When I first launched this segment called “Hockey Talks”, I wasn’t so sure what I wanted to focus on, but after the news surfaced three weeks back of the Toronto expansion team, it became very clear.
For many years, I have been a hockey fan, watching the men while covering the women, but given the folding of the CWHL, I knew I wasn’t close to done despite that. As the players joined the PWHPA, I had time to think as to where this goes next.
Seeing many women choose unity, that’s when I decided to grow the work I was doing. When I started in December, 2018, I was covering the CWHL’s Markham Thunder. From there, I was given the chance, through my many new contacts, to expand my horizons. Not only did this mean more coverage, but a growing foundation in the women’s hockey community.
Attending home games nearby in Thornhill, I quickly got comfortable with my new surroundings. Whether this meant the players, the coaches or the staff who I regularly spoke with, covering the Thunder became my new normal, an opportunity I look back on as grateful.
It allowed to me to dig into women’s hockey, become friendly with players and enjoy the loud atmosphere. I did so with my laptop in hand from the makeshift press box at the back of stands.
That’s where things got interesting because it allowed me to grow connections while networking. For starters, I would walk in weekly and first person I’d talk to is the team’s general manager? Pretty standard for your basic game day? Not quite, think again.
I would grab my Thunder press pass at the door and head on upstairs to the lounge during warmups. This would give me the chance to see the players next door working out before puck drop, while on my own front, it gave me time after early arrival to prepare for a battle.
That’s where things start connecting. As the players headed down to the dressing rooms, I’d make my way over the press box for game time. Now, this wasn’t your usual setup where journalists and bloggers would have their own workspace.
For a change, media sat with the fans, but more specifically, the families of Thunder players. It was after my first few games where interest peaked in the work I was doing. I remember just prior to the All-Star Break, I made a friend and at that, an unlikely one.
Driving all the way out from Milton to watch her granddaughter take to the ice, I was sitting regularly with an avid hockey fan, this one being Victoria Bach’s grandmother. Since Bach’s days in the NCAA, her number one supporter was always supporting her. Didn’t matter where, watching women’s hockey became her everyday outlet.
On another occasion, in the same spot, a pair of parents stepped in because they were cold. As they stood behind me, watching the action, they also got curious what it was I was writing. As the saying goes, being a friendly person never hurt anyone. As our talks that night engaged further, I quickly learned it was Laura Fortino’s parents.
It was the same idea as Bach’s grandmother, to be in the stands if and when it was possible. From personal stories to chatting with families, the Markham Thunder felt like home very quickly. After several months of home games, I was credentialed for the league’s annual All-Star Game.
There, I expanded my connections with Hailey Salvian and Kristina Rutherford. Fast forward to the Clarkson Cup Final, that small network grew as a champion was named. From the awards show to the game itself, I’ve remained in touch with that hub of reporters. Just like the athletes got together, as did the media to grow their voices and promote them.
These experiences are all with thanks to Canadian Olympian Jayna Hefford. Hefford replaced Brenda Andress as interim commissioner in July, 2018. Since then, she has stood by her vision which very clearly states, “grow the game.”
She expanded the league to China, adding both the Vanke Rays and the Kunlun Red Star. While the Red Star didn’t last for long, the Vanke Rays did and played in Shenzhen, China. The team was run by Digit Murphy, now team president for Toronto NWHL.
The expansion, in the minds of some, was seen as a last ditch effort for revenue and while it brought in fans to back them in masses, it wasn’t enough as the league later folded. It threw staff and players for a loop as it happened just a few days after the Inferno took the cup against Montreal in Toronto.
Conversations then quickly mounted to a possible merger with the NWHL, but while they took time to weigh all open options, this led to the launch of the PWHPA. It was just three months later that Jayna was added to union’s leadership group. Since being named operations consultant, Jayna and team started the Dream Gap Tour, a barnstorming tour across North America.
Through this, 200-plus players travel countrywide and to the U.S. as well. Stops along the way this season included Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, as well as Philadelphia, Arizona and New Hampshire. Selling out in hockey’s biggest markets, NHL teams have partnered with the PA to increase the following of women’s pro hockey.
Not only that, but it raises awareness for the game’s top product which is just getting better through the power of recruiting. What’s particularly amazing about the tour is that accessibility has never been better.
Players have been made available to chat with their fans once the games have concluded, they have tables set so they can autograph postgame and interact with next generation. They do so because in their mission, “they want to leave the game better than they found it,” and they believe and are committed to doing that.
As well, even though the tour is not currently operating on a franchise based model, Hefford has made sure through both sponsors and coaches that players are getting all the resources they need. Throughout the season, in addition to tour stops, the PA had made ice sheets available for their players to visit in certain cities. This included Montreal where Hockey Canada ran practices as well.
Of course, the purpose of that to keep players aligned for the Women’s World Championship. Even if you weren’t on tour rosters, certain facilities were regionally accessible for workouts and practices and will be again.
