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What to watch for as the 2021-22 Premier Hockey Federation season begins

(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The good news: The Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) is back.

The even better news: “Back” also means back to normal.

Last year was eventful for the professional women’s hockey league. From a condensed bubble season to mid-season schedule changes to Barstool Sports commotion to COVID-19 breakouts, every day was full of the unexpected.

With a new name and fresh rainbow branding, the PHF, formerly known as the NWHL, will open the 2021-22 season on Saturday with all six teams in action over the weekend.

Here are a few storylines to follow as the puck drops:

The Pride-Whitecaps rivalry continues

The Boston Pride and Minnesota Whitecaps have faced each other in the last two Isobel Cups. The Whitecaps see this season as a chance for them to even up after the 2020 championship was cancelled due to COVID-19 and the Pride won the Cup in 2021.

“We have some unfinished business from last year,” said Minnesota forward Allie Thunstrom. “Obviously we didn’t win that final game, and obviously really wanted to.”

Teammate Winny Brodt-Brown, the oldest player in the PHF at 43 years old, said part of the reason she didn’t retire last year was because she couldn’t end her career with Boston lifting the Cup.

The Whitecaps claimed the championship over the Buffalo Beauts in Minnesota’s inaugural season in 2019, but Boston has proved dominant ever since.

Through three seasons, the Pride have managed a 7-3 advantage over the Whitecaps. Boston went 23-1 during the 2019-20 season, with the team’s sole loss coming against the Whitecaps. In 2021, Minnesota won their lone regular-season matchup before Boston took the final, 4-3.

The Pride went through a wild ride in last year’s bubble, losing their first five games before finding a rhythm and racking up four straight blowout wins in their run to the championship.

Boston returns goaltender Katie Burt, who was with the PWHPA last season, as well as two-time Defender of the Year Kaleigh Fratkin and 2020 co-MVP Jillian Dempsey. With Dempsey’s counterpart, 2020 co-MVP Thunstrom, leading the way for the Whitecaps, the Boston-Minnesota rivalry should be one of the most entertaining parts of the 2021-22 season.

Don’t count out the Buffalo Beauts

On paper, things don’t look great for the Beauts. The 2017 Isobel Cup champions, who appeared in the finals every year until 2020, sunk to the bottom of the standings in the past two seasons. They’ve also lost multiple key players, including season points leader Kristin Lewiki and top defender Alyson Matteau.

But what people haven’t seen is that the Beauts, with 10 new faces, have build up their team behind the scenes and are entering the season with character, tenacity and chemistry.

“That was our number one priority: not only to find the best hockey players but to find the best humans,” said new head coach Rhea Coad. “We did that. Now it just comes down to having fun and working hard.”

“It’s weird to think the season hasn’t started yet,” said goaltender Carly Jackson. “It feels like we’re in mid-season form. Everybody on the team is so close and we just have such a fun group to be a part of. Every time we go to the rink, everyone’s just smiles and good energy all around, so I’m just so happy to be back. Being a Beaut is just the absolute best.”

The Toronto Six are still riding first-season momentum

Alexa, play “Love Story” by Taylor Swift.

The Toronto Six are back and ready to dance to their favorite postgame jam, this time in their own locker room … for the first time ever. Playing their inaugural season in the bubble last year, the Six have yet to meet and play in front of their fans.

“It’s really exciting,” said defender Lindsay Eastwood. “We’re actually going to be able to get a little more normalcy here this season.”

As they make their debut at their home arena in North York, Ont., under new coaches Mark Joslin and Angela James, it’ll be like having a first season all over again. The Six came out on fire in Lake Placid during their first year, finishing on top of the regular-season standings before losing in semifinals. If they can carry that same “first-season excitement” into 2021-22, the Six will be a team to watch.

Whale have high expectations for No. 1 draft pick Taylor Girard

The Connecticut Whale are still looking for their breakout season. Adding the 2021 No. 1 draft pick, forward Taylor Girard from Quinnipiac, is a good place to start.

At 5-foot-10, Girard is known for her size and physicality. She finished her senior season second in scoring with seven goals and nine assists through 15 games.

“She’s really good with the puck,” said Whale veteran Emma Vlasic. “Her shots are definitely some of the hardest that I’ve seen and I think she’s just really clever offensively. I think that will really help us produce scoring and everything. So I think from an offensive standpoint and what I’ve seen, I’ve been impressed. She’s definitely going to add some speed and size.”

The Connecticut Whale and Metropolitan Riveters open the PHF season on Saturday at 2 p.m. ET, followed by a full slate of weekend games.

All games this season will be broadcast on ESPN+.

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Jessa Braun is an editorial intern for Just Women’s Sports. She is also the Head of North American Content for the Women’s Sports Alliance. You can find her on Twitter @jessabraun.

Nelly Korda Continues Unprecedented LPGA Run

LPGA golfer Nelly Korda poses with Mizuho Americas Open trophy
Nelly Korda took home the title at the Mizuho Americas Open on Sunday. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Nelly Korda continued her unprecedented LPGA run on Sunday, winning her sixth tournament in the last seven starts. 

The 25-year-old Florida native took home the title at the Mizuho Americas Open, becoming the first LPGA player to record six wins in a single season since 2013 — and that’s with three majors and a little over half the season left to play.

"Oh, my gosh, six," Korda said after the win. "I can't even really gather myself right now with that, the head-to-head that Hannah and I had pretty much all day. Wasn't my best stuff out there today, but fought really hard on the back nine."

Korda is just the fourth player on tour to win six times before June 1st, joining LPGA Hall of Famers Babe Zaharias (1951), Louise Suggs (1953), and Lorena Ochoa (2008).

Should her victory run continue, Korda could break the current record for single-season wins, currently set at 13 by Mickey Wright in 1963.

Korda ended Sunday's tournament one shot ahead of Hannah Green, finishing the 18th with a par putt to win it all.

"I mean, to lose to Nelly kind of like is — it's sad, but then it's also Nelly Korda," Green said of her second-place finish. "You know, like she's obviously so dominant right now. To feel like second behind her is quite nice. Unfortunately the bogey on the last has a little bit of a sour taste."

Next up is the US Women’s Open, a tournament that Korda has yet to win in her career. 

"Obviously it's on the top of my priority list," she said. "I just know there is never any good when you put more pressure on yourself. Just going to stay in my bubble that week and take it a shot at a time."

Earlier this year, Korda became the fastest player to collect $2 million in prize money over a single season. This latest win earned her an additional $450,000, bringing her season total up to $2,943,708.

Caitlin Clark Signs Multi-Year Deal with Wilson, Gets Signature Basketball Collection

caitlin clark poses with wilson basketball
Clark is just the second athlete to get a signature basketball collection with Wilson. (Wilson Sporting Goods)

Caitlin Clark has signed a multi-year endorsement deal with Wilson Sporting Goods that will include a signature basketball collection, the brand announced early Tuesday. 

According to Boardroom, Clark is just the second athlete to develop a signature collection with Wilson, with the first being Michael Jordan in the 1980s. In addition to her basketball collection, she will also "test, advise and provide feedback on a range" of related products. 

Three Clark-branded white-and-gold Wilson basketballs have already dropped. Each ball features laser-cut engravings of some of the guard's most memorable moments at Iowa, where she became the all-time leading scorer in Division I college basketball history.

Three Wilson basketballs from Clark's collection have already dropped. (Wilson Sporting Goods).

"I think it is super special, and it's been fun for me," Clark told Boardroom. "I feel like I was just that young kid who had those basketballs that I would store in the garage. I'm just very lucky and fortunate to partner with Wilson to create something that everyone can enjoy. It connects with a lot of generations, and it'll be fun to see kids walking around holding them."

The No. 1 overall pick at the 2024 WNBA Draft, Clark has been building up a slate of major endorsements since turning pro. Current partnerships include Gatorade and Panini, and she’s also close to signing a signature shoe deal with Nike worth a reported $28 million.

New York Liberty off to First 4-0 Start in 17 Years

sabrina ionescu of the new york liberty on the court
Sabrina Ionescu led the undefeated Liberty to a 74-63 win over Seattle Monday night. (Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty are 4-0 on the season for the first time since 2007. 

The 2023 WNBA title finalists notched a 74-63 win over Seattle on Monday night, with Sabrina Ionescu dropping 20 points alongside eight assists. After the game, Ionescu told reporters she thought the team was coming together a bit easier than they did last year.

"I think having a year together, we don't nearly have to communicate as much on the court anymore," she said. "Because we can just play off one another and read. And that's obviously been the growth of this team, is being able to play a season together last year."

The team’s defense has also contributed heavily to the season's winning start. Last night, the Liberty held Jewell Loyd to just 13 points and nine rebounds. Loyd let the Storm in scoring, with only two other players in double digits, while Nneka Ogwumike missed her second straight game with an ankle injury. 

Storm free agency acquisition Skylar Diggins-Smith had eight points, and is averaging 14.5 points and 5.8 assists per game this season. In her postgame remarks, Storm head coach Noelle Quinn called on others to give her grace in her return. 

"There needs to be respect about the fact that she's had two children and hasn’t played in 20 months," said Quinn. "She’s not going to come overnight and be who she was 20 months ago and we have to respect that and honor that. And I do.

"My grace as a coach is to know she’s working her butt off every day. You guys don’t see it. Every single day. Two children. Not one, two. Not many can do that."

Australia’s Sam Kerr Ruled Out for 2024 Paris Olympics With ACL Injury

sam kerr playing for the australian womens national team
A longtime Matildas mainstay, Kerr has made 128 appearances for Australia alongside 69 career goals. (Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images)

Australia has confirmed that captain and star striker Sam Kerr will miss the Paris Olympics due to an ACL injury suffered early this year. 

Kerr, who also stars for Chelsea, tore her ACL in January. While unlikely that she would recover in time for the Olympics, Football Australia (FA) hadn’t confirmed her status until Tuesday when the team revealed its squad for upcoming warm-up games. 

In a statement, the FA said that Kerr remained on the sidelines and will continue her rehab program at Chelsea. 

"Attacker Amy Sayer (ACL) and forward Sam Kerr (ACL) remain on the sidelines with long term injuries," the report read. "Kerr and Sayer will continue their rehabilitation programmes in their home club environments and subsequently will not be available for selection for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games."

Tuesdays 23-player squad is a "strong guide" to the final Olympic lineup, according to coach Tony Gustavsson, but others like injured midfielders Katrina Gorry and Aivi Luik could potentially figure into the conversation. 

"[They] most likely will be physically available to be part of an Olympic roster," Gustavsson said of Gorry and Luik. "This window will be a tough one for me and my staff in terms of evaluating players, where they are, and then the final selection process for Paris."

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