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  • Writer's pictureJuhi Patel

The Future Is Female: How the PWHL Was Built in Six Months



By: Juhi Patel, 2026

(pictured here at PWHL Toronto v. PWHL New York on Jan. 5, 2024)





The first puck drop of 2024 marked the start of the Professional Women’s Hockey League (“PWHL”), with PWHL New York facing off against PWHL Toronto prior to the National Hockey League’s (“NHL”) annual Winter Classic game.[1] This game generated over 2.9 million viewers across Canada and was the number one sports or entertainment program of the day.[2] Later that same week, PWHL Minnesota’s home opener set an attendance record, with a crowd of 13,316 at Xcel Energy Center, the home of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild.[3] For the February 16 rivalry game against PWHL Montreal, PWHL Toronto sold out the 18,000-seat Scotiabank Arena.[4] Just this week, PWHL Montreal sold out the Bell Centre, the largest hockey arena in North America with a capacity of 21,000, for its rematch against PWHL Toronto.[5]

 

Women have a long history in men’s hockey but have struggled to create their own playing space. Goalie Manon Rheaume was the first and only woman to play in the NHL during an exhibition game with the Tampa Bay Lightning.[6] Seven women have their names on the Stanley Cup, but only as owners, presidents, and executives.[7] 

 

The first professional women’s hockey league, the National Women’s Hockey League, began in Canada in 1999.[8] In 2004, the Western Women’s Hockey League took on a semi-professional format as teams were individually owned and financed but directed completed with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (“CWHL”), established in 2007, for viewership and fans.[9] It wasn’t until the formation of the new Professional National Women’s Hockey League in 2015 that players would be paid a regular salary.[10] This league was later renamed the Premier Hockey Federation (“PHF”) and the allure of pay caused many players to leave the CWHL to join the PHF instead.[11] In 2019, the CWHL collapsed due to insufficient revenue to sustain its business model.[12] In solidarity, many American players left the PHF, the equivalent to the CWHL, to band together and create the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (“PWHPA”).[13]

 

Despite numerous leagues forming over the years, none were successful. The CWHL did not pay players any salaries.[14] Meanwhile, player salaries in the PHF only ranged from $10,000 to $26,000,[15] a vast difference from the current NHL minimum salary of $750,000.[16] The Women’s Hockey League required players to buy their own equipment but would cover the cost of travel.[17] The lack of salary, facilities, and financial support didn’t support the players, so the players wouldn’t fully support the league back.

 

The creation of the players’ association played an integral role in creating the newest iteration of a professional women’s hockey league. Five athletes, including four Olympic gold medalists, make up the PWHPA executive board—Brianne Jenner, Liz Knox, Sarah Nurse, Hilary Knight, and Kendall Coyne Scofield.[18] After the Mark Walter Group acquired the PHF in 2023, he was presented with an opportunity to unify women’s hockey into one league.[19] The leadership of his takeover was spearheaded by the Mark Walter Group, with Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss as board members.[20] They decided that in order to create a better league, they needed to involve the players themselves. After five months of negotiations, the PWHPA bargaining committee and the new PHF owners finalized a new collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) in September 2023, officially forming the PWHL.[21]

 

The PWHL is the first professional sports league to launch with a CBA in place.[22] The WNBA had three seasons before ratifying its first CBA in 1999, and it took ten seasons before the NWSL’s CBA was finalized in 2022.[23] The PWHL’s CBA also helps create a structure that previous attempts at creating a professional women’s hockey league lacked.

 

In addition to stabilized salaries, this CBA’s focus is on professionalism. The CBA is over 40 pages and is set to last for eight years until 2031. The articles address issues such as player salaries and related expenses, travel accommodations, player movement, benefits, roster sizes, safety and working conditions, and more.[24] Teams may have no more than nine players paid at league minimum, $35,000, and at least six players signed to three-year $80,000 or more contracts.[25] Additionally, the required average salary per team is enforced at $55,000.[26] Teams will be held to a higher standard in providing travel accommodations and facilities, ranging from providing housing and relocation stipends, to booking direct flights for travel, to ensuring all venues and training facilities are appropriate for professional or international-level hockey.[27]

 