However, after the Dream Gap Tour came to a close with a successful visit to Tempe, Arizona, a survey was conducted amongst the 200 players while looking for feedback with regards to access. That being said, a new switch in structure for the upcoming season was announced on Wednesday.
The change will see two hubs removed and another two added in Calgary and New Hampshire. As cited by Jared Book of Habs Eyes On The Prize, the regions will aim to provide players with improved access to necessities for training. This includes full-time dressing rooms, access to strength and conditioning facilities, support staff and coaches.
As one would expect, the PWHPA chapter in Calgary will be working out and practicing at Winsport. Winsport was previously home to the Calgary Inferno of the CWHL. The Montreal chapter will play at Verdun Auditorium which is currently home to the Montreal Carabins. The Montreal chapter played several stops there, including a Dream Gap Tour stop and the pro challenge.
That was also played in Laval at Place Bell, home of the AHL’s Laval Rocket. The Minnesota chapter will be hosted at Blaine Super Rink. The newly established New Hampshire chapter will be hosted at Cyclones Arena in Hudson. Cyclones Arena is where the PWHPA paid a visit in October for stop two on the Dream Gap Tour.
Given that the PWHPA is mainly based out of Toronto, at this time, no arena is established, this also given the new Toronto NWHL team. The NWHL has done their due diligence and an announcement is expected in the coming weeks. All players will have to try out for one of 25 spots on each of the regional teams.
In addition to established coaches, each PWHPA chapter will be assigned a general manager at random. Speaking of which, the chapters that currently have coaching staffs include New Hampshire, Calgary and Toronto. The Montreal and Minnesota chapters are still seeking coaching staffs at this time.
General managers have not yet been named, but will very likely be familiar faces from stops on the Dream Gap Tour. Throughout the season, GM’s that were used include Rebecca Michael, Jayna Hefford and Chelsea Purcell.
With the change of plans in the works, the only question this leaves now is what does this mean for the athletes who played in the Tri-State and Buffalo respectively? Will they remain with the PA, but try out for one of the other chapters instead?
In a statement from Kendall Coyne Schofield, American forward and president of the board, she said, “The new structure provides players with a more professional training environment on a regular basis which will allow us to put the best product of women’s professional hockey on the ice daily.”
While these changes come with obvious challenges, one of the biggest roadblocks might just be for those based in Toronto. Because the NWHL has expanded their margins with a sixth team in Canada, there will be only one regional Toronto team as opposed to a pair like last season.
Speaking with Jayna Hefford on Wednesday, she told The Puck Authority that further details are still to come for the team in Toronto. She was, however, able to confirm that Laura McIntosh will be the head coach.
With one of those details being arenas, potential options in the city include Maple Leaf Gardens, Scotiabank Pond and Ford Performance Centre, formerly known as MasterCard Centre. The Toronto Furies used to play there and the Marlies and Leafs use it regularly for practices. However, it would be available during evenings, both on weekdays as well as weekends.
McIntosh, a native of Kitchener, was named as the bench boss for the tour stop in Waterloo. Her team took the ice against Loren Gabel, a National Team member and native of Kitchener. With that being said, The Puck Authority also learnt that others coaches have not been announced.
Speaking of specific regions, the PWHPA stated as well that in addition to continued showcases, they will attempt to schedule more matches regionally. Last season, the PWHPA had a roster compiled of 170 members.
A handful competed in China after the Vanke Rays joined the Russian Women’s Hockey League. That list included Megan Bozek, Alex Carpenter, Noora Raty and Hanna Bunton. Another two players did similar, but playing pro hockey in Sweden and Finland.
Speaking of which, The Puck Authority learnt that due to coronavirus, Shea Tiley will stay put in Canada and compete in the Dream Gap Tour with the PWHPA. Tiley spent the year overseas with HV71 in the SDHL. While siding with the PWHPA, Tiley wanted the chance to get ice time and play pro hockey and did so in Sweden. She appeared in just four games played, racking up a save percentage of .978.
As for those playing in Shenzhen, The Puck Authority learnt that defensemen Megan Bozek will return to the Vanke Rays for the upcoming season. Bozek joined the team overseas and helped claim the league title against HC Agidel. Bozek, 29-years-old, was previously a member of the CWHL.
As a source of knowledge said to The Puck Authority, obviously it’s contract dependent as Bozek had signed a one-year deal for last season. With that being said, she does have to negotiate a new contract, but indications are she will return to the Vanke Rays when given the clearance to. Bozek played with Alex Carpenter and Noora Räty en route to the cup.
The source said that more National Team members have been reaching out to play with the ongoing climate in North America. While it’s unclear who those are or if and when that’s expected, the source added that the franchise “obviously would love to have all our “star” players back.”
Such as the business in hockey, the source said that their expectation is that a handful will not be asked back. Again, this will depend on the virus and how players negotiate their new contracts as such.
