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.

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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

Diana Flores looks to break down gender barriers with turn as AFC defensive coordinator in 2023 Pro Bowl

Courtesy Diana Flores

Diana Flores admits she was surprised when she became a viral sensation last spring, courtesy of a 15-second slow-motion clip showcasing her evasive maneuvers and fancy footwork while leaving at least three defenders in the dirt during Mexico’s 2022 national collegiate flag football championship.

“I never expected someone to record that moment,” said Mexico City native Flores, who led her team – the Monterrey Tech Borregos – to their third consecutive national title as a senior last May. “I was just having fun. I was just playing the game I love and then days later to see that it was viral on the internet — it was crazy. But at the same time, it was exciting because I remember when I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of flag football role models to follow. So now, for me to be a role model for many boys and girls that play my sport is something that really makes me happy and proud and also motivates me to keep getting better.”

Flores, who led the Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team to a gold medal at the 2022 World Games, will have the chance to promote her sport on one of the world’s biggest stages this weekend when she serves as the AFC defensive coordinator for the NFL’s 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday in Las Vegas.

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Flores will be joined by Peyton Manning as the AFC head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator. On the NFC side, U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback Vanita Krouch will serve as offensive coordinator, with Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as defensive coordinator.

“I think that this has been one of the best things in my life,” she recently told On Her Turf about her Pro Bowl appointment. “It is like a dream. I mean, I grew up watching football, watching the NFL, playing flag football. And now to be able to be part of all of this — it is bigger than my biggest dreams.”

Flores’ football dreams began as when she was just 8 years old. Her father — who played quarterback for the perennial football powerhouse Monterrey Tech program — took her to a practice and she fell in love with the sport. But as the time there were no teams for girls her age, so she played with girls twice her age and used it to her advantage, focusing on her own abilities and sharpening her skills. By age 14 she was playing NFL Flag in Mexico, where she was the only girl in the league, and at 15 she started playing NFL Flag in the U.S, where she finally played on an all-girls team.

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“I remember when I started playing, I used to receive a lot of like comments, directly and indirectly from other people, like, ‘Why do you play that sport? That’s not a girls’ sport, that sport is for boys, you’re get injured, you’re going to get hurt, don’t play with boys, that’s too rude.’ And the list keeps going. But my mom and dad were so supportive. They always encouraged me not to listen to anybody, to just follow my passion.

“And I think thanks to them, I’ve always had this mentality that gender doesn’t matter. It just matters how passionate you are about your dreams, how hard you work for what you want to achieve. And that you will always demonstrate what you’re made for, depending on the hard work you do. So, I’ve lived through that [negativity], I have experienced that. And I think that it has been one of my biggest blessings to be able to experience — for myself — what sport can do and how gender barriers get broken when you follow your dreams and you connect with other people through your passion.”

At just 16 years old, Flores made Mexico’s national team, playing in the first of four Flag Football World Championships – so far. Last summer at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, the 24-year-old Flores led Mexico to a 6-0 record, which included two wins over the U.S. women, who took silver. In the gold medal game against the United States, she completed 20 of 28 pass attempts for 210 yards and four touchdowns in Mexico’s 39-6 victory. She finished the tournament with 23 touchdown passes, the third-most among women’s teams, and she was the only starting quarterback to beat USA’s star QB, Krouch, who is 19-1 in international tournament play.

All that international experience so early in her career has given Flores a wise-beyond-her-years approach to playing flag football, a sport where she was frequently the only female player on the field and often the only Latin American as well.

“When I first came to the U.S., it was a little shocking to notice that I was probably the only Latin American girl playing,” she recalls. “But I think that it was easy for me because I got all the support from my coaches and my teammates. And since a young age, I think that I started to realize that sometimes what you do is for something bigger than yourself. That’s why you have to always give your best, in any situation. Even at that young age, I understood that I was representing more than myself on the field, I was representing Latin American people, Latin American girls in a sport that [many people thought] was meant to be for boys.”

