The world of professional women’s hockey has been segmented since 2019. On one side, you had the Premier Hockey Federation (formerly NWHL), a professional league founded in 2015, providing an opportunity to play. On the other, you had the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association (PWHPA), formed in 2019 as players were dissatisfied with the operations of the NWHL.
On June 30, 2023, it was announced that the PHF will cease all operations as it was purchased by the Mark Walter Group and Billie Jean King Enterprises. The Mark Walter Group has spent the past 14 months working with the PWHPA in a bid to launch its own league. With the purchase of the PHF the Mark Walter Group will be launching a professional women’s hockey league starting in January 2024.
But what exactly does this unification mean? While it may not be the messy LIV Golf/PGA saga, this acquisition for unification may not be as clear-cut as it first appears.
First, in December 2022, the PHF announced they were doubling the salary cap for the 2023-24 season going from $750,000 to $1.5 million. An amazing announcement that was met with praise, and a seeming step in the right direction. Under the new salary cap, many players signed new contracts this offseason, with some being worth as much as $150,000. Now with the purchase of the PHF, the players are released from these contracts and those deals will not be paid out in full. Instead, players will receive severance and a period of continued health benefits. The PHF severance program pays players 1/12th of their contracted 2023-2024 season salary or $5,000, whichever is greater. The biggest problem is, as everyone knows, that these types of sales do not happen overnight, and the first serious conversations about this purchase started 6 months ago. So, the PHF got to receive the praise of a large salary increase, while being at least aware that the league’s future was uncertain.
Second, in the spring the PWHPA was certified as a union and is already in the late stages of CBA negotiations. In the coming days, the players of the PWHPA will be voting on whether to ratify the CBA, and the expectation is that it will be ratified. PHF players who just had their contracts voided will not be participating in the vote on the CBA. Ultimately, the new league will include players from the PHF, PWHPA, NCAA, and international players. Due to this, some players from the PHWPA and PHF will not be on rosters come January 2024.
To paint a unification years in the making as merely bad or good is an incorrect notion. So, let’s make it clear that there is good in all this as well.
The NHL commissioner has consistently withheld NHL support because he and team owners did not want to get involved in a dispute between “leagues.” But they were open to the possibility of support once there was one league formed. Now that it is the reality of women’s hockey, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has confirmed they have initiated discussions with the group on ways to work together to grow the game.
The PWHPA was born out of concern about pay, benefits, and league viability of the then NWHL. This is why the PWHPA has spent the past months working so hard to negotiate a CBA. The CBA they are voting to ratify includes salaries potentially in the range of $35,000 to $80,000, housing stipends, relocation fees, medical benefits, dental benefits, retirement plans, and maternity/parental leave. PHF players may not be voting on its ratification but would be a part of the union if they play in the new league.
The CBA is largely expected to be ratified in the coming days, and, ideally, having a CBA in place protecting players means we will never have to see similar segmentation again. Even more importantly, if this happens it would be the first professional women’s sports league in the United States to have a CBA in place before the start of its first season. The WNBA saw its first CBA 2 years after its first season, and the NWSL did not see its first CBA until 10 years into the league’s existence. The CBA and implementation of a union will put the new league ahead of the PHF in creating a viable league infrastructure while fully treating the athletes as professionals.
Ultimately, this unification and this new league is the culmination of four years of PWHPA players standing strong and holding out in their careers. It is also the culmination of four years of PHF players putting themselves and their bodies on the line and playing tremendous games to showcase how exciting women’s hockey games are. It is important to remember the sacrifices of both groups, because, without either group, this bright future for women’s hockey isn’t a reality.
Emlyn Goodman is an NCAA compliance professional and women’s sports fan. She can be found on Twitter @emlyngoodman and on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/emlyn-goodman-j-d-b46113113/.