Anyways, all that left to be said, I have spent the last three weeks sitting and chatting with players with Montreal and Toronto, mainly regarding the Toronto expansion team, getting their thoughts and recapping the season. One of whom I spoke with last month was Canadian forward Jenna Dingeldein who said when asked if Jayna made sure that everything was in place as much as it could be, “Definitely. I think it was quite in the same, you know, ballpark, it was different because, you know, with the Toronto Furies, we were in a league and things were sanctioned and all that. The PWHPA kind of gave us an opportunity to say, “this is what we need”, “this is what we want,” and we were able to kind of work with the board to make sure that we had what we needed. I mean, the only real difference, I don’t even really know that there was a difference other than it wasn’t a league. It was pretty similar and, well, the talent was obviously there, very similar and, you know, we got our sponsors, Adidas was really good, BioSteel was really good, Bauer gave us some equipment to use, so all of those things were kind of the same that we got in the CWHL, so I think they definitely did a good job in securing those for us which, you know, allowed us to have a really good year.”
This was also posed to Taylor Woods, Jessica Platt and Mélodie Daoust who all agreed in one sense or another that it closely compared to the CWHL. much like Mélodie Daoust, Victoria Bach plays with the National Women’s Team and as a rookie with the Markham Thunder, very quickly she has seen it all now.
As a PWPHA member, sponsors are working to provide necessities and having come from the NCAA, Victoria Bach knows what professionals require. While praising her time with the Terriers, the forward from Milton said of Jayna’s hard work, “Yeah, for sure. I think with what we had and the year that we had, she made sure and, you know, as well as we had some incredible sponsors that supported us this year and helped us out. I thought, you know, we’re really thankful for them and everything they’ve done for us and we hope that, you know, they can keep moving forward with us, but, you know, for what we had, I thought we had everything and it was awesome. Like I said, it was just, you know, a great experience.”
Because of her list of accomplishments and ongoing efforts to promote women’s hockey, Jayna Hefford was my sixth guest last week to reflect on the season and her background in hockey.
During the latest segment of “Hockey Talks,” David Ciss and I discuss the current state and the ongoing tale that is professional women’s hockey. We did so in lieu of the announcement just three weeks back of the Toronto expansion team. That followed by conversation regarding year one of the PWHPA and the thoughts presented from Victoria Bach as to what Jayna’s doing to provide visibility.
As such, we discuss the narrative of the NWHL and PA at odds and what has been said dating back to last May and why that’s been focused on in lieu of the end goal. We also discuss Jayna’s days as a coach in U Sports with the Varsity Blues and how that’s prepared her for the role she holds now and the next steps forward for one unified league. We then discuss why the division on top of the year that both sides have experienced and what the main factors are due to the standstill and lasting effects for players having to choose.
We then leap ahead to promotion and how the Olympians presence contributes and why it is that they’re seen as important for the incoming players and that impact that has. While discussing this thought in depth, we single in on the game’s visibility and what role that plays for fans on both sides respectively. Given the PA’s current mission, we also discuss the efforts in terms of supports put at work by the strategy teams.
For the PA, this includes Hockey Canada and for equipment, both Adidas and Bauer. With the NHL as a partner, we debate if professional hockey is now something girls can be as opposed to just see. This of course due to hard work that is being done daily to establish sustainability.
After talking about the models at work, David and I discuss the leaders assisting and the just how important that is on this mission. We break down the active hands on both sides and why, at this time, that is so significant. Speaking of path to achievement, we discuss the heavy hand that is sponsors and the need for that help if one league is established.
We also chat players and teams and where some would go with a potential surplus. We bring to light to the PWHPA’s chapters and how it would work to distribute players fairly.
While taking a stab at the future, we debate where the standoff goes next with tensions currently heated going into stage two. In relevance, we discuss the hardships that many athletes endure when leaving college as a senior. As well, we touch on equality and what women like Jayna have achieved in hockey and what that says about hard work and commitment if you look at the partnership side of the game.
We end in discussing potentials that might set them back due to COVID-19 and what the support looks like with sponsors and resources in terms of a need that speaks to volumes beyond them. Additionally, we look at essentials and what role they have as players seek out equality.
After recently sitting down with some players from the Montreal and GTA chapters of the PA, I sat down with Jayna last week on Wednesday to discuss her career and the successes she saw this year. Jayna was a pleasure to speak with and was very insightful while remaining transparent. Jayna is a former member of the Brampton Thunder and the National Women’s Team.
While she’s represented Canada at the Olympics, now Hefford is focused on the next generation. Today, she is with the PWHPA and is an alumna of University of Toronto. Previously, Jayna played in the OUA with the Varsity Blues.
Thank you again to Jayna for taking time out of her day to speak with us.
Enjoy this special episode, No. 16 of The Puck Authority Podcast! 🙂