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

One door Flores hopes to help open is the one leading to the Olympics. Flag football is on the short list being considered for inclusion in Los Angeles in 2028 Los Angeles. As an ambassador for flag football for the NFL and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), she’s participated in talks with the International Olympic Committee, and just last month she was joined by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden in Mexico City where they joined forced to promote women’s empowerment and inclusion.

“I think for me, that experience is one of my top three,” she said of spending time with Biden. “I call them gifts from life, something that you didn’t expect it to happen, and somehow, one day, you’re right there in front of the First Lady. I admire her for what she does for boys and girls, for empowering woman and giving opportunities for everybody to achieve their dreams. So it was truly an honor to meet her, and also to be able to keep impacting my sport, not only on the field, but [off] the field, and have the opportunity keep inspiring others and keep impacting the world.”

As for what she hopes fans at the Pro Bowl and viewers at home take away from Sunday’s flag football showcase, Flores hopes they’ll see the characteristics that made her fall in love with flag in the first place: creativity, speed, agility, teamwork, passion and a lot of heart.

“I hope to show to all little girls and women that dreams come true, that nothing is impossible, to keep inspiring and opening opportunities and doors for women in sports, especially in the world of the NFL and football and flag football,” she says. “We’re going to make history, and I am so proud and happy for that. I’m really hoping that it is just the first step, not only for me, but for all the women that are coming after me.”

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Flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator


When Vanita Krouch got the news that she was named NFC defensive coordinator for the 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback admits her jaw nearly hit the ground.

And then she realized something even more profound.

“For the longest time, thinking about the moment, everything, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a dream come true. Is this really happening?’” said the 42-year-old Krouch, known as the “Tom Brady of flag football” with a 19-1 record as USA’s starting quarterback in international tournaments since 2018.

“But then I started thinking to myself: You know what? None of us grew up thinking of this as a dream to obtain. So really, it’s kind of reversed where I’m living a dream. I get to be a pioneer in this growth of flag football for all and inclusion for all, youth and adults, [women and men]. It’s such an inclusive sport, and I get to be a part of this growth and still actively play. It’s exciting. I’m literally living the dream. I’m very much like, ‘Guys, don’t pinch me. Let me keep sleeping.’”

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Krouch will be joined by Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as NFC defensive coordinator. On the AFC side, Mexico Women’s National Flag Football quarterback Diana Flores will serve as offensive coordinator, with Peyton Manning as head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator.

But Krouch’s journey to the Pro Bowl stage began under the unlikeliest of circumstances and was inspired by her own family odyssey, which began in Cambodia during the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Krouch’s mother, Phonnary Krouch, fled the country with three young sons in tow, running by night and hiding by day to escape, finding safety initially at a refugee camp in the Philippines. That’s where she welcomed Vanita, in September 1980, and two months later the family made its way to the United States. Krouch’s father exited the picture upon their arrival in America, leaving Phonnary to raise four children alone.

“In a nutshell, my mom is an amazing woman,” said Krouch, who first found sports via an elementary school flyer advertising youth soccer in Carrollton, Texas. “On the journey, she had a lot of trials, tribulations, … and after our dad left us, it was just mom and four kids in this little one-bedroom apartment. So, it was a challenge. I’m just so amazed by her strength and will to never give up.”

She also credits her mom for standing up to then-stereotypical notions that Asian girls should not play sports.

“I’m just thankful, honestly, that my mom allowed me to break the Asian culture barriers of a woman playing sports because that’s not easy,” she said. “She faced a lot of backlash from the community. But she said, ‘Hey, my child’s making good grades. She’s healthy, she’s good. She’s staying off the streets. I don’t see a problem.’ And she just let me do it. I was just lucky to have a mom that let me spread my wings.”

