PHF Montreal expansion team brings excitement, and more questions about league future

NWHL Isobel Cup Playoffs - Championship
Getty Images

The Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) on Tuesday officially confirmed plans to launch a Montreal team for the 2022-23 season. It will be the seventh team in the PHF, the women’s hockey league formerly known as the NWHL.

“I’ve been working so hard for the past four years now to bring a team back in Montreal after what happened,” said new team President Kevin Raphaël, referring to the CWHL’s folding in 2019. “I believe that we have the fan base and the infrastructure in the province of Quebec to support strongly a pro women’s hockey team.”

Boston Pride player and PHF Players Association member Mallory Souliotis told On Her Turf that player reps were informed about the Montreal expansion team early on Tuesday morning, ahead of the official league announcement.

While the expansion of the PHF to Montreal was long anticipated from players and fans alike, questions remain on everything from roster building to where the team will play its home games.

There’s also the fact that the new Montreal PHF team will be owned by BTM Partners, a fact that was omitted from the league’s press release.

“The press release today was really an announcement for Kevin and to ensure that he can start answering those calls and to announce our commitment to Montreal,” PHF commissioner Reagan Carey said of the omission, before confirming that BTM Partners will own the team.

BTM Partners now owns four of seven PHF teams (Montreal, Boston Pride, Metropolitan Riveters, Toronto Six). While the sale of the Toronto Six to a BIPOC-led ownership group was announced in March, Carey confirmed during Tuesday’s press call that the sale still has not officially closed.

“It’s still in progress,” said Carey, who declined to provide a timeline. “It’s definitely a process similar to the one here in Montreal. It’s a priority and a continued discussion and that will continue to be something that’s a priority for that ownership group.”

While the PHF has said that the long term goal is for every team to be owned by a seperate group, in the interim, the current joint ownership structure has the potential to create conflicts of interest.

Add to that the fact that BTM Partners is led by John Boynton, who is also chairman of Yandex, Russia’s largest tech company. Yandex has played a role in suppressing factual information and promoting propaganda related to Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.

Asked on Tuesday whether he had any reservations about joining the Montreal PHF group, given Boynton’s role with Yandex, Raphaël, a French cable TV broadcaster, replied, “You came from the top rope with that question.”

He continued: “I understand what’s going on with whatever, whoever. But at the end of the day, my goal is to treat the players as professionals, to make sure they get paid for all the efforts they make, all the training — they train as much as the boys — and they do not get nothing.”

Ahead of the PHF’s 2022-23 season, there are still plenty of other details to be ironed out, including the Montreal PHF team’s name, logo, coaching staff, and determining which arenas that will host its games. While the Montreal PHF team will train at Centre 21.02 in Verdun, the team’s games will “be played in communities across Quebec to help raise the PHF’s profile and showcase professional women’s hockey to greater audiences,” according to the PHF release.

While all PHF players obviously need to travel to away games, the challenge of also traveling for home games is something Raphaël is planning to address.

“Of course it is something we have thought about, something that we care about,” he said. “So at least, you know, you travel a day earlier, we get to rest a little bit to get to, you know, enjoy the city a bit.”

Still, this model could be challenging for some players, many of whom are still likely to work second jobs, even with the PHF’s much improved salary cap.

There’s also the issue of roster building. PHF free agency started over two months ago, with many of the league’s six established teams well on their way to filling out their rosters.

Raphaël downplayed this on Tuesday. “I don’t think it’s going be long before we start to sign players because I’m telling you, a lot of people are hitting up my phone right now,” he said.

He also pointed to the deep talent pool of women’s hockey players from Quebec.

“We have the best talent in the world. You just look at any world championship or Olympics, who are the best players? Who is the best goalies? Who is the clutch player? (It’s a) person from Quebec.”

While there is certainly some truth to that — Canada’s women’s hockey team for the 2022 Winter Olympics included Quebecois goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens and forwards Marie-Philip Poulin and Mélodie Daoust — but all three players have previously been committed to the PWHPA, a group that is moving forward with its own plans.

In May, the PWHPA signed a letter of intent with Billie Jean King Enterprises and the Mark Walter Group, with the goal of creating a new women’s professional hockey league. In a recent story by the Philadelphia Inquirer, PWHPA Operations Consultant Jayna Hefford confirmed that a PWHPA-led league is aiming to launch next year.

“If all goes as we hope, there would be a professional women’s hockey league in the 2023 season unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” Hefford told the Inquirer.

While the announcement of a Montreal PHF team has long been expected, the league was also previously planning on adding two expansion teams for the 2022-23 season.

“All I can say is that we are deep in discussions with a new ownership group that seems pretty enthusiastic about launching a team in a U.S. city, but I can’t say any more than that,” Boynton told On Her Turf in January. (In the same interview, Boynton also said the league planned to expand to ten teams in 2023-24.)

But on Tuesday, Carey — who was hired as PHF commissioner in May — confirmed that the league will only have seven teams next year.

“It’s my responsibility, once I got here a few months ago, to really vet and assess what is best for the league right now immediately, and what’s best for the long term,” Carey said, going on to note that reporters should expect to receive another press release in the next few months about “our criteria for how to expand and welcome a lot of the interest that we have in addition to the ones we’ve already been talking to.”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC