There are two famous rivalries in North American women’s hockey: Canada vs. the USA, and the PWHPA versus the PHF. One rivalry will continue in perpetuity at every World Championship and Olympic Games, while the other is dead.
On June 29, the Mark Walter Group acquired the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF). Walter, who owns the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Premier League’s Chelsea FC and the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, had been working alongside Billie Jean King Enterprises to create a new professional women’s hockey league for members of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA). Since 2019, the PWHPA, which formed from members of the disbanded Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), has played a Dream Gap Tour across North America, leveraging for their own professional league.
The CWHL and the PHF’s forerunner, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), were at odds before the CWHL folded. When the PWHPA formed, that contention took on new life. In 2019, only months after the CWHL closed, American star and PWHPA board member Hilary Knight told the world what she thought of the PHF, and NWHL.
“It’s a glorified beer league to me,” said Knight, who played for the PHF’s Boston Pride from 2015 to 2017. “It’s serving a purpose but it’s not elite talented players that are playing at a high level.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Kendall Coyne Schofield, longtime Team USA captain and PWHPA board member who played for the PHF’s Minnesota Whitecaps in 2018-2019.
“We have not seen a legitimate professional league to date…” she said at the time.
Since those words, the chasm between the PHF and PWHPA only grew larger, while the talent disparity rapidly shrunk, and working conditions in the PHF drastically improved. The PHF expanded teams, added health care, and raised salaries from $150,000 per team in 2020-2021, to $750,000 per team in 2022-2023, and the league was set to increase the salary cap again this season to $1.5 million per team.
PWHPA Continues War Of Words
Despite these gains, the PWHPA continued to say there was no “truly professional” league in North America.
In marketing materials circulated to NCAA and prospective players in April 2022, the PWHPA stated they aimed to “establish the first truly professional and viable women’s ice hockey league in North America showcasing the world’s greatest players,” a statement contesting the professionalism and viability of the PHF and the 160 players competing in the league.
Prior to the acquisition of the league by the Mark Walter Group, the number of players signed to six-figure salaries in the PHF had reached double digits, and continued to rise. As did the caliber of players with seven American Olympic and World Championship gold medallists in the league, former Olympic star Alina Müller of Switzerland, future Hockey Hall of Famer Noora Räty, six members of the 2023 World Championship bronze medal-winning Team Czechia, World Championship all-star netminder Emma Soderberg of Sweden, and former Patty Kazmaier winners as the NCAA’s top player Daryl Watts, Loren Gabel, and Elizabeth Giguere.
But as the PHF made gains, the narrative from the PWHPA continued. Only nine days after American Olympic and World Championship gold medalist Kacey Bellamy signed a contract for $122,000 with the PHF’s Connecticut Whale, Canadian national team member and PWHPA board member Brianne Jenner told the world that outside current Canadian and USA national team members, only one of whom, Becca Gilmore, suited up in the PHF last season, that women still needed to work day jobs to make a living. To many in the PHF, it was a false message, but one familiar to the narrative they’d been hearing since the formation of the PWHPA.
“For our generation, it’s frustrating that outside of the top 50 players that are playing on their respective national teams in North America, players 50 through 200 have to get 9-to-5 jobs and never have the opportunity to realize their potential as pro players,” Jenner said.
In June of 2023, Hilary Knight, who captained Team USA to gold at the 2023 World Championships, put out her own message in reference to the PHF, echoing her sentiments from years prior.
“What bothers me is the illusion of professionalism and what women’s hockey should be, and settling for what it is. And I think that’s the big distinction is let’s call it what it is,” Knight told the Associated Press. “For people who really want to change the game and make it professional and give hockey, women’s hockey particularly, the legs that it needs to actually get up and go in the right direction and make it sustainable, that’s what it’s all about.”
PWHPA Unaware of PHF Acquisition to Form One League
Little did Knight or Jenner know, the Mark Walter Group and Billie Jean King Enterprises, who were working with the PWHPA, were also simultaneously brokering a secret deal to acquire the PHF. In fact, at the time of Knight’s statement, those conversations had nearly reached a conclusion.
