The accouterments accompanying Marie-Philip Poulin to the post-game podium were usual championship-celebration fare.
The swim goggles, the half-empty champagne bottles, the beer, it was all standard issue. Beyond Poulin and the rest of Montreal-based Team Bauer’s standard-issue basking in the aftermath of their Secret Cup title, as winners of the Canadian leg of the PWHPA’s 2021 Dream Gap Tour, there was also uniqueness in their revelry. All involved were celebrating the PWHPA’s massive accomplishment and the fact they had, at long last, played meaningful games.
For a long while, that was no guarantee. The COVID-19 pandemic threw into disarray any plans the PWHPA had fashioned for 2021. Players still practised when they could – and prepared however possible – but ever-evolving health guidelines and protocols made scheduling Dream Gap Tour games remarkably challenging. It wasn’t until active cases declined and vaccinations increased that a partnership with the New York Rangers, announced in February, placed game days on the PWHPA calendar for the first time in nearly a year.
Still, Hockey Hall of Famer and PWHPA operations consultant Jayna Hefford held her breath. But through quarantines, protocols and testing, all was clear. Events in New York and Chicago went off without a hitch. A potential COVID exposure postponed two games in St. Louis, but the rescheduled contests were played without incident.
The same went for the entirety of the Calgary-based Canadian tournament. “Until you get through that final round of testing, you’re always kind of on edge,” Hefford said. “Thankfully, we got through it all in the Canadian event and our U.S. events without positive tests, and that’s how we measure success at this point.”
Beyond the actual on-ice action, the biggest success for the PWHPA may well have come on the balance sheet. Throughout the PWHPA’s two-year history, the organization has been able to pride itself on garnering levels of sponsorship support previously unseen in women’s hockey. Big-name brands such as Secret, Bauer and Budweiser were on board early, and though the pandemic could have given cause for brands to withdraw financially, those sponsors continued to step up while still others hopped on board.
“Of course, every partner wants to see the bottom line and value for their money, so we try to be creative in how we provide that value,” Hefford said. “At the end of the day, the partners we work with on a consistent basis are so amazing to work with, and that commitment to what we’re trying to accomplish here hasn’t wavered at all. That’s pretty impressive in these challenging times.”
The question now, however, is what the PWHPA will look like next season when, with any luck, the pandemic subsides and reopenings allow for fans to, once again, pack the stands at tour stops. One of Hefford’s hopes is the PWHPA Dream Gap Tour will have a return to normalcy. In its inaugural touring season, four-team events were spread across weekend schedules in select cities. But even if that’s again the case, the PWHPA will have to contend with the challenges presented by the buildup to an Olympic year.
By Hefford’s count, more than 40 PWHPA players – including all its brightest stars, such as Poulin, Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker and Rebecca Johnston – will head to national team centralization camps ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Games. Depending on the final count, it could be as much or more than one-third of the entire PWHPA player base, which Hefford said was 125 this season.
But despite the lack of Canadian and American superstar-caliber talents, Hefford is confident the PWHPA can continue to draw fan support and corporate backing. Her assurance stems from the association’s depth and the fact that, historically, it has been the seasons in which national team players have been absent that have led to breakthroughs and star-making opportunities. “If we want to move the game forward and create something truly professional, it can’t just be about 20 Canadians and 20 Americans,” she said. “It’s beyond that, and we want to show that talent exists and there will be great hockey to play.”
Showcasing the depth of the organization, and, in turn, the depth of the game’s talent, will serve the PWHPA well in its attempt to capitalize on the Olympic-driven buzz for women’s hockey seen every four years. And it gives Hefford hope an organization still in its infancy, and with a desire to redefine the women’s hockey landscape, can continue taking those steps.
“When you look at the sponsorship support, the way we’ve evolved from a players’ association that was just a bunch of players who came together and wanted to have a voice, to getting to where we got to this season, even with COVID, where players are earning money at every single event, we’ve come a long way in a short period of time, with very little infrastructure,” Hefford said. “I’m definitely happy with the success we’ve had, but there’s so much further we want to go.”
This article originally appeared in The Hockey News' 2021 Champions Issue, available here.