FILE - Connecticut Whale forward Amanda Conway (88) scores against the Boston Pride in the first period during the Premier Hockey Federation's Isobel Cup final March 28, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. The Mark Walter Group acquired what was described as “certain assets” of the PHF in a move Thursday, June 29, 2023, that has the potential of clearing the way for one North American women’s hockey league, a person with direct knowledge of the agreement told The Associated Press. (Arielle Bader/Tampa Bay Times via AP, File)

New pro women’s hockey league to launch in January

A new women’s pro hockey league will begin competing in North America as early as January, a development made possible Thursday when a co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers purchased the Premier Hockey Federation, two people with direct knowledge of the agreement told The Associated Press.

The seven-team PHF will cease operations, one of the people said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the deal between Dodgers co-owner Mark Walter and the PHF had not been announced. The new league will bring together North America’s most accomplished female players and would likely include the more talented players from Europe and Asia who are already competing in the PHF.

Mark Walter’s firm acquired what one of the people described as “certain assets” of the PHF. The league had been locked in a dispute with the rival Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association. The PWHPA — which includes a majority of U.S. and Canadian national team players — had been working with the Mark Walter Group and Billie Jean King Enterprises over the past 14 months in a bid to launch its own league.

A third person familiar with the details also confirmed the purchase by the Mark Walter Group, also speaking on the condition of anonymity because details of the acquisition haven’t been made public. Players for both the PHF and the PWHPA were informed of the deal in two separate private meetings, the person said.

The PHF had been scheduled to begin its ninth season this fall. The new league will feature PWHPA chief Jayna Hefford and PHF Commissioner Reagan Carey in leadership roles, one of the people said.

The PWHPA certified as a union this spring and has completed negotiations on a collective bargaining agreement. A 62-page CBA was presented to PWHPA members on Thursday night, and they will have until Sunday night to ratify it and the new league’s constitution, said one of the people, who has received the document.

If approved, the deal will run through 2031 and features a minimum salary of $35,000 for players on active rosters, the person said.

In the meantime, PHF players’ existing contracts have been voided, though an agreement is in place to pay those under contract a portion of their salary through September, the person said. Some players are losing out on contracts they signed worth more than $150,000 over two seasons.

Among the many issues that need to be sorted out include the number of teams and where they will play. The PHF, which doubled each team’s salary cap to $1.5 million entering this season, has teams in Boston, Toronto and Montreal along with East Rutherford, New Jersey; Hartford, Connecticut; Buffalo, New York; and Richfield, Minnesota.

The higher salaries helped the PHF attract several high-profile international players, including Switzerland’s Alina Muller, Sweden’s Emma Soderberg and former Finland goalie and ex-PWHPA board member Noora Raty.

By essentially eliminating the PWHPA’s rival, the deal fulfills the desire of many women’s hockey fans — including NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman — to have a single league. Though the NHL provided support to both the PWHPA and PHF, Bettman has urged the two factions to come together for the good of the sport.

In March, former Canadian Olympian and current Czech Republic coach Carla MacLeod pressed the issue further. The 40-year-old told The AP that having one elite league would help other countries start catching up to the sport’s traditional powers, the United States and Canada.

“If you look back into the men’s game, that’s when the gap closed,” MacLeod said, referring to the NHL welcoming European players in the 1970s and eventually Russians in the late ’80s.

North American women’s pro hockey has been divided since the PWHPA was formed in 2019 following the financial demise of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

PWHPA members balked at joining what was then called National Women’s Hockey League, which was later rebranded as the PHF. The PWHPA instead pursued its own vision of having a controlling interest in a league with a sustainable economic model and fair wages for players.

Dani Rylan Kearney launched the NWHL in 2015 as an investor-funded four-team league that was essentially run out of an office in New York. The NWHL nearly folded a year later before the league slashed player salaries by nearly half.

Rylan Kearney was forced to step down as commissioner in 2020 when the league restructured its governing model by bringing in private ownership and establishing a board of governors.

Earlier this month, PWHPA board member and U.S. national team star Hilary Knight insisted that the PHF was not the best model for building the women’s pro game, even if the divide in the sport persisted.

“I make this distinction. The more women we can have get paid to do the sport they love, I think that’s awesome,” Knight said.

“What bothers me is the illusion of professionalism and what women’s hockey should be, and settling for what it is, right? And I think that’s the big distinction is let’s call it what it is,” Knight said.