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As US Women’s Hockey battles Canada, PHF and PWHPA stay separated

The rivalry in women’s hockey between the U.S. and Canada, our maple-tapping neighbors to the north, is as intense as ever heading into the Beijing Olympics. The two nations have dominated the sport on the world stage since the International Ice Hockey Federation first started holding a women’s world championship in 1990 and the IOC followed suit in 1998 by adding the sport to the Olympic line up. 

Since then, the U.S. and Canada have faced each other in the gold medal game of every single World Championship and Olympic games but two (Sweden knocked the U.S. out in semis at the 2006 Olympics and Finland did the same to Canada at Worlds in 2019). Of all the great rivalries in recent sports history, perhaps none have been as consistent and relentless as this one. For these two teams, after every huge victory and every heart-breaking defeat, they awake the next day knowing their nemesis is still out there, coming for them again with everything they have.

At the PyeongChang 2018 Winter games, the U.S. finally won their second Olympic gold, ending Canada’s run of four consecutive Olympic golds. It came one year after the U.S. women threatened to boycott the IIFH World Championship in their fight for better pay and better treatment from USA Hockey. Proving their worth, the U.S. followed that victory up with a fifth consecutive World Championship in 2019.

But since resuming play after the cancellations of 2020, it appears momentum has shifted in favor of the north. At the World Championship this past August, Canada beat the U.S. both in the preliminary rounds and again in an overtime thriller, 3-2 for the title, winning their first Worlds title since 2012.

And in the latest installment of the saga, tensions boiled over as the final buzzer blew on a 3-2 Canadian victory in Game 2 of a nine-game pre-Olympic rivalry series between the two squads.

With Canada also winning Game 1 of the series a few days prior, and just a few months to prepare for what many are hoping will be a sixth Olympic gold showdown, it appears the U.S. has some work to do. The rivals face off again Nov. 21 and 23 in Ontario.

When not playing for their countries, most American and Canadian national team members, like USA stars Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne Schofield, and Amanda Kessel, play for the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA). The group was formed in 2019 (after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League went under) partly in protest to existing leagues, including the NWHL, which elite players said had failed to provide a truly professional option for the best women’s hockey players in the world. 

Since its formation, the on-ice action of the PHWPA has been a series of annual showcase games between evenly divided teams, each with its own outside sponsor. Last season they moved to a “regional hub” structure, where each hub carries a 25-player pool from which they form each showcase roster, a baby step toward designating geographically-located teams. This season, the puck drops in Truro, Nova Scotia on November 12th for the first showcase with teams from Boston, Calgary, Montreal, and Toronto playing a two-day, best of four tourney.

This year, the PWHPA will also play in several All-Star games where hand-selected rosters (of mainly non-national teams players) will play against national teams prepping for the Olympics. In October, they played a series of closed-door scrimmages against Team USA and will take on Team Canada in Calgary on Dec. 9 and 11 before heading over to play Japan in a series of games Jan. 9-16.

Meanwhile, the Premier Hockey Federation (previously the National Women’s Hockey League) has recently kicked off its seventh season with a five-game opening weekend. The Boston Pride will be looking to defend their Isobel Cup title against the Minnesota Whitecaps, Buffalo Beauts, Metropolitan Riveters, Toronto Six, and Connecticut Whale. The PHF as a whole will be looking to move past a somewhat disastrous last season, in which a Covid outbreak burst the league’s rather porous hockey bubble and forced the league to suspend play.  

It was an eventful offseason for the PHF since teams were last on the ice. Shortly after last season ended, the league announced that the salary cap would be doubled, bringing it to $300K per team. Earlier this fall, following tough discussions prompted by one team owner’s previous involvement with an anti-trans organization, the league announced the name change and re-branding from the National Women’s Hockey League to the Premier Hockey Federation.

According to the league press release announcing the change, “The PHF name was inspired by empowerment, gender equity, and inclusivity with respect to differences in the gender identity of current athletes, prospective players, and league stakeholders.”

And just last week, the league announced it signed a new deal giving ESPN+ exclusive broadcast rights for the 2021-2022 season. The streaming service will offer all 60 regular season games plus playoffs.

Even though most U.S. and Canadian national team members don’t play in the PHF, the abundance of hockey talent being produced in north America is clear. And the end goal of a high caliber, financially sustainable, pro league where players can be full-time professional athletes and make a decent living is the common goal.

No doubt the PWHPA is hoping for a strong U.S. and Canadian showing in Beijing to get the Olympic boost that can move their dream forward, as has been the pattern for other successful women’s pro sports leagues. What remains to be seen is if the PHF will benefit from the same boost, and what that will mean for the two organizations down the line. The PHF has said it wants to mend the gap. For the PWHPA, it remains an unbridgeable gulf. 

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer for Just Women’s Sports. 

KC Current GM Camille Ashton Resigns

KC Current GM Camille Ashton
Former KC Current GM Camille Ashton left the undefeated organization early this week. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

Kansas City Current general manager Camille Ashton has resigned, the club announced Wednesday.

The staffing shakeup comes as somewhat of a surprise after the Current started off the season undefeated under new head coach Vlatko Andonovski, sitting second in the NWSL standings through 10 games.

No further details were given about her departure, other than that the club "wishes her the best in her future endeavors."

"I am thankful for my time in Kansas City," Ashton said in a team statement. "It was important to me to dedicate my time and efforts to ensure a successful 2024 season by building the championship-caliber roster that's currently near the top of the table. I am proud of what we have accomplished here. I look forward to the next step in my personal and professional journey."

Ashton, who played in the league from 2014-17, helped rebuild the Current roster, including picking up then-free agent Debinha in 2023 — the biggest free agency signing of that offseason. This past offseason, she brought in international players Temwa Chawinga and Bia Zaneratto

But the club has also encountered some rough patches throughout Ashton's tenure. Following her daughter's dismissal from the Current last year, mother of 2023 draft pick Mykiaa Minniss also accused the club of mistreatment during the preseason. While both the league and NWSL Players Association looked into the comments, no formal reprimand or consequences were publicly issued.

Players like Lynn Williams, Alex Loera, and Cece Kizer voiced concerns over what they described as unexpected trades, with Kizer adding that there was "no conversation this could happen." Williams, meanwhile, was informed of her trade moments prior to its execution while she was in New Zealand with the USWNT.

"There could be a lot of debate about that on its own, but at the end of the day, that’s the mechanism that we work with right now in the league," Ashton told reporters earlier this year when quested about the Current's player trade procedures.

While the club made an NWSL championship appearance in 2022 — the year Ashton came on as general manager — the 2023 season kicked off with the team firing head coach Matt Potter just three games into the season and hours before a road game. 

At the time, the club cited "issues around his leadership and employment responsibilities" as the reasoning, though players were reportedly confused with the decision making.

Last October, the Current hired former UWSNT coach Vlatko Andonovski as head coach, in addition to giving him the title of "sporting director." Whether or not that role overlapped with Ashton’s responsibilities as general manager was cause for some speculation.

NWSL Honors UWSNT Great Lauren Holiday With Impact Award

Lauren Holiday at nwsl impact award event
USWNT legend Lauren Holiday has long been involved with social activism off the pitch. (NWSL)

The NWSL announced today that the annual civically focused Nationwide Community Impact Award would now be known as the Lauren Holiday Award in honor of the National Soccer Hall of Famer.

Since 2021, the award has recognized one NWSL player each season for their character and contributions to community service off the pitch, according to a league release. The winner of the newly retitled award receives $30,000 toward a charitable organization of their choice.

"The NWSL is proud to honor Lauren Holiday as the namesake of this award recognizing exemplary athletes and their commitment to service and activism," said NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman. "Lauren’s influential work in the community and her outstanding character both on and off the field epitomize the values we look to uphold and celebrate in the NWSL every day. 

"I can think of no one more deserving of this recognition than Lauren and look forward to seeing the continued positive impact this program has on our clubs and communities with her example guiding our efforts."

In a statement, Holiday said that throughout her career she has always "believed in the power of giving back and creating positive change." A two-time Olympic gold medalist, World Cup winner, and former NWSL MVP, Holiday founded the Jrue & Lauren Holiday Social Impact Fund alongside husband and fellow professional athlete JRue Holiday.

The fund contributes to programs that combat systemic racism and socioeconomic inequality. Holiday has also long been an advocate for legislation to help close the racial inequality gap in maternal health.

