Women’s Hockey: How the PWHPA is creating a post collegiate dream for women’s hockey

Women’s hockey has a refugee problem.

For many, there’s no place to play, no dream to have. That’s long been the status of women’s hockey. Players have grown up watching the best women in the world every four years at the Olympic games, but other than that, the sport is largely invisible.

For a short while, there was the option of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), however, the league was not financially viable and shuttered its doors after the 2019 season to avoid further loss.

It leaves a gap, the Dream Gap to be exact. The “Dream Gap” is a project that members of the newly founded Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) have begun, with the hopes of one day launching a successful, financially viable professional women’s hockey league.

Sarah Nurse skates at the Mattamy Athletic Centre (Josh Kim/49 Sport)

The PWHPA has been having showcase games across North America which include some of the best Canadian and American players ever to play the game. This tour, known as “The Dream Gap Tour” reached its crescendo this past weekend in and around Toronto with the PWHPA Women’s Hockey Showcase presented by Secret.

Six games were played around the GTA, with the final game being played in front of a stupendously large crowd at the arena formerly known as Maple Leaf Gardens.

Marie Phillip-Poulin, (2 Olympic gold medals, 1 silver) warms up her slapshot (Benjamin Steiner/49 Sport)

Without a pro league to play in, the pinnacle of the game for many of these athletes is at the collegiate level, whether that be in the United States as part of the NCAA or in Canada with U Sports. To this point college hockey has been the only goal for many of these women who have reached the top of the game.

The final game of the weekend featured Team Spooner vs Team Daoust. Rosters boasted all-stars, including Marie-Phillip Poulin, scorer of two Olympic golden goals, she’s the female Sidney Crosby. Of these two teams, nearly every one of the players played collegiality at some point.

10 players from the two teams showcased at the home of the Ryerson Rams had spent time playing in U Sports, while many others spent time in the NCAA. However, the choice between the two collegiate conferences has been a decision point for many.

For some of the older players in the game, the choice was easy- NCAA was better. “When we were committing, U Sports wasn’t where it is now, so it was always going to be the NCAA,” said 2018 Olympic silver medallist Renata Fast, before continuing on to describe how the evolution of U Sports could change her decision if she was going through it again today.

Natalie Spooner and her team line up in front of fans at the Mattamy Athletic Centre (Benjamin steiner/49 Sport)

Some of the players did play U Sports earlier, but many of the players who featured in the game are recent graduates of the Canadian collegiate system. Michelle Saunders was the earliest to play in U Sports out of the two teams when she suited up for Western University in the winter of 2010. Other than her, the rest of the U Sports alumni all joined their respective schools after 2012.

Not only does this show a change in the collegiate landscape, but also the growth of women’s hockey in Canada and how it is looked at by some of the countries best young talents. It’s only reasonable that with the growth of the game in Canada that a league should pop up in the near future.

There are many challenges the league will face, the biggest being money and where it will come from.  Carmelina Moscato, a 2-time Olympic bronze medallist in soccer spoke on Friday night prior to the showcase, about the struggle. She said: “When we put money into a men’s league its looked at as an investment, whereas when we do the same for women, itfs looked at as a loss.”

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Moscasto with her 2012 Olympic bronze medal (Canadian Olympic Committee)

That statement has rung true for women’s sports for the longest time, creating more problems as a bi-product. One of the problems that has been spurned is the amateur feel of the current and defunct professional leagues. Below is a screenshot from this last weekend’s set of NWHL games. Currently the only pro league in North America, the NWHL is not looked at as a viable option for the future of the game, hence the creation of the PWHPA.

The NWHL plays out of smaller rinks, without proper broadcast angles and streams their games through the video game service Twitch TV. The PWHPA does not want to see this happen and has made their best efforts to put on pro feeling events for something that is purely amateur.

The professional feel of the PWHPA events is sometimes a struggle, as many of the venues that are needed to make it feel professional are far too expensive or too large. However, the Mattamy Athletic Centre became the backdrop for the best broadcast the PWHPA has put on to this point.

There were notable personalities behind the mics, five live cameras, and a historic backdrop as the location. This was all thanks to Ryerson’s Radio and Television Arts (RTA) program, which has been awarded the Ontario Universities Athletic’s conferences (OUA) broadcast of the year since starting their streams of Ryerson hockey games.

Ailish Forfar (Left) and Julia Tocheri (Right) brought notable media personalities behind the PWHPA broadcast (Christian Bender/PWHPA)

The aforementioned personalities behind the mic were very familiar to fans of the women’s game, but more importantly fans of hockey. Play-by-play was done by Julia Tocheri, a fourth-year RTA student herself, while also a notable member of TSN’s BarDown channel. The channel has become synonymous with the cultural aspects of hockey and has influenced the game at the grassroots level and beyond. Having Tocheri’s voice behind the broadcast, as well as her promotion on social media made the game more interesting to a non-women’s hockey viewer. Her colour commentator was an RTA grad and former Clarkson Cup winner (CWHL Trophy champion), Ailish Forfar, who brought her familiarity and expertise of the women’s hockey situation to the broadcast.

Below are screenshots of the broadcast from Sunday’s matchup between Team Spooner and Daoust, it looked as though it could be on any professional sports channel. Highlights of the game were showcased on TSN’s flagship show SportsCentre later that day, something that is seldom seen for non-international women’s hockey.

The talent, distribution and production elevated the professional reputation of the PWHPA, something that will be very important as the movement continues to grow.

There’s nowhere to play after U Sports or the NCAA, forcing these women into the non-existent land of women’s pro hockey. Between universities, talented hockey players and a driven group of people, every day seems closer to the creation of a new, truly professional women’s hockey league.

Cover Photo: Benjamin Steiner

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