Jayne Hefford has been here before. But the Hockey Hall of Famer has never been here before.
Hefford played in previous iterations of women’s professional leagues, each with limited shelf lives. Now, she’s helping launch the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) as its senior vice president of hockey operations, believing that this new venture has staying power.
“This has been a long journey, and it’s all been an important part of the journey,” Hefford said in a conference call with reporters last week. “As a player, I’ve played in four different versions of what we consider professional leagues. But if you put all of them together, none of them would equal the investment that’s been made in this league in the first few months.
“This is completely different than anything we’ve done before.”
The biggest difference is the partnership between the players and the league. There’s an eight-year collective bargaining agreement in place, one that already sets the standard for better pay, housing stipends and bonuses. There are also more uniform standards with equipment and training facilities. And players routinely will meet with ownership to discuss matters and help grow the women’s game together.
Oh, and after several years when the best women’s players in the world largely skipped playing in the previous North American pro league, the Premier Hockey Federation, the best of the best are back. And that’s no small thing for the PWHL.
“We have an ownership group that believes in this vision, is willing and excited to invest in this vision and sees how important and meaningful it is,” Hefford explained. “So, along the way, the starts of leagues, the folding of leagues, the challenges within the PWHPA and the players taking a stance, there’s been a lot of ups and downs. But it’s really exciting now to be at a point where we’re all on the same page, all working together and ready to do something historic for this sport.”
The PWHL’s novel approach to team ownership
The PWHL operates under single ownership. The Mark Walter Group owns each of the six teams (Boston, Minnesota, Montreal, New York, Ottawa and Toronto) after buying out the PHF in July to create the new league. Its advisory board is an impressive group, consisting of Billie Jean King, Stan Kasten, Ilana Kloss and Royce Cohen.
“We are one company, a single entity. All of our clubs will compete like mad on the ice, but off the ice we are working together,” Kasten said.
So, that means the PWHL won’t have a commissioner because, as Kasten pointed out, that role is mostly needed for bringing divergent ownership groups together on various important topics.
It’s a novel approach. And the collaborative spirit is unique, too. It’s what Hefford has been helping work toward as a driving force in the players association since her playing days ended.
“It’s damn unusual, and that’s a good thing,” Kasten enthused. “Our relationship with our union is damn unusual and it’s really good. We have built into our CBA a formal process to get together with our players routinely to discuss things, to discuss rules, to discuss changes that may be good for our sport because we really are all working together. We all saw the same need and we’re all here filling that need. I think it’s fantastic.”
Timing of the PWHL’s schedule release
Though an abridged 24-game schedule has yet to be released and team nicknames and home arenas have not been announced, the inaugural PWHL season will begin in January and training camps opened last week. The original six teams will travel to Utica, New York for PWHL evaluation camp Dec. 3-7, featuring practices and scrimmages before rosters are finalized.
There will also be a fan fest in Utica on Dec. 5, featuring meet and greets, autograph sessions, giveaways and a scrimmage between New York and Ottawa.
Training camps run for six weeks this season at the behest of players, who wanted to make sure they’re at their best when the puck drops on the first PWHL season and so that they help market the league and get out into the communities of their respective teams. Future training camps will be 2-3 weeks and seasons will have more games, with opening night in November as opposed to January.
Though there are plenty of things that keep Hefford up at night, she can’t wait for the season to start.
“I’m most excited for puck drop on the league,” she said. “It’ll be a momentous event. It’s something many of us dreamed about, had created this vision we had been working toward for a number of years. So, to see it become a reality is going to be really special, not only for the players but for many other people associated with the game.”
Hefford helped sell this vision to Walter, who is part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chelsea Football Club. He provides the financial heft to get the PWHL off the ground and lift the women’s pro game into a new place.
Kasten, the Dodgers president and part owner, is also an invaluable part of the PWHL equation. He’s a wildly successful and decorated sports executive who’s worked for teams in MLB, NFL and NHL. Simply, success follows him at every turn. And he certainly seems jazzed by this latest challenge.
“It’s not just that it’s historic, it’s that it’s important,” Kasten said. “It’s important to this generation of players and the generation of players that follow. Important to all [women] athletes as one more place they can be professional. I am very proud of what we have done.”