“It became apparent to us that there might be a deal to be made with the PHF, and if we could do that, then we could do what really everyone has called their dream come true, which is let’s have one league where all the best women’s players in the world can play, and now we have that,” said Stan Kasten of the Mark Walter Group, who is also the president and part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
As Kasten, who has served as the representative for the Mark Walter Group to the PWHPA, and the rest of the Group realized, if they were to launch their promised six-team league, they would need more talent and a larger player pool to draw from as the PWHPA’s membership had shrunk from over 200 players initially, down to 97 last season. That number included 30 members of the PWHPA who had since jumped to play in the PHF.
“We always knew that when we started our league, there were only 97 union members at the time, so we always knew we were going to need more players and we didn’t know exactly where they’d come from, now the pool has gotten bigger because of our acquisition,” said Kasten.
The need for more players, however, will also have wide-spanning impacts as the number of teams in North America is set to fall from 11 (four PWPHA, seven PHF), to six total teams. This decrease will result in the loss of more than 100 jobs for women’s professional hockey players in North America.
Kasten, and new ownership, however, believe the acquisition was an opportunity for both sides to grow the game.
“We saw the work that [the PHF] had done, we thought it was an interesting foundation, but what we were looking to do was again, have the one league that could accommodate everyone,” Kasten said. “I think from the PHF standpoint they saw this as the best and quickest way to get to this goal. That was a goal of theirs as well, they didn’t know whether it would be in the PHF incarnation or some other league, but when we came along with what we were doing, had already done in terms of reaching a collective bargaining agreement, had the ownership and the support that we have, I think they felt this would be a good time for them to make a deal like this, because as I said, it would be the best and quickest to get that one league that accommodates everyone.”
From a PWHPA standpoint, the acquisition came as a complete surprise. As Kasten confirmed, his first call following the completion of the deal, was to PWHPA lead Jayna Hefford, to inform her of the move. In the days following the announcement, the PWHPA put out an announcement thanking the Mark Walter Group and their players for the achievement of their goal to launch a new league.
Former Boston Pride Owner Criticizes The Deal
According to now former Boston Pride owner, PHF board of governors member, and chairman of the Boston Pride, Miles Arnone, it wasn’t so simple. His league knew there was disdain toward their offerings, but tried to take the high road. “[I]t’s always described as friction between the groups, but it was really animosity on the part of the PWHPA toward the PHF, it was not bidirectional.”
While the messaging remained constant on the part of PWHPA members, Arnone said the PHF never fired back. Now, he wishes they had; not to disparage, but to clarify.
“It’s very clear…they’ve had nothing but disdain for anything and everything that [the PHF] might do. You can similarly see that in the public record we never took that position as a league, and I personally think that was a mistake. Not a mistake in that we should have been vituperative or cantankerous or derogatory, all of those things which they were, but rather we much more forcefully should have stated why their assertions were false.”
Despite the perceived animosity and “disdain,” the PWHPA and PHF had discussed on several occasions the potential for a merger. Arnone himself sat in on three of those meetings in person, including in the presence of Ilona Kloss who is part of Billie Jean King Enterprises, PWHPA lead Jayna Hefford, and PWHPA board members including Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne Schofield, and Sarah Nurse. Those meetings included mediation from the NHL, where according to Arnone, the PHF continued to pursue a merger, working to meet the PWHPA’s “requirements” with little to show. As Arnone recalls, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman also felt the PHF had made progress, and offered an opportunity for the PWHPA to move forward, together.
“I think that [Bettman] very clearly heard and understood that the PHF was willing to meet any and all of the PWHPA’s explicitly stated requirements – except laying down and dying as a league – but that the PWHPA was in fact unwilling to move at all,” Arnone said.
Arnone recalls Bettman turning to PWHPA representatives and saying “Well look the PHF is willing to work with you and to go forward and figure out a way to make this work.” Arnone said Bettman asked PWHPA leadership, “if they would be willing to work with the PHF,” but the PWHPA “indicated that they’re not interested in doing that.”
