How will a $25 million investment impact women’s professional hockey?

Women's pro hockey players for the Boston Pride and Minnesota Whitecaps (PHF/NWHL)
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Women’s professional hockey is about to see a major influx of money.

The Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) – formerly the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) – announced on Tuesday that it will more than double each team’s salary cap (from $300,000 to $750,000) ahead of the 2022-23 season. Each player will also be eligible for full health care benefits and paid maternity leave (current players receive only workers comp for hockey-related injuries).

In addition to increased salaries and benefits, the league is also adding two teams (one in Montreal, one in a U.S. city yet-to-be-announced) prior to next season. And there are already plans for further expansion in 2023 (more below).

The announcement is the result of a three-year $25 million commitment from the league’s seven-member board of governors – the largest one-time investment ever committed to women’s professional hockey.

So what does this mean for the future of women’s professional hockey?

It’s not a coincidence that the PHF announced this investment two weeks before the Winter Olympics

While it’s never a bad time to announce a major investment in women’s sports, the fact that the Winter Olympics begin in just over two weeks played a big role.

“We wanted to ensure that we got this news out prior to the Winter Olympics,” PHF Board of Governors chairman John Boynton said in a phone interview. “We know that there will be a lot of attention paid to women’s hockey at the beginning of February.”

The Olympics certainly provide a spotlight – and springboard – like no other, especially for athletes in women’s sports. The WNBA launched following the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, while the NWSL (the third and most successful U.S. women’s soccer league) played its first season following Team USA’s memorable gold-medal performance at the 2012 London Olympics.

But there’s a major difference between the PHF and its counterparts in the WNBA and NWSL. That’s because no current member of the U.S. or Canadian women’s hockey rosters for Beijing has played in the PHF/NWHL since 2019.

Why aren’t U.S. and Canadian national team players in the PHF?

A quick refresher for those who haven’t followed this saga: When the PHF (then NWHL) began in 2015, it was the first women’s hockey league to pay its players. That inaugural season, players made between $10,000 and $26,000, but salaries were slashed nearly in half after the start of season two to keep the league afloat.

Following the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics – where the U.S. women’s hockey team defeated Canada to win its first gold medal in 20 years – most American and Canadian players returned to either the NWHL or the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL).

But in 2019, after the CWHL announced that it was ceasing operations, over 200 women’s hockey players announced that they would not play in any North American professional league during the 2019-20 season, essentially boycotting the NWHL. Their joint statement – posted on social media – cited low wages and lack of insurance coverage as the motivating factor: “We cannot make a sustainable living playing in the current state of the professional game. Having no health insurance and making as low as two thousand dollars a season means players can’t adequately train and prepare to play at the highest level.”

Later that month, those players launched the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA). While a few PWHPA players have since returned to the NWHL/PHF, every member of the U.S. and Canadian women’s hockey roster for the upcoming 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics is either a member of the PWHPA, plays abroad in the Zhenskaya Hockey League, or is still in college.

A COMPLETE GUIDE TO THE WOMEN’S OLYMPIC HOCKEY TOURNAMENT: Full schedule, how to watch, rosters, and tournament history

Even without many of the best women’s hockey players in the world, the PHF pushed ahead. The league expanded from five teams to six ahead of a semi-disastrous 2021 season that was halted due to a widespread Covid outbreak. Still, the league managed to double the salary cap (from $150,000 to $300,000) ahead of the current season and secured streaming of this season’s games on ESPN Plus. The league has also made major changes to its front office and ownership structure since 2019.

Does this new investment mean the PWHPA and PHF will merge?

That is still to be determined.

PHF commissioner Tyler Tumminia told the Associated Press she believes the increased salary cap and health care benefits meet the PWHPA players’ vision.

“We can’t speak for them, but our position has always been that a single professional women’s hockey league in North America provides the best opportunities for growth and sustainability of the game,” Tumminia said. “This investment supports everything we all want to see, and that’s enhance opportunities for athletes and take the sport to the next level.”

As for the timing, “We thought it was important for those players to understand that there’s a viable alternative for them when they come back [from the Olympics],” Boynton said.

But with members of the U.S. and Canadian Olympic teams currently laser focused on defeating each other at the Winter Games, it is unclear whether any of them will commit one way or the other before the women’s Olympic tournament begins on February 3rd.

“It is exciting to have more money into the game, but I haven’t really been focused that much on it,” U.S. Olympic team member Savannah Harmon said of the PHF news. “With us leaving [for Beijing] in less than a week, I think my eyes are really set on the task here and coming back with a gold medal.”

With the increased salary cap, will women’s hockey players be able to make a living wage?

There isn’t exactly a clear-cut answer to that question.

While PHF teams can carry up to 25 players, most roster sizes are closer to 20 athletes. With the increased $750,000 cap, the average salary would be $37,500 for a 20-player roster or $30,000 for a 25-player roster. That’s a major increase from last season, when the highest announced salary was $15,000 and some players made just a couple thousand dollars. And there will also be salary cap increases in years two and three of the upcoming three-year investment.

That said, the Board of Governors hasn’t imposed salary minimums or maximums, Boynton said. That is a stark difference from the NWSL and WNBA, where salary minimums have ensured that no athlete fell below a specific income threshold.

There also isn’t currently any mandate that each team must pay out the entire $750,000 salary cap.

That means players could make well below $30,000 a year, which is far from a liveable wage, especially in markets like Boston and New York. Given that the league hasn’t historically released salary data, it could remain difficult to determine how many players are actually making a living wage just from playing hockey.

What’s included in the PHF’s new benefits package?

In addition to salary increases, PHF players will receive health insurance coverage and paid maternity leave.

While health insurance is long overdue, paid maternity leave represents how other women’s leagues – primarily the WNBA – have paved the way. It wasn’t until the WNBA’s landmark 2020 CBA that the best women’s basketball players in the world were guaranteed fully paid maternity leave.

Players will also receive 10% equity in their respective team.

“We made that decision to essentially invest 10% of the ownership in the players because we want the players to share in the upside. We want them to share in the value they helped create,” Boynton said. “Over decades, leagues and teams create a lot of value. We believe that we’re creating something that will be extremely valuable at some point in the future.”

Beyond that, Boynton said the PHF will invest in facility upgrades and the overall player experience.

“We want these women, these athletes, to feel and be treated like professionals,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to deliver that top shelf experience for them.”

These things aren’t trivial. In 2020, the Victory Press examined working conditions in the then-NWHL by speaking with former players about their experiences. A frequently cited issue was facilities, with players detailing problems with locker rooms, bathroom access, and ice time, among other concerns.

What does the future look like for women’s pro hockey?

While many of the PHF benefits follow the WNBA’s lead, the PHF appears to have a far larger appetite for expansion than its basketball counterpart. In addition to next year’s expansion from six to eight teams, Boynton said he hopes the league will have ten teams by the start of season nine.

“All of the indications suggest that there is a genuine appetite for this,” he said. “We want to be able to deliver more of what we think is a really good product. Secondly, growth allows us to attract more players, more sponsors, more broadcast relationships.”

As for the larger landscape of women’s professional hockey, “We’re at a real inflection point,” said Johanna Boynton, Principal Owner of the Toronto Six and wife of John Boynton. “The owners are unbelievably committed to this. This is the right time to be investing and saying, ‘We’re committed.'”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC