New pro women’s hockey league set to launch in January with 6 teams in North America

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Organizers announced plans Friday to launch a new women’s professional hockey league in January that they hope will provide a stable, economically sustainable home for the sport’s top players for years to come.

RELATED STORY: Premier Hockey Federation purchased by PWHPA.

The North American league is expected to start with six teams — three in the U.S. and three in Canada — according to a person with knowledge of the league’s plans. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the details were not made public.

There are still unanswered questions — where exactly teams will play, will the economic model work after earlier leagues fell short, will there be a broadcast deal — but an initial framework is in place as the new league prepares to join a crowded sports landscape. The effort also has deep pockets behind it: Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Mark Walter and wife Kimbra, team President Stan Kasten and tennis legend Billie Jean King will help run the league.

“I don’t think there’s a more significant moment for the game since women’s ice hockey became an Olympic sport in 1998,” Professional Hockey Federation Commissioner Reagan Carey said. “I think it will forever change the landscape of our sport — and certainly for the better.

The agreement ends a long standoff between the seven-team PHF and the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association. The latter group includes Kendall Coyne Schofield, Sarah Nurse, Hilary Knight and many other U.S. and Canadian national team players who were unwilling to join the PHF, whose assets were purchased by Walter’s firm.

“We’re not celebrating dissolving a league,” said Nurse, who helped Canada win Olympic gold last year. “We’re excited that we can continue forward together with a league that women’s hockey has really never seen before. There’s been so much hard work and time that has been put into this project, so we’re excited that it is paying off.”

The deal also could bring the National Hockey League to the table, perhaps in a way similar to how the NBA supports the WNBA. Commissioner Gary Bettman has said the NHL did not want to get involved in a dispute between leagues and would throw weight behind one, once it was formed.

“The National Hockey League congratulates the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association and the Premier Hockey Federation on their agreement,” the NHL said. “We already have initiated discussions with representatives of this unified group regarding how we can work together to continue to grow the women’s game.”

Kasten said he called Bettman to deliver the news, which was greeted with satisfaction and excitement.

“He offered all the help he could give us,” Kasten said. “We are going to take him up on that. It’s going to help make our runway a little smoother because we’re playing in January and I have a lot to do between now and January. I don’t even have a name for this league yet.”

The PWHPA had been working with the Mark Walter Group and Billie Jean King Enterprises over the past 14 months on the new venture. King in a statement called it “an extraordinary opportunity to advance women’s sports.”

The new league is expected to bring together North America’s most accomplished female players as well as players from Europe and Asia who have played in the PHF. Carey and PWHPA chief Jayna Hefford are expected to have leadership roles.

The PWHPA, which was certified as a union this spring, has completed negotiations on a collective bargaining agreement. A 62-page CBA was presented to PWHPA members on Thursday night, and they have until Sunday night to ratify it and the new league’s constitution, according to a person familiar with the details who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity before the deal was announced.

If approved, the deal will run through 2031 and features a salary range of $35,000 to $80,000 for players on active rosters, the person said Friday. Rosters are expected to include 23 players.

Among the many issues that need to be sorted out is where the six teams will play. The PHF, which had recently doubled each team’s salary cap to $1.5 million, had seven — in Boston, Toronto and Montreal, along with East Rutherford, New Jersey; Hartford, Connecticut; Buffalo, New York; and Richfield, Minnesota.

The top sites being considered for the new league are Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and London, Ontario, according to one of the people who spoke to AP.

Kasten said the league was waiting at least a month before releasing details — many of which are still being worked out.

“We’re going to pick a name soon, we’re going to get a logo, we’re going to land on our cities, we’re going to pick our venues, we’re going to come out with our schedule,” Kasten said.

In the meantime, existing PHF player contracts have been voided, though an agreement is in place to pay those under contract a portion of their salary through September, two people with knowledge of the information told AP. One of the people said players will receive half their salaries or $5,000, whichever is greater, and that there will be $1 million earmarked to spread around to those who do not make one of the new teams.

“Our hearts definitely go out to their players and staff because we know what it’s like to have a league fold and get that phone call,” Nurse said. “It’s a tough day. It’s a bittersweet day.”

North American women’s pro hockey has seen leagues come and go, with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folding in 2019 after 12 seasons featuring some of the best players in the world. Dani Rylan Kearney launched the National Women’s Hockey League in 2015 as an investor-funded, four-team league, but it scuffled at times and was later rebranded as the PHF.

The PWHPA was formed in 2019 in the fallout of the CWHL demise. Its members balked at joining the NWHL and instead pursued their vision of a league with a sustainable economic model and better compensation.

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