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.”

Premier Hockey Federation commissioner Reagan Carey is excited about the future of the women’s game.

Women’s professional hockey could be just as popular as the men’s side, Carey said in a discussion with the Washington Post on Wednesday. She highlighted the PHF’s momentum and its push to increase player salaries in speaking, but she pointed to the relative lack of exposure for women’s hockey as an obstacle to its wider success.

“As we get these new opportunities with our media rights and the continued exposure, it’s not a lack of the sport being where it needs to be,” she said. “It’s not a lack of these talented athletes. It’s just a lack of exposure and awareness, and growing that fanbase. So I have no doubt that it can be [as popular as the men’s game].”

The league is looking to build in that direction, having signed a two-year partnership with ESPN to broadcast games. Being able to watch an entire season of women’s professional hockey, Carey said, is “another trailblazing moment for our sport.”

And collaborating with the NHL and the men’s side of the game is something that the PHF wants to continue to do.

“I certainly believe that women’s hockey at the professional level and men’s hockey at the professional level should be teammates,” Carey said. “And working with the NHL certainly provides a lot of resources and support, and they already do that.”

A growing interest in the women’s game has led to an increase in benefits – and pay – for the PHF. The league’s salary cap has grown substantially in recent years and will reach $1.5 million per team in 2023-24 – a tenfold increase since 2021.

The PHF has come a long way from the days when some of the game’s best departed in 2019 over lack of health insurance and low salaries.

Some of those players have started to return, whether it be on the ice or in the front office, and a number of Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association players have made the decision to sign with the PHF in the last year.

“We’re really proud of the advancements we’ve made in a short amount of time,” Carey said, noting that it reflects the confidence the league has in the women’s game. “We’re largely an impatient group. We want to see the future here faster, and we have the right team around us to do that.

“So to be able to be one of the smaller but emerging and thriving leagues for women’s sports in the professional realm, to be leading in salary cap is something, you know, we’re really proud of and hopefully an indicator of where we’re headed.”

While the pay disparity between the men’s and women’s game is still vast – something that Carey said is due to the “infancy” of the women’s professional game – that doesn’t mean that it won’t change.

“This league has been built on a strong vision of being a trailblazer,” she said. “They were the first to pay players – it wasn’t enough at the time – but they were the first to do it. They put a new stake in the ground to say that these players matter, and obviously, there are some bumps in the road with any startup and new league.

“But I think where we are now is strongly that new era phase for this league. … In women’s sports, athletes have had to do so much more than just be elite athletes. And listening to the players and all of us being part of this movement within the PHF and building this new era is important and essential to our success.

“We’re focused on what we can control. We’re focused on what we’re building, and we’re focused on doing it quickly but in a sustainable, responsible way. So, you know, we’ll get there, and, you know, we just have to keep demonstrating and showing everybody what a great sport it is to watch.”