Unified women’s professional hockey league providing hope to Saskatchewan players

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Landmark women’s professional hockey league providing hope to Sask. players
WATCH: From Saskatoon Olympian Emily Clark to those playing in the Saskatchewan Female U18 AAA Hockey League, those in the women's hockey world are celebrating word of a unified professional league set to begin in early 2024 – Jul 4, 2023

Beginning next winter, young hockey players in Saskatchewan and across the world will have a new professional women’s league to look up to.

That includes members of the Saskatoon U18 AAA Stars, who have aspirations of professional and international experience once their time in Saskatchewan is over.

“I was just so amazed,” said Stars forward and RIT commit Ireland Stein. “It’s great after such a long time of not having anything and finally having an opportunity for girls to go after college. It’s great to see.”

After years of tensions, a group representing the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association purchased the Premier Hockey Federation on Thursday last week, acquiring the assets of the seven-team women’s league.

The group is led by Mark Walter, chairman of the MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers, as well as his wife Kimbra and tennis legend Billie Jean King.

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The move now creates one unified professional league for all of women’s hockey, after 200 of the sport’s top athletes created the PWHPA after the dissolution of the defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League in 2019 feeling there was no sustainable league to join.

Saskatoon’s Emily Clark was among that group, graduating from the University of Wisconsin to find limited options to continue her career.

“I’ve been playing in the PWHPA since 2019 coming out of my senior year and thinking I’d be playing in the CWHL,” said Clark.

“Being in the room with all Canadian and U.S. national team members when we found out the CWHL folded, remembering the emotions behind that happening and wanting that feeling to never happen for professional women’s hockey players again.”

Clark was among members of the PWHPA union to unanimously pass a new collective bargaining agreement for the league on Monday, the first of its kind in women’s hockey.

An Olympic gold medalist and World Champion with Team Canada, Clark will now get the opportunity to play her first ever game in a professional league after playing in exhibition games with the PWHPA.

“It’s been a long four years and a lot of work from everyone involved,” said Clark. “But to just see this dream become a reality and to know that we stayed unified and believed in our vision, to see that come true, it’s super special. Honestly, I just want to play hockey.”

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It’s a monumental step for the women’s game, which also now potentially opens the door for involvement or investment from the National Hockey League who have gone on record that they’d only support one women’s league.

“It’s obviously huge in terms of optics and getting the game out there having that opportunity to be played on a higher stage more often than just the World Championships or just the Olympics when it seems to really come to the forefront,” said Saskatoon Stars head coach Robin Ulrich.

“Similar to what you’ve seen happen with the WNBA, women’s professional soccer. This is just another avenue that’s going to be fantastic for the women’s game.”

Still, the acquisition does leave several question marks, including the future of the players in the now-defunct PHF whose contracts are now voided and will have to compete for jobs with those players in the PWHPA.

Several Saskatchewan players were under PHF contracts at the time of the league’s acquisition including Sophie Shirley and Brooke Hobson with the Boston Pride, as well as goaltender Samantha Ridgewell with the Buffalo Beauts.

There are also a number of logistical issues that the league will need to iron out in the coming months, including where the six teams will be located.

“This is a good start to put it all under one umbrella,” said hockey analyst John Shannon. “But there’s still a ton of work to be done, there’s still a lot of intelligence to be gathered, there’s an infrastructure to be born. They have some good people involved so that’s a real positive, but this is the beginning not the end.

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“We don’t even know where the six teams are going to play yet, three in Canada and three in the United States. And who knows how long it’s going to be just six teams?”

The full impact of this new league won’t be known until years down the road, however the PWHPA and PHF have stated their goal is clear to provide opportunities for women on the ice like never before.

Clark said she’ll continue her training this summer before hitting the ice in her professional debut.

“I’ll be 28 before I play my first true professional game,” said Clark. “I can’t wait now to see girls coming out of college, being drafted, having that to aspire to.”

Stars leading goal scorer Avery Bairos has professional hockey on her radar down the line, set to join Quinnipiac University in 2024-25 and said it’s an exciting time to be involved in the women’s game.

“Myself, I think one day that would be a goal of mine to play in that league and I think it would be really cool to play professional hockey,” said Bairos. “But I hope it just continues to grow, gets bigger and inspires young girls like myself.”

The league is tentatively set to begin in January of 2024 with the six markets set to be announced in the coming weeks.

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