NHL partnerships bring unified women’s league closer to reality, PWHPA’s Hefford says

Recent partnerships with the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers have thrust the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association back into the spotlight.

PWHPA head Jayna Hefford wants to make sure it stays there.

With the backing of two major NHL markets, the trajectory of professional women’s hockey looks to be going up.

“They worked with us last season with the PWHPA but this year they wanted to really formalize it, they wanted it to be known that they believe in the same vision we do: what professional women’s hockey should look like and what it’s gonna take to get there,” Hefford told CBC Sports’ Anastasia Bucsis.

Hefford, 43 of Trenton, Ont., spent 15 years playing for the Canadian national team before retiring in 2017. Both she and ex-teammate Hayley Wickenheiser, among others, have spoken out in recent months about the need for a women’s hockey partner in the NHL.

That desire has only been amplified in recent years due to the folding of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the subsequent splintering of players between the National Women’s Hockey League and the PWHPA.

In partnering with the Rangers and Maple Leafs, Hefford hopes to take advantage of existing infrastructure and resources — in addition to the teams’ investments — to grow the PWHPA into a singular women’s hockey league that can become the foundation of the sport.

“We haven’t been shy to say that we believe the NHL needs to play a role in the next version of professional women’s hockey,” Hefford said.

“To be able to partner with those organizations gets us a step closer to that end goal.”

NHL players support PWHPA

While the Maple Leafs aren’t new to women’s hockey, having previously supported the CWHL, theirs and the Rangers’ commitment also stem in part of players like Mitch Marner and Alexis Lafrenière, who have openly supported the PWHPA.

“They’re a generation of men who have grown up with amazing female athletes as friends, as sisters, as girlfriends, whatever the case may be. So they’re growing up in a world that’s different than it was 20 or 30 years ago,” Hefford said.

“They understand the level of commitment, the level of skill, the level of talent that these women have and so they’re stepping up now in a really positive way to say, ‘Why shouldn’t these women have the same opportunities that I have?’ And in my mind and I think in our minds, that’s powerful.”

But those opportunities almost entirely died out when the pandemic hit. The world championships and Four Nations Cup were both cancelled, the latter for the second straight year following a dispute between Swedish players and their national organization.

The PWHPA has already announced a Dream Gap tour game to be played in New York at the end of the month, and is hoping to add an event in Canada in the near future.

The NWHL’s two-week Isobel Cup tournament in January was suspended before the playoffs after two teams dropped out over COVID-19.

“As challenging as it’s been, I think we’ve learned a lot. But the momentum of women’s hockey is starting to mount here and its starting to get back to a place where we were pre-COVID,” Hefford said.

Partnering with the Rangers and Maple Leafs, then, is one step in the right direction of the PWHPA’s main goal of a unified league.

“It’s gonna be good for women at all levels when we can establish a really, truly professional women’s league.”

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