000, both higher than those being offered by the PHF for the upcoming season.

“We’re going into something new, knowing that the players are at the forefront of it, but we also respect the fact that on the business side, we have to build something that is appealing to our investors as well,” said Liz Knox, a retired goalie and an adviser to the PWHPA board. Requests for comment from PWHPA leadership were not returned.

Coexistence or cannibalization?

Both Knox and members of PHF leadership said the success of both groups’ endeavors is good for women’s hockey. Boynton, however, insisted a one-league approach is better for the sport and that the PHF remains open to working with the PWHPA players to combine efforts. He added that a few Olympians have committed to joining the PHF for the upcoming season, saying specific names would be announced soon.

How competing efforts compare

Premier Hockey Federation – Season 8 (2022-23) vs. PWHPA League Proposal
Number of teams: 6, with possible expansion to 8; 6
Salary cap per team: $750,000; Unknown
Players per team: Up to 25; 23
Minimum player salary: $13,500; $30,000 
Avgerage player salary: $38,000; $55,000 
Number of games: 24 + playoffs, pending expansion; 32 + playoffs
Ownership structure: Individual team owners; Investor-operator
Sources: PHF town hall meeting summary obtained by SBJ; Sportsnet reporting on PWHPA plan confirmed by SBJ; SBJ reporting

Alex Sinatra, an attorney and sports business consultant who briefly represented the PHF players, said she believes the PWHPA will benefit from having the top players, as well as its established relationships with NHL teams, and that it could gain an advantage over the PHF by having more of its games available on linear TV (the PWHPA does not currently have a media deal). Still, she said, the existence of two leagues would inevitably lead to improved conditions for players due to competition for talent. There is enough corporate and fan interest to sustain both, she said.

“Iron sharpens iron, and if there’s going to be two leagues sharpening each other, I think that’s a wonderful thing,” Sinatra said. “If there’s enough money to go around, if there’s enough money to have one, two, three, four leagues at the same time for football, there’s more than enough to have two women’s hockey leagues.”

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