The Premier Hockey Federation (PHF), previously known as the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), had a busy offseason filled with signings, expansion, and new hires coming aboard. Here are a few of the biggest storylines that set the stage heading into the 2022-23 PHF season, the eighth in league history.
Some PHF players able to focus on hockey full-time thanks to higher salaries
PHF players will benefit from higher salaries this season, the result of a $25 million, three-year commitment from the league’s Board of Governors, which was announced in January. In addition, this season marks the first time players will receive full health care benefits.
While each PHF team is allowed to have 25 players on a roster, most teams are closer to the league minimum of 20, which comes out to an average of $37,500 per player (assuming each team is spending to the cap limit).
Buffalo Beauts defender Dominique Kremer, who has the highest officially disclosed salary ($65,000) of any PHF player, said the impact of that salary cap boost has been huge.
“Just the difference in how we trained this past summer was exponential,” said Kremer, a Merrimack College grad who enters her third season with the Beauts.
“In the past, I was working an 8-to-5 job, coming home and working out… my mom would make me dinner so I didn’t have to cook. And I would go to bed and do it all over again the next day. So this was the first summer where I could completely dedicate everything I did to hockey and I think — I hope — it’s reflected in my play.”
“The salary cap increasing is very exciting because it’s allowed more opportunities for players,” said Boston Pride captain Jillian Dempsey, who has played in the NWHL/PHF since the league launched in 2015. “And with that extra compensation and extra training obviously (brings) in some players who are going to have those increased opportunities that I think we’ve all been working towards.”
That said, many PHF players still won’t be paid enough this season to focus on hockey full-time, at least not without some other financial safety net.
The PHF confirmed that it will impose an individual salary minimum ($13,500) as well as a $562,500 salary cap minimum for each team (75 percent of the $750,000 team cap). Still, that doesn’t cover PHF practice players, who make $150 week, do not receive benefits, and are required to sign a liability waiver, according to the league’s bylaws.
PHF expands to seven teams with addition of Montreal Force
The Montreal Force joins the PHF as the league’s seventh team. While a Montreal PHF/NWHL team has long been rumored – dating back to the league’s inaugural season – the team was made official over the summer.
Montreal’s roster is captained by Ann-Sophie Bettez, who previously played with the CWHL’s Montreal team(2012-2019) before joining the PWHPA when that league folded. On making the jump to the PHF and the Montreal Force, the 35-year-old Bettez said it was the right choice for her at this moment in time.
“I’ll put it this way: it’s a selfish decision. It’s where I am in my life, this is what fit for me,” she explained. “I don’t want to compare the association (PWHPA) with the league (PHF). … For me, the opportunity of having a franchise in Montreal, it was the right fit for me to be part of a team and work towards a common goal. This is what I have been lacking in the last few years and that’s what I wanted to do. So I didn’t have any resistance (from the PWHPA) whatsoever.”
While the Montreal Force will train at Centre 21.02 in Verdun, the team’s home games will be played across the province of Quebec.
“When you look at our schedule, you realize that we play 23 out of 24 regular season games on the road, if you will,” said Montreal Force head coach Peter Smith.
“There’s two sides to that. For a first-year team, I think it’s a really good opportunity to spread the word across the province. … The downside is that we’re on the road 23 out of 24 games.”
The team’s furthest “home” game will be played in Sept-Îles, Quebec — a 10-plus hour drive (or one-and-a-half hour flight from Montreal) — and the hometown of Bettez.
“Even the traveling will be good team bonding,” said Bettez. “Every time we go away on the road, it will be a chance for us to get to know each other even more.”
Team ownership further complicated after Toronto Six sale fizzles
The PHF made headlines last spring when it announced that a BIPOC-led group including Anthony Stewart, Angela James, Bernice Carnegie, and Ted Nolan had purchased the Toronto Six, but that deal quietly fell through over the summer.
