For upcoming PHF season, expansion begins and ends with Montreal

Les Canadiennes de Montreal, a CWHL team and the most recent women’s professional team in Montreal, made history in 2015 as part of the first women’s professional hockey game to be played outdoors. (Winslow Townson /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

For Kevin Raphaël, the goal of a Premier Hockey Federation expansion team in Montreal dates back to 2019, when the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded and left the city without a women’s professional team.

His work toward that goal came to fruition Tuesday, when the league announced its seventh team — and announced Raphaël as president of the new Montreal franchise.

“I’m proud to be present on this team,” Raphaël said. “I’ve been working so hard for the past four years now, to bring a team back to Montreal. I believe in women’s hockey, I believe they should be treated as professionals. I believe that we have the fan base and the infrastructure in the province of Quebec to support strongly a pro women’s hockey team.”

For those in the PHF, the addition of a team in Montreal has been a long time coming, even for commissioner Reagan Carey, who took on the job a little over two months ago.

“This has been circled on my list as a top priority since day one,” said Carey, who also called Montreal an “essential market” for the league. “In these last few months, there’s been a real awareness of the commitment not just of the ownership, but our front office to continue to build and add people. Montreal is an extension of just the credibility, the passion and purpose behind who we’re bringing on board with the PHF.”

BTM Partners will start out as Montreal’s ownership group, news not included in Tuesday’s announcement but confirmed by Carey. With that, the group now owns four of seven teams in the PHF (Montreal, Boston Pride, Metropolitan Riveters, Toronto Six). Back in March, it was announced that a BIPOC-led ownership group would be purchasing the Six, although according to Carey that sale is still in progress and has yet to officially close.

Carey called the sale a “priority” and a “continued discussion” similar to the ones that were had about adding a Montreal franchise.

Eventually, the league would like to see all seven teams owned by separate entities. Still, Raphaël made clear Tuesday that, for now at least, he’s just the Montreal team’s president.

“We’ll see later what will happen, but right now my job is to put the best team on the ice possible,” he said.

His goal for the team in Montreal is “to bring something to our women athletes.”

“My goal is to treat the players as professionals, to make sure they get paid for all the efforts they make, all the training — they train as much as the boys, and they do not get nothing,” he said. “So my mission is to make sure that we do right by the players, we do right by the sacrifice that they’ve made for the past four years.”

As the team looks to establish itself in the Montreal market, it will play “home” games around Quebec.

The PHF wants to grow support for professional women’s hockey within communities that may not otherwise have the opportunity to experience it. The league also anticipates that a lot of local players will want to join the new team, making it important that team leaders are connected throughout the province.

For training, the new franchise call Centre 21.02 home — the first and only recognized High Performance Hockey Center for women athletes across Canada.

As the PHF is already a few months into free agency, Raphaël likely faces an uphill battle in signing players. That’s part of the reason that the franchise announcement, which included minimal information beyond the addition of the team, came when it did: The league wanted to put Raphaël in a position to field the best team possible.

“I had been asked already about the concern of the timing of announcing this team,” said Carey. “I think there’s not going to be any lack of interest and roster building for Kevin [Raphaël]. In fact, he might have his roster sealed before the rest of the teams do. So we’ll let the competition begin.”

Boston Pride player and PHF Players Association member Mallory Souliotis told On Her Turf that news of the expansion team was sent to players’ reps early Tuesday morning ahead of the league’s official announcement.

Raphaël, meanwhile, played potential difficulties off due to the history of hockey in the community and player’s desires to play in Montreal. Several high-profile Canadian players, like Ann-Renée Desbiens, Marie-Philip Poulin and Mélodie Daoust, hail from Quebec.

“We have the best talent in the world. You just look at any world championship or Olympics, who are the best players? Who is the best goalies? Who is the clutch player? (It’s a) person from Quebec,” said Raphaël.

And while that’s certainly true, those players most recently have been committed to the PWHPA, which has plans to launch its own league.

So far this offseason, though, two players from the PWHPA — Brittany Howard and U.S. Olympian Amanda Pelkey — have signed with PHF teams. And, according to Raphaël, the announcement of a Montreal team has been met with buzz from players.

“We wanted to enter as a team before making moves. I’m not gonna lie that my phone’s been blowing up right now,” he said. “A lot of players want to play with Montreal. I think they know that Montreal is something else. We are Canada’s team.

“I don’t think it’s gonna be long before we sign players because a lot of people are hitting up my phone right now. I will answer every single call and we’ll build the best team possible to win the Isobel Cup.”

Other announcements, like the team’s name, game locations and its coaching staff, will come later.

There will also be discussions about further expansion teams. While many – including the league – had anticipated eight PHF teams gracing the ice in the league’s upcoming eighth season, there will only be seven.

This year’s expansion begins and ends with Montreal. Carey says the one-team increase is the right move for the league.

“We have other markets we’ve explored,” said Carey, adding that they are still looking into expansion teams for the league’s ninth season and beyond. “It’s my responsibility, once I got here a few months ago, to really vet and assess what is best for the league right now and what’s best for the long term.

“I feel very confident and strongly about this being the right move for the league.”

In the meantime, Raphaël, a French cable TV broadcaster, is looking forward to helping grow women’s hockey one step at a time.

“I have so many things I want to do for this team,” he said. “If I could do everything in a year, I would not sleep.”