The newest iteration of women's hockey has arrived, courtesy of the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association (PWHPA). This is the group responsible for this season's Dream Gap tour, which brought together most of the best players in the world in a barnstorming gambit that found nice support in a variety of NHL cities.
For 2020-21, the PWHPA will have a new "regional structure" based on hubs in five North American locations: Toronto, Calgary, Montreal, New Hampshire and Minnesota. Each hub will carry a roster of 25 players, who will then be eligible for showcase games. There will also be more regional games and an emphasis on training.
Given that infrastructure has long been a weak point in the women's game, this new PWHPA initiative sounds like a step in the right direction. The union is hoping to provide full-time dressing rooms, strength and conditioning facilities and more support staff (including coaches) for 2020-21, which is exactly what the women's game needs right now.
“We listened to our players from last season, and the feedback was very consistent in ways that we could improve the PWHPA experience,” said Jayna Hefford, PWHPA Operations Consultant and four-time Olympic gold medalist. “It was a priority for us to increase the level of commitment and to provide additional resources for our athletes to develop and perform at the highest level."
There will be tryouts for the 25 regional spots, with the obvious hope that the resulting cull means better competition in games (though in my viewings of the Dream Gap this season, the level was pretty high already).
“The new structure provides players with a more professional training environment on a regular basis," said Kendall Coyne-Schofield, president of the PWHPA board and Dream Gap star. "Which will allow us to put the best product of women's professional hockey on the ice daily.”
As always, women's pro hockey continues to evolve as it seeks its foothold in the overall sports landscape in North America. The NWHL is adding a team in Toronto next year, the first Canadian franchise for the circuit and in a major media market, no less. Toronto has a well-known president in veteran Digit Murphy, but the NWHL's issue lately has been the talent on the rosters.
The PWHPA featured most of the top names in the game this season, from Coyne-Schofield and Brianna Decker to Marie-Philip Poulin and Hilary Knight. Young guns such as Annie Pankowski and Loren Gabel also jumped aboard. The original impetus for the union was to push women's hockey forward in a way the group did not believe was possible under NWHL conditions. In terms of publicity, the Dream Gap tour did very well and many of its players were featured in the record-setting USA-Canada Rivalry Series game in Anaheim where more than 13,000 fans were in attendance at the Honda Center, home of the NHL's Ducks.
There will always be detractors who say the appetite simply isn't there for women's hockey and that the talent level isn't high enough. But the latter has always been a chicken-or-the-egg scenario because most of the best women's players don't have access to year-round training and conditioning opportunities on the same level as NHL pros.
While it may seem as though progress is slow on the women's side, it's important to note how much older the men's pro game is and what conditions were like in the NHL 50, 60 years ago (just watch some of that old goaltending without averting your eyes).
The most important thing for the PWHPA is that the group is keeping the top women in the game on the ice and in the public eye. The future is unknown, but women's hockey continues to evolve.