Krouch also had a few mentors along the way. Her elementary school PE teacher, Toni Neibes, stepped in to pay for those initial soccer fees and continued her support as Krouch transitioned to basketball in the fourth grade. She fell in love with the sport and excelled at it as well, eventually earning a full scholarship to play college basketball at Southern Methodist University. She wears the No. 4 to this day in honor of Niebes, who wore the same number as a young athlete. She also credits her fourth-grade teacher, Judy Ward, as having a lasting impact after the teacher made a habit out of showing up for her youth basketball games.

She pays tribute to them both through her clothing line, 4Ward Apparel, which features ever-changing collections emblazoned with relevant slogans encouraging female empowerment, inclusion and her personal mantra of “paying it forward” – something she does with the line itself. Each month, Krouch donates a portion of the sales to individuals, families or organizations in need.

After graduating SMU in 2003, Krouch continued to play basketball in semi-pro and adult leagues, but she was still searching for something to satisfy her competitive drive. She and a former college teammate stumbled on flag football during a Google search for local Dallas-area activities, and the rest – as they say – is history.

“It was like I drank the Kool Aid and I never looked back,” she says of her start in flag in 2006. “It’s just like every game, every play is a new challenge, and it’s addictive for a competitor, so I just fell in love with flag. I actually think I’m way better at flag than I was at basketball.”

She moved into the quarterback position through some sly maneuvering by current USA Women’s Flag Football head coach Chris Lankford. They were playing together in a local tournament when he “tricked” her into the QB position, despite Krouch knowing “zero football language.”

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“One day I showed up for a tournament and I asked, ‘All right, guys, who’s our quarterback?’ And he says, ‘We’re looking at her,’” she remembers. They kept the plays simple, and her team made it to the playoffs that season. Krouch has been a QB ever since.

Krouch joined the national team in 2016 and was inducted into the National Flag and Touch Football Hall Fame that same year. Last year at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, a 41-year-old Krouch set a new mark as the oldest Flag football player, man or woman, in the games, and she ranked second among women with 25 touchdown passes at the tournament where USA won silver.

She aims to bring that expertise to the field at the Pro Bowl games, where she’s looking forward to seeing NFL players take on the flag football style type of plays. “Flag is a very finesse, quick game, a lot of footwork, and these guys can’t grab or hold, no downfield contact or downfield block or anything off the line,” she explains. “So it’s going to be exciting just to see skill for skill, footwork for footwork, defense to offense, and to see flag football language with those type of elite athletes.”

As for the biggest challenge, Krouch believes it will be crafting a concise playbook and language that puts everyone on the same page. “A challenge for me is getting a coach’s mindset,” she adds, “I have to actually come up with plays ahead of time and I don’t usually have premeditated plays in my head. I just read it so for me to tell Kirk Cousins or Geno Smith [what to do], it will be different, you know?”

But beyond the Pro Bowl, Krouch is excited that flag is being considered for inclusion as an exhibition sport in the 2028 Summer Olympics. While she’s keeping a hopeful eye on that development, she’s also working to shape the next generation of potential athletes as a physical education teacher at La Villita Elementary in Irving, Texas.

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

“It’s an honor to be a role model – for other youth flag football players, for my students, both boys and girls,” says Krouch. “Then at my campus and in my community, it’s amazing to be able to break the barrier of like, ‘Asian women can’t do this.’ And then to be at my age, still doing this, I feel very lucky and blessed. …I think I still got some years in me.”

As for what she hopes viewers and fans walk away with after watching the Pro Bowl flag games this weekend, Krouch feels confident folks will walk away enlightened by the show.

“I just hope that they have fun with it,” says Krouch. “And for those who don’t know flag to be like, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing. Maybe that’s something I really can get my son or daughter into at a young age.’ So I just hope that they see that the sport is real – it’s not just something we play at recess. It’s a real thing now. I think they’ll see that the world loves it, the world can play it and is playing it.”

Be sure to check back with On Her Turf later this week when we catch up with AFC coordinator and Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team quarterback Diana Flores.  

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