The PHF finally confirmed this detail last month when it announced Sami Jo Small had been hired as Toronto Six President. According to the PHF release, the Toronto Six will continue to be owned by BTM Partners, while the new BIPOC-led ownership group will hold a minority stake in the franchise. The league’s release did not mention whether the four new owners announced in March — Stewart, James, Carnegie, and Nolan — were still involved. On Her Turf reached out to the league for clarification in September and was told that the team is “planning a separate announcement that relates specifically to ownership in the coming weeks.”
With the news of the Toronto deal falling through and the addition of the Montreal team, BTM Partners now owns four of seven PHF teams (Montreal and Toronto, plus the Boston Pride and Metropolitan Riveters).
While the PHF has said that the long-term goal is for every team to be owned by a separate group, in the interim, the current ownership structure has the potential to create actual and perceived conflicts of interests, especially now that the group holds the majority of seats on the Board of Governors.
The dynamic is also complicated by 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 (more here).
Influx of European hockey players join PHF
Thanks in large part to the increased salary cap, the PHF has seen an increase in the number of European players signing with teams. (Due to visa rules, it is difficult for players to work additional jobs if they are on a visa to play hockey.)
Just under 15 percent players in the PHF this season hail from outside of the United States and Canada, up from about six percent last year.
“I’m just looking forward to the whole experience and to play on such a high level,” said Hungary’s Reka Dabasi, who signed with the Metropolitan Riveters after team president Digit Murphy reached out to her over the summer.
“You can see the improvement of the league, year-by-year… It’s nice to see that we have the chance to play professionally,” Dabasi added.
“(This will be) the first time in my 26 years that I’m going to make some money from (playing hockey),” said Czechia’s Dominika Laskova, who signed with the Toronto Six. “(To) call hockey as my job is something we’ve been dreaming for.”
Getting players across the ocean has had its challenges, though, particularly when it comes to player visas.
“Our immigration lawyer (helped with) all of the that, said Buffalo Beauts head coach Rhea Coad, who has four players from outside of North America on her roster (Lovisa Berndtsson of Sweden, Antonia Matzka of Austria, and Emma Nuutinen and Jenna Suokko, both of Finland).
“It’s a little bit nerve wracking because there (were) still times where they could get denied coming into the country.”
PHF players head into 2022-23 season with new Players’ Association leader
Nicole Corriero took over as the new head of the PHF Players’ Association shortly before last season’s Isobel Cup playoffs, though her hiring wasn’t made official until after the PHF season concluded.
“What (the players) emphasized to me is that we’ve got a good, positive relationship with the board, with the league, with the office,” Corriero told On Her Turf after coming on board this spring. “We obviously need to be able to know that we can hold the league accountable, when need be, but we’re sort of working out of a place of mutual goals, mutual objectives.”
Corriero, a personal injury lawyer based in Canada, played collegiate hockey at Harvard. Her first introduction to the PHF came from fellow Harvard alum and PHF owner Johanna “Jojo” Boynton (wife of John) at a Friends of Harvard Hockey event.
“She had done a presentation just for a group of the alumni to sort of say, ‘You’re a group of people who have consistently supported women’s hockey for all of these years. This is what we’re doing. This is our vision,’” Corriero recalled. “They talked about options for ownership because they wanted independent owners for all the different teams and other options that might be available. Being a team owner is not an option for me. I mean, I’m not a sultan or anything like that. But I just sort of said, ‘I think this is amazing’ and I started following the league.”
After the previous Players’ Association leader, Alex Sinatra, was hired and then let go in January 2022, “I was notified by Jojo that the players were in need of a player rep,” Corriero explained.
Toronto Six forward and Players’ Association representative Shiann Darkangelo said the PA was in touch over the summer, going over its goals for the future.
“Working with the Board of Governors and the other teams as a group to go over the player agreements and different things,” Darkangelo said. “We have monthly calls, sometimes twice a month, to go over all of that.”
Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters and Minnesota Whitecaps move to new arenas
Of the six returning PHF teams, three are playing in new arenas this season.
