Pat Hickey: Professional Women's Hockey League off to a strong start

League is on a solid financial footing and players are embracing a physical style of play that is providing excellent entertainment value.

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There is a lot to like as the Professional Women’s Hockey League completes the third week of its inaugural season.

Let’s start with the product on the ice. The women’s game has always showcased speed and skill, but the PWHL had added a new wrinkle by allowing more physical contact. Open-ice bodychecks will continue to result in penalties, but there are fierce battles along the boards and in the corners.

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The players wanted a more physical game and it has been embraced by fans whose previous exposure to women’s hockey was limited to the quadrennial showdown between Canada and the United States for Olympic gold.

The interest in the cross-border rivalry had more to do with patriotism than a love for the sport, but the PWHL is winning over new fans such as colleague Stu Cowan, who was surprised by the quality of play in Montreal’s home opener against Boston last weekend.

The new rules are a work in progress as players, coaches and officials work to determine what is allowed.

“I felt there were some calls that were missed on both sides,” New York coach Howie Draper said after his team lost 3-2 to Montreal Tuesday night at Place Bell in Laval.

Longtime official David Taveroff, who is working with the league’s officials, said the goal is consistency, but the league isn’t there yet.

Unlike previous attempts at a women’s professional league, the PWHL is on a solid financial footing thanks to Mark Walter, who is the principal owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and CEO of Guggenheim Partners, which has US$300 billion of assets under management.

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If the league needed more credibility, Walter is joined by tennis legend Billie Jean King and her wife, Ilana Kloss. King has led the charge for equal prize money for women on the pro tennis tour and is part of the ownership group of the Dodgers and the WNBA Los Angeles Sparks.

Walter bought the assets of the Premier Hockey Federation and wooed the top players in the world from the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, which had been reduced to a series of barnstorming events under the banner of the Secret Dream Gap Tour.

The PWHPA had held out for a sustainable professional league and the Mark Walter Group delivered with an eight-year commitment. Salaries range between US$35,000 and US$80,000 and there is professional management in place in each of the six cities. All the teams are owned by the league, which guarantees it won’t be taken down by a weak franchise.

The Montreal team — the league is still sorting out names and logos for the franchises — has had an encouraging start on and off the ice. With superstar Marie-Philip Poulin leading the way, the team is in second place with a 3-1-1 record heading into Saturday’s game against Toronto at Verdun Auditorium (8 p.m., CBC Gem, TOU.TV).

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Montreal’s home opener at Verdun was sold out with 3,245 fans on hand and more than 6,000 showed up in Laval on a snowy weekday. It was the first of at least four games scheduled for Place Bell. Montreal expects to sell out all of its games in Verdun and build on the strong start in Laval.

Ticket prices are family friendly and the players are committed to providing the next generation of women players with the role models they lacked growing up. They are also committed to providing entertaining hockey for fans of all ages and genders. The league has also made every game available on TV or by streaming, but fans have to do some homework to find out whether the game is on TSN, RDS, Sportsnet, CBC Gem or YouTube, which streams every game in the U.S.

Attendance is good throughout the league except in New York, which is the only other franchise using two home arenas. While the Montreal venues are both reachable via the métro, New York is playing at UBC Arena in Elmont, N.Y. — the home of the Islanders — and Total Mortgage Arena in Bridgeport, Conn. Fans who want to support the team at both sites could face a drive of up to two hours each way.

New York drew 2,122 fans for its first game in Connecticut and 2,201 in Elmont. Hockey Hall of Fame member Jayna Hefford, who serves as the PWHL vice-president of hockey operations, said the New York turnout exceeded expectations, which leads you to wonder what they expected.

Hefford said there’s a lot of competition in New York, where there are 40 professional teams. In fact, there are 11 teams in the big five major leagues in the Tri-State area, and there are also more than 18 million potential fans.

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