A new, yet-to-be-named professional women’s hockey league is underway, set to launch in January after union members cleared the last major hurdle Sunday by unanimously ratifying a collective bargaining agreement and constitution, a person with direct knowledge of the vote. she told The Associated Press.
The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association has not announced the result of a vote by its 97 members. The ratification effectively clears the way for the launch of the new league, which will bring together the best female stars in North America, with the potential to attract the best in Europe and Asia as well.
The CBA runs through 2031, and having one before the league begins play marks a first for women’s professional sports in North America. The WNBA’s CBA was ratified in 1999, a year after the league’s launch, and the NWSL didn’t have its first CBA until last year, 10 years after its establishment.
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The voting caps a three-day whirlwind that began when Los Angeles Dodgers president Mark Walter, one of the financial backers of the new hockey league, eliminated competition by buying out the rival seven-team Premier Hockey Federation.
What remains now is determining the name of the league and where its six teams will be based, three in the United States and three in Canada. After that, teams will begin recruiting, followed by a draft and free agency signing period to stock each franchise’s 23-player roster.
«I couldn’t be more proud of our group of players for sticking together and united throughout this process,» Sarah Nurse, a PWHPA board member and Canada national team player, said Friday.
«We really understood our value, and our faith has never deviated from that,» he added. «And looking at what we’re achieving with our CBA, which is paramount to us, it’s a great moment. And I know in the long run our sport is going to be much better.»
While the new league is open to all players, the CBA’s vote was limited to PWHPA members who have spent the past three months negotiating the deal with their financial backers, the Mark Walter Group and Billie Jean King Enterprises.
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Brant Feldman, a player agent who represents numerous members of the national team, issued a statement praising the CBA ratification as «groundbreaking for women’s sports.»
«Thank you to Mark Walter Group and BJK Enterprises for turning the conversation around that it’s a business and being in a mutually beneficial relationship with players early on, instead of trying to build a CBA on the fly after the issues commissioning have already started,” added Feldmann.
No longer rivals, a group of the PHF’s highest-profile players delivered a unifying message on Sunday saying they are eager to join forces, even at the expense of their league.
«Today, all women’s hockey players are united stronger than ever as we enter this new era,» the statement read. «As we embark on yet another league formation, we bring the power and infrastructure that we fought to build. We are very excited to see a unified league that will house the best athletes hockey has to offer and our goal is to build the most strong that can stand the test of time.»
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The statement was issued by 11 players who formed a PHF leadership committee and featured at least one representative from each of the league’s seven franchises. Committee members include Boston Pride captain Jillian Dempsey, who holds the PHF record for goals, points and games played, Connecticut Whale’s Kacey Bellamy, former US Olympian and former PWHPA member, and Ann -Sophie Bettez of the Montreal Force, who played on the national championship team and is also a former member of the PWHPA.
News of the purchase reignited a familiar narrative about the so-called rift between the two sides, which PHF players wanted to dispel.
«We seek to turn away from the divisive narrative that too often plagued the many great achievements in professional women’s hockey, and come together as we collectively create the future of hockey,» the players wrote.
The developments meet the PWHPA’s vision of having a majority stake in a league with a sustainable economic model and fair wages for players.
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Just as important, the new league finally clears up what has been a confusing picture in North America for women’s hockey that has been divided by two factions over the best viable long-term approach. The split dates back to 2015, when the four-team National Women’s Hockey League, later renamed PHF, was founded as the first professional league on the continent to pay female hockey players a salary.
The PWHPA is made up of a majority of players from the US and Canadian national teams and was established in 2019 following the financial demise of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
The group declined to join the NWHL due to philosophical differences revolving around its economic model as a start-up company reliant on investors, lack of health care benefits, and teams having dedicated facilities. Concerns about financial stability were also raised, especially after the NWHL was forced to cut player salaries by half a month in its second season to avoid bankruptcy.
By changing the name to PHF, the league eventually moved to incorporate private ownership, offer benefits, and increase wages. A $25 million commitment from the PHF board of governors saw each team’s salary caps go from $350,000 for the 2021-22 season to $750,000 last season and doubled entering the next year.
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«For the last two years, they’d tell us, ‘You just have to go play there,'» Nurse said, referring to the PHF. «Our players didn’t want to settle for what was currently out there. And obviously we did our thing. We just kept going.»
PHF players gave credit to members of the PWHPA and those who played key roles in their league.
«We are empowered to enter an environment that has a union and a CBA setting out a roadmap to continue to build,» they added. «Although this is the end of the PHF as we knew it, this evolution will never erase the tireless and thankless work of our athletes… We started this and we’re not done yet. Onward and upwards, together.»