PHF: Storylines that set the stage for 2022-23 hockey season

PHF player and Boston Pride captain Jillian Dempsey celebrates with teammates after scoring during the Isobel Cup playoffs
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

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 Boyntonwho 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.

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
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PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.