"This award is a testament to the important work that athletes are doing to strengthen and uplift their communities every day and I am deeply humbled to take on its namesake," Holiday said. "I hope it inspires others to continue their efforts in making a lasting impact on the lives of those around them."

Waylaid Seattle Rookie Nika Mühl Makes WNBA Debut

seattle storm's nika muhl guarding indiana fever's caitlin clark
Mühl spent her first few pro minutes repeating her college assignment: guarding Caitlin Clark.(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Seattle rookie Nika Mühl made her long awaited WNBA debut in last night’s 85-83 win over Indiana after missing the first four games of the season due to visa issues. 

A Croatian national, Mühl had been waiting on P-1 visa approval in order to work legally in the US. While the paperwork came through Friday, she had to travel to Canada in order to get her status changed.

The former UConn star poked fun at the delay ahead of the game, walking into Climate Pledge Arena wearing a t-shirt displaying her approved visa.

Mühl checked into the game on Monday in the third period to a standing ovation, immediately diving over the baseline to save a loose ball. She spent her first few minutes of the game the same way she completed her career at UConn: guarding Caitlin Clark

Mühl, who had two rebounds in two and a half minutes, held Clark to five points, a rebound, and a turnover when the two were matched up. 

"I threw her in the fire," Storm coach Noelle Quinn said with a smile after the game. "It’s tough to come into the game at that rate and think that you’re going to stop the player, but I like… her physicality, her poise, her confidence. She took an open shot and I thought that was a great look for her. We’ll continue to put her in the mix in practice, and she’ll have opportunities to show what she can do on the defensive end to start."

An instant fan favorite, the UConn star donned the No. 1 jersey — in part because her usual No. 10 was retired by Seattle after Sue Bird, who wore it for her entire WNBA career, retired last year. Mühl's new number was chosen by none other than Bird herself. 

"I actually FaceTimed Sue and asked her what number I should wear. She took a day to think about it and came back to me with an answer of No. 1," Muhl said in a WNBA video posted to social media. "When I asked her why No. 1, she basically said 'This is a new beginning, but you’re not starting from scratch.' I loved that whole analogy and story, so Sue actually picked it and I love it."

WNBA Confirms Toronto Expansion Team for 2026

Fans at a game between the Chicago Sky and the Minnesota Lynx in Toronto
Canadian fans asked and the WNBA delivered: Toronto's getting a team. (Jordan Jones/NBAE via Getty Images)

The WNBA is officially expanding to Toronto, with the league announcing its 14th franchise early Thursday. 

Kilmer Sports Ventures has been awarded the team, said WNBA commissioner Cathy Englebert at a press conference attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and others. 

"Growing internationally, I’ve been trying to think through next steps on a global platform," Engelbert told the Associated Press ahead of the official announcement. "It helps us reach new audiences and bring in new partners. The thing I love about going to another country is that the young girls and boys get to see professional basketball for women is important, too."

The CBC was the first to report on the expansion franchise back on May 10th. 

With the Golden State Valkyries set to begin play next year, the Toronto franchise will begin play in 2026. The goal, per the WNBA, is to then add two more franchises by 2028 for a total of 16. 

Toronto will play at Coca-Cola Coliseum, which holds 8,700 seats. On occasion, the team will play games in Scotiabank Arena. The WNBA has previously hosted sold-out preseason games at Scotiabank Arena and Edmonton’s Rogers Place. There are also plans to play games in Vancouver and Montreal, according to majority owner Larry Tanenbaum. 

This will be the first WNBA franchise outside of the United States, and joins PWHL Toronto as just the second professional women’s sports team in the city.

"Our Toronto sports franchises are thriving but, we have been missing one critical piece — women’s professional sports," Tanenbaum told the AP. "The world is finally taking notice of something that’s been there all along — the immense talent, passion and competition in women’s sports. 

"I saw an opportunity and knew we were in the right place at the right time to bring Canada’s first WNBA team to Toronto. And now we have, making sports history."

Similar to Golden State, the Toronto franchise paid a $50 million expansion fee. They’ve also committed to building a dedicated practice facility, but will train at the University of Toronto’s Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport in the meantime. 

"Women’s sports is good business," Tanenbaum said. "Just look around — it’s not a moment, but a movement and it’s just the beginning."

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