Additionally, unlike professional women’s basketball, where the NBA initially owned the WNBA, the PWHL is financially supported by the Mark Walter Group, not the NHL.[28] Mark Walter is also the owner of the Dodgers as well as part-owner of the Los Angeles Lakers (NBA), Los Angeles Sparks (WNBA), and Chelsea F.C. (Premier League).[29] The NHL’s relationship with the PWHL is solely collaborative and consultative.[30] For example, the NHL has shared its facilities for neutral site PWHL games, and the Minnesota Wild’s Xcel Energy Center is the regular home for PWHL Minnesota and the New York Islanders’ UBS Arena hosts half of PWHL New York’s home games.[31] The first exhibition game hosted a rivalry match-up between PWHL Toronto and PWHL Montreal at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Scotiabank Arena.[32] More recently, two more exhibition games were played at PPG Paints Arena, home of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, and Little Caesars Arena, home of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, both sold-out matches.[33]

 

While the PWHL has had a strong start since January, its next step is both public and financial support to continue to grow off the ice. Last month, Women’s Sports Network became the league’s first American broadcast partner.[34] This was accompanied by two new U.S. sponsors, Discover and Bread.[35] [36] In addition, PWHL Toronto’s Sarah Nurse, an Olympic Gold medalist, launched a new program called “Nursey Nights,” hosting girls from Black Girl Hockey Club Canada in association with corporate partner Rogers.[37]  This partnership not only encourages girls but also minorities to recognize they have a space in hockey. Additionally, the Canadian PWHL just announced its largest sponsorship yet with Mattel Canada, naming the Barbie brand as an official partner of the league.[38]

 

On International Women’s Day, Molson, a Canadian-based brewery, announced a multi-year partnership with the PWHL using the “See Her Name” campaign.[39] Molson's jersey patch is the first sponsorship ever to go above jersey numbers, in order for the PWHL players’ names to be moved to the bottom of the jersey.[40] This was done to both prevent players’ long hair from covering their names, as well as bring more visibility and recognition to the players.[41] Rather than mimic the same branding, advertisements, and identity of their male counterparts, the PWHL and its corporate partners are tailoring its league’s sponsorships to reflect its players, fans, and values.

 

As teams continue moving to larger arenas and more sponsors join mid-season, it’s hard to deny the growing popularity of the PWHL. Even halfway through its inaugural season, it’s not difficult to say they’re lighting the lamp.


References:

[1] See John Wawrow, Puck drop to follow ball drop with pro women’s hockey league opening inaugural schedule on Jan. 1, The Associated Press. (Nov. 28, 2023) https://apnews.com/article/pwhl-home-openers-womens-hockey-78ca118f0cea2af3bce35fc9f6b81b1d

[2] See Arif Islam, PWHL opening game draws 2.9m viewers in Canada on CBC, Sportsnet and TSN, SportsPro. (Jan. 8, 2024) https://www.sportspromedia.com/news/pwhl-opening-game-toronto-new-york-canada-cbc-sportsnet-tsn-viewers/

[3] See Id.

[4] See Ian Kennedy, Women’s Pro Hockey Attendance Record Will Be Broken At Scotiabank Arena, The Hockey News. (Feb. 1, 2024) https://thehockeynews.com/womens/pwhl/womens-pro-hockey-attendance-record-will-be-broken-at-scotiabank-arena

[5] See Ian Kennedy, Sold Out: New Attendance Record Will Be Set At Bell Centre, The Hockey News. (Mar. 20, 2024) https://thehockeynews.com/womens/pwhl/sold-out-new-attendance-record-will-be-set-at-bell-center

[6] See Manon Rheaume, Women in the NHL, ProStockHockey. https://www.prostockhockey.com/hockey-resources/miscellaneous/women-in-the-nhl/

[7] See Id.

[8] See IIHF, A Brief History of Women’s Hockey, International Ice Hockey Federation. https://www.iihf.com/en/static/42596/general_information

[9] See Players form new Canadian Women’s Hockey Legaue, Toronto Star. (Sept. 27, 2007) https://www.thestar.com/sports/players-form-new-canadian-womens-hockey-league/article_6a1b1c4d-cfdb-5411-8cc0-ba7bb7f09dfd.html

[10] See Hailey Salvian, Will a new women’s hockey league succeed where others have failed?, The Athletic. (Dec. 6, 2023) https://theathletic.com/5111175/2023/12/06/pwhl-womens-hockey-league-history/

[11] See Id.

