New women’s professional hockey league, with hopes of staying power, ready to drop the puck

No longer a far-fetched notion, the Professional Women’s Hockey League is approaching reality and Sarah Nurse can’t help but pinch herself.

On Monday, the 28-year-old Canadian national team forward will be on the ice in Toronto when her yet-to-be nicknamed team faces off against New York to open the new year and the PWHL’s inaugural 72-game season.

“It means so much to me. It’s something that I had dreamed of and envisioned all those years ago, but I didn’t know it would actually come to fruition,” Nurse said. “It’s hard when you think of all the places that we’ve been over the last four years. And to be able to get here, with my Toronto team, has blown my expectations out of the water.”

It wasn’t easy. It took time and patience for the moment to arrive after past start-up leagues lurched from one crisis to another before ultimately folding because they lacked money, vision and foundational support.

Finally, the world’s best players have one place to showcase their talents outside the four-year Olympic cycle and enjoying what it’s like to have their voices heard.

“Seen and heard,” Minnesota general manager and former U.S. national team captain Natalie Darwitz said.

“So often, it would be could we just get a seat at the table, right? And then, can we speak up at the table?” she said. “And now, you feel good about the table, and how do we grow that table, is kind of the path we’re down.”

Not lost on this generation of players is crediting those who preceded them, such as Darwitz and PWHL executive Jayna Hefford, never mind the help of one of women’s sports most influential gender-breakers in former tennis star Billie Jean King, a PWHL board member.

“It’s a long time in coming, and we’re standing on the shoulders of players from past generations,” Ottawa’s Brianne Jenner said. “But I think our generation that kind of carried that balance of being grateful for every opportunity, but also not being happy with the crumbs is the attitude that’s got us here.”

Ultimately, the PWHL would not have been possible without King’s influence and connections, and the deep pockets of Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Walter and his wife, Kimbra.

The Walters, who remain strictly behind the scenes, have committed to spending tens of millions of dollars to finance a centralized league that has a collective bargaining agreement with its players in place through 2031. And there’s the heavy lifting that’s already been done in six short months in which six markets have been established, (Boston, New York/Connecticut, St. Paul, Minnesota, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa), more than 150 employees hired, dedicated locker rooms and training facilities built or renovated, and tens of thousands of tickets sold.

Toronto’s 12 home games are essentially sold out, and Montreal was close. The lower bowl of St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center is expected to be filled for Minnesota’s opener, and Ottawa’ had sold about 8,000 tickets for its opener.

This is but a start, said PWHL board member Stan Kasten. He has played an influential role in getting the league off the ground in such a short period rather than put it off until next year even if it meant going without logos, nicknames and with a hastily reached broadcast deal finally announced on Friday.

“We have a long time to get them to where they need to be,” Kasten said. “I’m cognizant we’re going to make mistakes. But every mistake you see, ask if we’re still at that mistake a year from now.”

For all the iterations of women’s hockey leagues past, be it the Canadian-based National Women’s Hockey League that launched in 1999 and eventually became the Canadian Women’s Hockey League that folded in 2019, or the U.S.-based NWHL that launched in 2015 and eventually became the Premier Hockey Federation before being bought out by Walter in June, the PWHL is regarded as having the best chance to succeed.

Boston forward Shiann Darkangelo has experienced nearly every step. Her stops included CWHL Toronto and Kunlun, China, and three NHWL/PHF teams ending with Toronto, where Darkangelo became the PHF’s last captain to raise the Isobel Cup after the Six won the title in March.

“Absolutely, it’s totally been worth it. I get to do what I love and get paid to do that,” the 30-year-old Darkangelo said.

Hours after coaching Canada to a gold medal at the 2022 Winter Games, Troy Ryan urged business people and sponsors to come together in launching a pro women’s hockey league because he believed it was viable.

It’s now a reality for Ryan, who is coaching PWHL Toronto.

“It’s amazing and, to be honest, it’s a little bit surreal because it’s happened so quickly,” Ryan said. “A lot of people took a little leap of faith to join this journey.”

What impressed Minnesota’s Darwitz was seeing and interacting with so many women in positions of power while attending the PWHL’s evaluation camp in Utica, New York, in early December. The PWHL features four female GMs, three female head coaches and, of the 34 board members and employees listed on the league’s website, 20 are women.

“It’s emotional. It’s long overdue,” she said. “We’re used to walking into a room and it’s usually one or two of us.”

Darwitz spoke the same week the University of Delaware announced it was launching a women’s hockey program — another indication of the sport’s growth.

“That’s amazing,” she said, before adding, “we still don’t have Michigan” in noting the Big Ten school lacks a program.

“We’re not there,” Darwitz said. “But hopefully, one day, we are there.”

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