The Metropolitan Riveters’ new home got the most attention after the team announced it will be playing its home games at the American Dream Mall in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
“For us that’s an investment in marketing,” John Boynton, the principal owner of the Riveters, told Sportico, noting that the team is paying 2x-3x more to play at the mall than it would at a traditional suburban rink. “We need to build visibility for this team. We need to build brand. And playing in a facility like this is going to be a big leap forward for us.”
The team plans to set up around 1,000 seats for each game, while shoppers will also be able to stop and watch games from upper levels of the mall.
Still, the goal of turning shoppers into PHF fans may be hindered by the team’s game schedule. The Riveters play seven straight games on the road from before Thanksgiving until after the New Year, meaning the team will miss out on the holiday shopping bump.
The Minnesota Whitecaps also changed venues, moving from Tria (the Minnesota Wild’s practice rink) in downtown St. Paul to Richfield Ice Arena, which has 1,300 seats and standing room for another 500 spectators. The move means the team will have access to their own locker room and training space.
“Now having our own space, you’ll walk in the rink and you’ll notice it is the Whitecaps rink, our logo was just put on it,” said Minnesota head coach Ronda Engelhardt. “You see a place you can call home and the players can call home. … There’s a lot more time at the rink now than there was previously.”
The Connecticut Whale also have a new home at the International Skating Center of Connecticut (ISCC) in Simsbury, where the team will play on the NHL-size rink. Whale general manager Alexis Moed told On Her Turf that the arena will fit around 600 fans.
While many PHF teams were on the move during the offseason, the Toronto Six remain at Canlan Sports’ York facility, a 1,200-seat, Olympic-size rink. The team’s new head coach, Geraldine Heaney, is quite familiar with the venue, having played there in the early 1990s in the Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League (COWHL).
“It’s actually kind of funny because when I played with the Aeros, my home rink was what is York. It used to be called the Ice Gardens,” Heaney said. “So it’s kind of ironic that I’m back at the same facility that I started with the Aeros.”
(For context: The COWHL pre-dated the first iteration of the NWHL, which pre-dated the CWHL, which pre-dated the current NWHL/PHF. The longer history of these women’s hockey leagues folding and launching can be found here.)
Heaney went on to note how that the facilities have gotten a major upgrade in the intervening three decades. “I think it’s great to see how far it’s come and just the facilities alone,” she said.
PHF expands front office, while some hires spark questions
During the offseason, the PHF hired several big names to its front office, including new commissioner Reagan Carey, Scout and Player Relations Liaison Kacey Bellamy, and part-time Team and Player Development Advisor Brianna Decker.
Other hires, however, have raised eyebrows.
Digit Murphy, a Senior Vice President at BTM Partners, went from being President of the Toronto Six to President of the Metropolitan Riveters, a move that received backlash from some PHF fans and staff members.
The Buffalo Beauts announced that Jeff State would be joining the team as an assistant coach. State played hockey in the AHL/ECHL in the early 2000s, but the team’s press release mentioned no prior coaching work or experience in women’s hockey. Asked why State was hired for the role, Beauts head coach Rhea Coad said this week that the team was looking for someone with pro experience, but that they also liked his personality and ability to relate to players.
“Something that he shared is that he really has a good understanding of reading players,” Coad said. “For me, I can’t see everything. Having someone on the staff who understands exactly what we want for our culture… We really do have something special and unique in Buffalo.”
The Boston Pride has a new general manager in Maddie Rigsby, who previously served as the team’s equipment manager.
Finally, the Connecticut Whale posted a job listing for a new head athletic trainer. The required qualifications made no mention of athletic training certifications or sports medicine experience, but did specify that the position required “demonstrated expertise in minimizing workers compensation claims.” While the person ultimately hired for the role, Hailey Rock, is a board-certified athletic trainer, the terminology used in the listing still raised red flags for reporters and fans about the team’s commitment to player safety.
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