The Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) will open its inaugural season on New Year’s Day.

Toronto will host New York at Mattamy Athletic Centre at 12:30 p.m. ET on Monday, Jan. 1, 2024, as the first game of the new league. The other five teams in the league will host their own home openers over the next 12 days, the PWHL announced Tuesday.

  • Montreal @ Ottawa
    • When: 7 p.m. ET, Tuesday, Jan. 2
    • Where: TD Place Arena, Ottawa
  • Minnesota @ Boston
    • When: 7 p.m. ET, Wednesday, Jan. 3
    • Where: Tsongas Center, Lowell, Mass.
  • Toronto @ New York
    • When: 7 p.m. ET, Friday, Jan. 5
    • Where: Total Mortgage Arena, Bridgeport, Conn.
  • Montreal @ Minnesota
    • When: 3:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, Jan. 6
    • Where: Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minn.
  • Boston @ Montreal
    • When: 3:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, Jan. 13
    • Where: Verdun Auditorium, Montreal

The announcement of the home openers doubled as the announcement of the home arenas, which range from 2,600-seat Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto to 18,000-seat Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.

“Giving our athletes the opportunity to step onto the ice to compete in front of our passionate fans has been the driving force of our efforts, and it’s going to be an exciting reality on New Year’s Day,” PWHL Advisory Board member Stan Kasten said in a news release. “It’s time for the best women’s hockey players in the world to lift our game to greater heights.”

Professional women’s hockey players received seismic news Thursday night. At 8 pm ET, players and staff from both the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) and Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) gathered on separate conference calls.

The PHF players – who were addressed by commissioner Reagan Carey followed by their respective ownership groups – learned that assets of their league had been acquired by the Mark Walter Group ahead of the launch of a new professional women’s hockey league in January 2024. The PHF will cease operations.

Members of the PWHPA learned about the PHF sale at the same time. But their call had an additional purpose. After spending the last five-plus months negotiating with their new owners about a collective bargaining agreement, the PWHPA’s bargaining committee proposed the final agreement to members of the association. Following a 72-hour voting window, that CBA was unanimously approved on Sunday night.

The fact that these two things – the sale of the PHF, followed by the confirmation of a new league with a CBA negotiated by PWHPA players – happened nearly simultaneously resulted in confusion, with some fans placing blame on PWHPA players for the demise of the PHF.

“(The PHF purchase) is very, very much a separate transaction and people are confusing the two,” Dodgers president Stan Kasten, who will serve as a member of the new league’s board, told Just Women’s Sports.

While Thursday night’s news provides some clarity for the future of women’s pro hockey in North America – a single league featuring the best players – there has also been plenty of confusion, especially for PHF players whose contracts are now void.

Just Women’s Sports spoke to leaders and players from the PHF over the weekend about what happened and what it means for the future of women’s hockey in North America. Here’s what we learned.

What does this news mean for PHF players in the near future?

According to a PHF signing tracker maintained by Melissa Burgess of the Victory Press, 121 players had signed contracts for the 2023-24 PHF season as of June 28. With the league shutting down in the wake of the sale, those contracts are now void.

For goaltender Kassidy Sauvé, the news of the PHF sale came as a shock. After signing with the Boston Pride in June, she was browsing the internet Thursday morning and designing some black and gold goalie pads that would look good with her new team’s uniform.

Hours later, she learned that the Boston Pride were no more.

“It’s been a tough couple of days,” Sauvé told Just Women’s Sports. “It’s hard when your future changes in the blink of an eye.”

Sauvé counts herself lucky that she hadn’t yet signed a lease in Boston, but she knows some of her PHF teammates and opponents already made big life choices based on the contracts they had signed and the salaries they expected to receive.

“There’s a lot of girls who bought houses or started renting where they were going to play. It’s not just the fact that it happened, but the fact that it happened after people were signing contracts that made it difficult,” she said.

A “Frequently Asked Questions” document was distributed to players and staff, and reviewed by Just Women’s Sports, outlining what players can expect from the league. Here are a few of the highlights.

  • Players enrolled in the PHF health program will receive insurance benefits through September 30, 2023.
  • Players who sign separation agreements will receive 1/12 of their contract for the 2023-24 season or $5,000, whichever is higher.
  • Players who don’t compete in another professional league during the coming season are eligible to receive an additional payout (minimum of $10,000). This will come from a $1,000,000 pool divided among players.
  • Players who were competing in the PHF on visas can receive support to modify their visa.
  • Players who competed in either of the last two PHF seasons will be eligible to receive “a small distribution” from the player equity incentive program. According to PHF owner John Boynton, players will divide two percent of the proceeds from the sale of the league (minus lawyer and transaction fees).
  • Coverage of ongoing workers’ compensation claims – typically used to cover injuries sustained in practice or games – will continue.

It should be noted that these benefits do not apply to players who played in the league for the 2022-23 season but had not yet signed for the upcoming season.

“Technically (those players) have no relationship with the league, they’re not employed,” Boynton said, though he noted that players in that group would be eligible for a share of the equity incentive program.

Many PHF players likely will compete in the new league. And while current PWHPA members are the ones who negotiated and voted on the CBA, former PHF members will be eligible to join the PWHLPA union.

Despite her initial shock, Sauvé said she’s trying to feel hopeful about what’s to come.

“This has been something we’ve wanted for a long time – for everyone to just be on the same page,” she said. “I think, down the road, it will be incredibly beneficial for women’s hockey as a whole.”

What is PHF leadership saying?

PHF leadership presented the sale as good news. In a letter to players and staff, reviewed by Just Women’s Sports, PHF commissioner Reagan Carey called the news “a collective, well-earned victory for each of you who has contributed to the ongoing evolution of the women’s professional game.”

The PHF has previously been criticized for overpromising and underdelivering, one of the reasons many PWHPA players were wary of joining the league. In the same letter after the sale, Carey cited the league’s accomplishments, including setting “the highest salary cap in all of women’s sports.”

But that detail comes with several major caveats. While the PHF announced a salary cap of $1.5 million for the 2023-24 season – technically more than the WNBA’s $1,420,500 cap or the NWSL’s $1,375,000 cap (not factoring in allocation money) – those PHF salaries are not being paid out.

Asked about this discrepancy, Carey defended her reference to the salary cap figure.

“We announced it, we committed to it, we signed contracts for it. And this league, if this deal was not done, would have continued to operate and continued to build on the momentum we had and that number wouldn’t have changed,” she told Just Women’s Sports.

While the sale caught players, fans, and media off guard, Carey said the deal was in the works for a long time.

“It’s not something that came as a surprise, nor was it expedited or rushed in any way. It’s been an evolving conversation that just led to the opportunity to bring these worlds together.”

Carey added: “Perhaps it’s more of a surprise because most attempts to do that (unify women’s hockey leagues) have fallen short in the past.”

As for the timing of the sale, Boynton – whose ownership group oversaw four of seven teams – said they aimed to have the deal done in February or March before players started signing contracts for the new season.

“If there’s one thing I could have changed about this thing, it would be the timing,” he said. “In a situation like this where we’re having these discussions, you can never know whether it’s going to work out or not. So we had to continue to operate the league in preparation for a full season next year.”

Members of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) ratified their collective bargaining agreement via a unanimous vote Sunday night after a 72-hour voting window.

The new CBA also comes on the heels of the confirmation of a new women’s professional hockey league, which is slated to launch in January 2024 with financial and leadership support from the Mark Walter Group and Billie Jean King Enterprises.

The union, dubbed the Professional Women’s Hockey League Players Association (PWHLPA), was voluntarily recognized by its new employer, though the league itself is yet to be named. It is the first union in North American women’s pro sports — and possibly all of pro sports — to have a ratified CBA prior to the start of competition. The WNBA ratified its first CBA in 1999 ahead of the league’s third season, while the NWSL’s first CBA was finalized in 2022 ahead of the league’s 10th season.

The PWHPA’s bargaining committee — consisting of Kendall Coyne Schofield, Brianne Jenner, Hilary Knight, Liz Knox and Sarah Nurse — negotiated with the league’s new owners for five months. They kept PWHPA players up-to-date on the negotiation process until the final CBA was proposed on Thursday night.

The new women’s hockey CBA outlines salary and facility requirements and guarantees benefits and standards for health insurance, housing stipends, a 401(k) program, relocation expenses, per diems, hotel accommodations, pregnancy benefits, childcare coverage, parental leave, nursing accommodations and more. 

Hailey Salvian of The Athletic reported that salaries will range from $35,000 to $80,000 or more during the initial year of competition, with minimum salaries set to increase by 3% each year. Salvian also reported that the CBA includes stipulations that no more than nine players can be paid the league minimum and that, during year one, at least six players per team will be signed to three-year $80,000-plus guaranteed contracts.

According to a source who reviewed the document, there isn’t a traditional salary cap. Instead, the CBA is structured on salary averages to ensure that the divide between lowest and highest paid players doesn’t grow too large.

 “It sets us up with this foundation and expectations. Players know what they’re going to get,” PWHPA operations consultant Jayna Hefford told Just Women’s Sports.

“There are player protections and workplace safety (requirements). There are standards that are going to have to be met as it relates to facilities and where players train. All of that is critical to the success of a long term, viable league.”

Stan Kasten, a member of the league’s new board who was part of the negotiating process, praised the players involved. 

“I can’t say enough about the determination of this group of PWHPA players. They fought for what they believe, they were determined, passionate and really, really smart,” Kasten told Just Women’s Sports.

“They held out until they got the rights, the protections, the facilities – all of those things that elite athletes deserve. And they didn’t settle for second best, they waited. And they wound up with something that is kind of a dream come true for all of us involved in this.” 

When the PWHPA filed its articles of incorporation in 2019 following the collapse of the CWHL, as players looked for more than what the PHF (then NWHL) could guarantee, the group cited sustainability as one of its goals.

“We are prepared to stop playing for a year—which is crushing to even think about—because we know how important a sustainable league will be to the future of women’s sports,” Shannon Szabados, a two-time Olympic gold medalist for Canada, said at the time. 

It ultimately took four years, not one, but Kasten said the new ownership group is in it for the long haul. 

“We have not just a long-term vision, but a permanent vision, and that requires funding,” he said. “It requires infrastructure. And, most of all, it requires strength of ownership and leadership. And we’re starting with Mark Walter and Billie Jean King and, I’m sorry, it doesn’t get better than that.”

There is a long history of women’s sports leagues — including women’s hockey leagues — launching without proper funding, infrastructure, or safety measures in place. That was even one of the factors Sally Yates cited in the U.S. Soccer-commissioned report into abuse in the NWSL. 

“In the haste to get the League off the ground, the Federation conducted limited financial due diligence on the new league’s prospective owners and did not put in place the infrastructure or planning necessary to support the League over the long haul. Instead, the focus was on putting eight teams on the field,” the Yates report read.

The new hockey league is looking to avoid such pitfalls.

“Fans maybe don’t understand why (a CBA) is so important, but when we look at those other leagues, when we look at what’s happened in women’s hockey, a lot of those difficult things that have happened were because there weren’t player protections and workplace safety and termination clauses,” Hefford said. 

While current PWHPA members negotiated and voted on the CBA, former PHF members will be eligible to join the PWHLPA union.