“We were willing to give them ownership, seats at the board of governors level, participation for their leadership on a parity basis with our leadership,” said Arnone, “this was never about subsuming them and subordinating them, it was always about let’s clear the field and together we’ll just kill it.”
Now, however, with a new guiding ownership, the Mark Walter Group, one league will be formed. There are no longer two rival sides, instead, there is only one group with a singular owner, and a singular path forward.
In Arnone’s eyes, it was a “victory” for the PWHPA that came with a significant cost to the future of women’s hockey.
Arnone was also critical of the now-ratified collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The PWHPA had long been negotiating with their investors, primarily the Mark Walter Group and Billie Jean King Enterprises for a new CBA, which they eventually got. Within the eight-year deal, which expires in 2031, the players negotiated a $35,000 league minimum salary, and a $55,000 average league salary. The agreement also designates that each team in the league will sign at least six players to three-year contracts worth at least $80,000.
“[T]he costs are very heavy to them and they’re very heavy to all players but a small handful of leading players there. The cost is very high to players for the future for the next eight years,” he said.
“They traded getting rid of [the PHF] in exchange for a CBA that pays them less, and grows slower than inflation over these eight years and the nature of it is such that the salary distribution is structured to really favor a very small number of US and Canadian national team players who will be paid at the top of the scale, and will also continue to collect their compensation from their national association as well as sponsorship money.”
A long contended point in women’s hockey, as noted by Brianne Jenner and others, has been the ability for women to work as hockey players alone, without holding secondary jobs. According to Arnone, he does not believe the majority of players moving forward will be able to achieve that goal.
“The PWHPA insisted for years that what they wanted was a living wage for all professional players, the ability to play hockey full time and not have to take on other work, medical benefits (which they’ll get in the new league), but they certainly are not going to be able to; 80 percent of the players in that league are not going to be able to solely play hockey…”
One League, One Goal Moving Forward
Now, however, there’s only one way forward: together. The PHF is no longer. In the early days of the NWHL, the league was fraught with poor player conditions. In the final years of the league, including as the PHF, the league made leaps and bounds, to a point where it was a viable competitor, and a valuable asset to investors in the biggest single investment in professional women’s hockey the game has seen. That said, the league still voided hundreds of well-paying contracts without notice, sending their players into uncertainty.
Soon, the issues of the past will need to stay there as Knight and Coyne Schofield, Marie-Philip Poulin and Brianne Jenner, and NCAA stars like Taylor Heise and Emma Maltais who were destined for the PWHPA, are joined by past PHF MVPs Loren Gabel, Kennedy Marchment, and Mikyla Grant-Mentis, defender of the year and former USA national team member Kali Flanagan, and NCAA stars who had signed in the PHF like Alina Muller and Emma Soderberg.
For those incoming stars, this will soon be their league to carry. The aging stars of the PWHPA and PHF who fought separately but in parallel for the betterment of women’s hockey will eventually retire, and the next generation will be left to carry on, without the divisiveness of the past. Even Arnone, who was tied tightly to the PHF through his Boston Pride and his seat on the board of governors, believes the future is bright, even if the path to reaching this point was not clear.
“I don’t think the PHF ever begrudged the PWHPA for having a different perspective of how things should be and wanting to pursue that,” he said. Arnone only hopes members of his league, the PHF, are not overlooked as he believes they were “pioneers” for the game.
The PWHPA made obvious impacts on the visibility of elite women’s hockey, and in raising awareness of the inequity women in the sport face. The PHF made similar impacts in being the first group to provide livable wages, health benefits, and supporting the international growth of the game. Both pushed each other to better the game. Now, they’ll be working together to create one successful and sustainable league. When the puck drops on the inaugural season of the new professional women’s hockey league, all parties hope the past stays in the past, and that the new league finds the success and stability women’s hockey has fought to find for decades.
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