[12] See Donna Spencer, CWHL ceasing operations due to ’economically unsustainable’ business model, CBC (Mar. 31, 2019)  https://www.cbc.ca/sports/hockey/cwhl-ceasing-operations-unsustainable-finance-1.5078834

[13] See IIHF, supra note 8.

[14] See Barnes, supra note 17.

[15] See Id.

[16] See BetMGM, NHL Salaries: How Much Do Players Make?, BetMGM. (Oct. 12, 2023) https://sports.betmgm.com/en/blog/nhl/nhl-salaries-how-much-players-make-bm11/#

[17] See Id.

[18] See Carol Schram, 10 Games In, The New PWHL Women’s Hockey League Is Thriving, Forbes. (Jan. 16, 2024) https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolschram/2024/01/16/10-games-in-the-new-pwhl-womens-hockey-league-is-thriving/?sh=1a43f0684249

[19] See Erica Ayala, Mark Walter Group Acquires PHF Making Way For #OneLeague In Women’s Hockey, Forbes. (Jan. 30, 2023) https://www.forbes.com/sites/ericalayala/2023/06/30/mark-walter-group-acquires-phf-making-way-for-oneleague-in-womens-hockey/?sh=811864c3642f

[20] See Id.

[21] See Schram, supra note 14.

[22] See Dan Barnes, New level of professionalism key to launch of latest women’s hockey league, Toronto Sun. (Dec. 31, 2023) https://torontosun.com/sports/hockey/pwhl/new-level-of-professionalism-key-to-launch-of-latest-womens-hockey-league

[23] See Alex Azzi, PWHPA raises bar, ratifies CBA ahead of new women’s hockey league launch, Just Women’s Sports. (July 3, 2023) https://justwomenssports.com/reads/pwhpa-cba-ratifified-pwhlpa-union-new-womens-hockey-league/

[24] See generally 2023-2031 Collective Bargaining Agreement between Professional Women’s Hockey League and Professional Women‘s Hockey League Players Ass’n,  https://assets-global.website-files.com/64d22f9c3617ad42d10d32f1/64ed721629f3b2cfe84c7a54_PWHL-CBA-thpwhlcom.pdf (last visited Mar. 19, 2024).

[25] See Id.

[26] See Id.

[27] See Id.

[28] See Hailey Salvian, Professional Women’s Hockey League announces original 6 markets, draft plan, The Athletic. (Aug. 29, 2023) https://theathletic.com/4814360/2023/08/29/professional-womens-hockey-league-teams/

[29] See Id.

[30] See Kasten explains PWHL’s ‘consultative’ relationship with NHL, SportsNet.ca. (Aug. 29, 2023) https://www.sportsnet.ca/women-hockey/video/kasten-explains-pwhls-consultative-relationship-with-nhl/

[31] See Id.

[32] See Id.

[33] See PWHL‘s weekend in Pittsburgh, Detroit shines light on two potential expansion cities, Sports Business Journal. (Mar. 18, 2024) https://www.sportsbusinessjournal.com/Articles/2024/03/18/pwhl-pittsburgh-detroit-games-expansion-city-potential-womens-hockey

[34]See Josh Sim, PWHL scores US broadcast deal with Women’s Sports Network, SportsPro. (Feb. 15, 2024) https://www.sportspromedia.com/news/pwhl-womens-sports-network-us-broadcast-rights-deal/

[35] See Professional Women’s Hockey League announces partnership with Discover, PWHL. (Feb. 6, 2024) https://www.thepwhl.com/en/professional-womens-hockey-league-pwhl-announces-partnership-with-discover

[36]See Professional Women’s Hockey League announces partnership with Bread FinancialTM, Bread Financial Newsroom. (Feb. 6, 2024) https://newsroom.breadfinancial.com/pwhl-partnership

[37] See Black Girl Hockey Club Canada, Nursey Night, BGHC Canada (Feb. 13, 2024). https://www.blackgirlhockeyclubca.org/post/nursey-night

[38] See Professional Women’s Hockey League announces partnership with global icon Barbie. (Feb. 29, 2024) https://www.thepwhl.com/en/professional-womens-hockey-league-pwhl-announces-partnership-with-global-icon-barbie

 

[39] See Molson, Molson hides its logo on new PWHL jersey designs to bring greater visibility to women players' names, Cision. (Mar. 5, 2024). https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/molson-hides-its-logo-on-new-pwhl-jersey-designs-to-bring-greater-visibility-to-women-players-names-882713006.html

[40] See Id.

[41] See Id.

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