The Hamilton Spectator

Can money bring women’s profession­al hockey together?


Mikyla Grant-Mentis was getting up at 4 a.m. last winter to work a full shift as a FedEx delivery driver before starting the job she loved but couldn’t live on: playing women’s profession­al hockey.

Then the Brampton forward signed a contract that made her the highest-paid player in the Premier Hockey Federation this season, and said goodbye to the delivery route and those early mornings. “I got out of that habit real quick because nobody wants to wake up at 4 a.m.,” she said.

Her rise from a $5,000 (U.S.) salary three years ago to $80,000 with the Buffalo Beauts was a dramatic sign of how fast things are changing in women’s hockey. It was evidence that, after decades of effort and numerous failed leagues, some of the best players have finally reached the long-standing goal of making a living on the ice.

The sport took another leap forward this month when Daryl Watts, who had expected to be done with hockey after a sensationa­l university career, announced she had signed a contract with the Toronto Six for next season worth $150,000, a record-high salary.

“I’m releasing it because this is a great moment for women’s hockey and also women’s sports,” Watts, 23, said in interviews Wednesday. “Playing women’s hockey is now a viable financial decision.”

That statement is generation­s in the making. Women’s hockey leagues have a long history in North America but it wasn’t until 2015 that the National Women’s Hockey League (the PHF’s predecesso­r) became the first to pay players. It wasn’t much and the league later had to cut salaries back to stay afloat.

The Canadian Women’s Hockey League, a decade into its existence, started paying players in 2017 but, again, not enough to live on. The league announced two years later it wasn’t financial viable and ceased operations.

Since 2021 things have been looking up. The PHF has raised the salary cap for teams from $300,000 to $750,000 with health benefits this season, and has committed to $1.5 million team caps for the 20232024 season, or an average of about $70,000 per player. The league is up to seven teams, five in the U.S. and two in Canada — Toronto and Montreal — and looking to keep growing.

The PHF All-Star Game was held at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto on Sunday, featuring Canadian, U.S. and world teams.

All-Star player Ann-Sophie Bettez has won two world championsh­ip medals with Canada’s national team, played in the CWHL for years and now plays for the Montreal Force, the PHF’s newest team.

“For a long time we’ve been calling ourselves profession­al athletes but we all needed another job to follow through on our passion and hockey career,” said all-star Ann-Sophie Bettez, a CWHL veteran who has won two world championsh­ip medals with Canada and now plays for the Montreal Force.

The 35-year-old, nearing the end of her hockey career, is thrilled for the chance to play on a pro team but isn’t looking to give up her other job as a financial planner. But that’s becoming a real option for younger players, she says.

PHF commission­er Reagan Carey said the salary increases will be used to offer big deals to attract stars, including Canadian and American Olympians, and raise lower-paid players to more livable salaries.

Paying salaries that are high enough that players don’t need or want another job is important for the structure and operations of the league.

Players having to work other jobs limits when games, practices and travel can be scheduled.

“All those factors are important to make sure we’re driving the league forward,” said Carey who was previously USA Hockey’s director of women’s hockey and general manager of the national team. “We’re continuing to work day in and day out on building and being the best home for women’s profession­al ice hockey.”

The sport’s biggest stars don’t see it that way.

When the CWHL announced it was closing just a week after handing out the 2019 Clarkson Cup, then the Stanley Cup of women’s hockey, many of the game’s best players had had enough.

The likes of Marie-Philip Poulin, Sarah Nurse, Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield vowed not to play in any existing profession­al league and set out to create a better one. Four years later, they’re still trying.

In the meantime, as the Profession­al Women’s Hockey Players Associatio­n, they play in showcase events in the Secret Dream Gap Tour and, most recently, have partnered with the Ontario Hockey League to play games in four OHL venues Feb 10-11. They held their own all-star weekend in Ottawa in December.

The rift between the PHF and PWHPA has frustrated many in women’s hockey and beyond. NHL commission­er Gary Bettman has said his league would be “more than supportive” if the two sides ever come together.

Watts hopes her salary, what she calls a “staggering number,” will help bridge the gap. “I hope this will attract other players, which will then accumulate into the establishm­ent of one single profession­al women’s hockey league.”

‘‘ Playing women’s hockey is now a viable financial decision.


 ?? STEVE RUSSELL TORONTO STAR ?? Team Canada’s Jade Downie-Landry tries to get the puck past Team USA goalkeeper Abbie Ives in the Premier Hockey Federation all-star game on Sunday night in Toronto.
STEVE RUSSELL TORONTO STAR Team Canada’s Jade Downie-Landry tries to get the puck past Team USA goalkeeper Abbie Ives in the Premier Hockey Federation all-star game on Sunday night in Toronto.

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