Women’s hockey has been in the spotlight a lot recently, for good and bad reasons. Globally, the game is growing. But in Canada, the sport is in a strange state. Canada’s senior women’s team hasn’t won gold at the World Championship since 2012. And, of course, the CWHL ceased operations May 1, a development that was followed by an announcement from 200 of the world’s top female players proclaiming they won’t play pro hockey in North America next season unless there’s a “sustainable” league in place.
Despite these setbacks, Canada continues to produce high-quality prospects. For Ontario-based players, the Provincial Women’s Hockey League, sanctioned by Hockey Canada and the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association, is the main option for players looking to play college and, eventually, go pro. Formed in 2004, the PWHL is classified as an intermediate AA league, the highest level of junior-aged women’s hockey.
There isn’t an equal comparison to men’s major junior hockey, but the PWHL does follow a similar model. The typical path to the PWHL includes graduation from bantam AA and midget AA programs. Players range from age 14 to 21 but, like in Canadian Jr. A hockey, underaged players are limited to just a handful of games.
Eleven members of Canada’s under-18 team came from the PWHL, and 10 of the league’s graduates played on the 2018 Olympic team. The team’s top three scorers from the 2019 World Championship – Natalie Spooner, Brianne Jenner and Sarah Nurse – are some of the more notable alumni. “You have the opportunity to play with, and against, a crazy amount of talent,” said Nurse, who spent three seasons with the Stoney Creek Sabres from 2010-11 to 2012-13. “I couldn’t have been happier with Stoney Creek and still have great relationships with the organization and my former teammates.”
PWHL teams play around 70 games each year between the regular season, playoffs and tournaments. Most of the 20 teams are within a five-hour drive of each other, cutting down on heavy travel. Sixteen teams make the playoffs, with the champion decided in a Frozen Four-style event. In April, the London Devilettes topped the Sabres 1-0 in the final to take the PWHL championship.
Games are scouted by college programs, with three of the top five PWHL scorers this season having already announced NCAA commitments, while many of the league’s top goaltenders are signed to U.S. colleges as well. The top U Sports players from southern Ontario have at least a season of experience in the PWHL, too, with a majority of Canadian university roster spots filled by PWHL alumni. “(With Stoney Creek) it was the right fit for me and my development as a player, but we definitely did our homework before deciding to play there,” said Nurse, who played four years with the University of Wisconsin following her PWHL career. “Other leagues in Canada are few and far between. I believe the PWHL provides consistency and stability.”
OWHA president Fran Ryder said schools offer education packages to the athletes, similar to how it works on the men’s side. Extra educational components on how to progress in women’s hockey, whether it’s via the pro route or the Hockey Canada program, are presented to players through under-16 and under-18 camps. The PWHL also offers the Christie Rose Scholarship, awarded to a graduating player heading to a post-secondary hockey club.
There isn’t another competitive option in southern Ontario for women’s hockey players to ply their craft, though. Nurse admitted that the convenience factor helped some players decide on the PWHL, but pointed out that the overall skill level was what made it attractive as opposed to moving away to play. As women’s hockey continues to grow and the need for more teams arises, more leagues will likely appear to help add more pathways to the same goal. In a time where the future of the sport in Canada is unclear, seeing a league continue to develop top talent is vital.
But more importantly, it’s a step towards the ultimate dream: making an impact in women’s hockey.