By Janet Schultz, NYHOL; Photography by Janet Schultz©
For the past eight years NYHOL has been covering the NWHL/PHF. We have seen changes in leadership, constant player changes and movements, changes in venues, a pandemic that caused all of us to rethink how to do things safely while maintaining normalcy and along the way we have made new friends and renewed old acquaintances.
Just when we thought we were going to have a regular 9th season including re-signings, a draft and possible some new coaching appointments, the Premier Hockey Federation is done!
Left in limbo are players and staff along with their fans. Contrary to some comments I have seen, there are lots of people who go to the games, lots of people who care about the game and see it as more than “skating with sticks.”
On Wednesday, June 29 the Mark Walter Group and Billie Jean King Enterprises bought the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF, formerly NWHL). They were already involved with the Professional Womens Hockey Players Association (PWHPA). Players were informed through a Zoom video call on Thursday, June 30, with the new owners and both league’s commissioners, according to Olivia Zafuto, a player for the Boston Pride and native of Niagara Falls, NY. On July 10 all PHF staff were sent letters releasing them from their contracts.
NYHOL has been following Zafuto’s hockey career since her playing days with the Niagara Junior Purple Eagles, Nichols School and Colgate University. We talked to her following her being drafted by the Buffalo Beauts. While she never signed a Beauts contract, she opted to play in the PWHPA with the Buffalo and then Minnesota contingents. When no playing opportunities rose, she headed off for two years in Sweden where she had a good experience playing internationally.
This past season she was brought into the PHF by the Boston Pride and played the 2022-23 season and then just weeks ago signed a $63,000 contract with the Metropolitan Riveters. That contract was voided effective July 1. When that was announced Zafuto had no idea what was happening next.
She explained that there were differences in the leagues. The PHF was a professional hockey league but there was no collective bargaining agreement and issues with salaries, playing venues, medical insurance and professionalism.
“In theory, both leagues wanted the same things,” explained Zafuto. “The PHF was beginning to discuss a CBA.”
The PWHPA wasn’t really a league but more a tournament type situation were there were four teams that would get together on weekends and play games and in some cities held actual practices as a team. There was no championship as there was with the PHF.
“We all wanted the same thing in the end, but it looked different,” Zafuto explained.
“I chose to come back to the PHF because I wanted a professional league with an income,” said Zafuto of her decision to play in Boston.
“I think the PHF did an incredible job in the beginning and the girls fought for the things they wanted and needed,” said Zafuto.
She went on to explain that this past season she could see the changes in that the rinks were better, teams had their own locker rooms and the working conditions were better than ever. This was due to the work of the players and staff.
Zafuto’s stress level is that no one has a contract, there are no teams in place, no cities have been named, no one is guaranteed a spot, there is a huge pool of players and many will not make a team; thus players really cannot plan what their lives will be like this fall.
The new league isn’t scheduled to hit the ice until January 1, 2024.
“I did hear there may be a draft, but as far as we know nothing will be announced until August,” said Zafuto.
“The unknown is the most stressful,” she continued.
“I believe that as long as everything goes as they say it will, this will be good for hockey,” said Zafuto.
Zafuto has been given as much as most media in that the CBA has listed a severance for players who have signed contracts, there are a few details on stipends for moving expenses, a food allowance and medical coverage.
However, she did say that the CBA is full of language that is very legalese and somewhat hard to comprehend and a little open ended.
For right now this enthusiastic hockey player plans to tryout for the new league, which is unnamed at the present time; continue her training in Boston and wait for the information to come.
“I’m looking ahead,” said Zafuto. “This is what everyone wanted, a single league playing together. I see it as a first step in a sustainable league. Then they need to build the fan base back. This is just a first step.”
What We Know:
Mark Walter Group and Billie Jean King Enterprises bought out the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF), formerly National Womens Hockey League.
This was not a merger, but a buyout of the PHF.
The PHF doesn’t not exist so neither does it’s teams: Buffalo Beauts, Toronto Six, Boston Pride, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan (formerly New York) Riveters, Minnesota Whitecaps and Montreal Force.
The Professional Womens Hockey Player Association is a union, not a league; no players are signed for 2023-24 so there are no teams currently in that league.
A new league, with new name and new teams will be launched with a target date of January 1, 2024.
All players contracts are void and everyone will have to tryout for a spot on one of the new teams.
The current plan calls for 3 teams in the US and 3 teams in Canada.
All PHF staff were released on July 10. It is unknown whether they will be encouraged to reapply or brought into the new league.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement with the PWHPA was ratified and runs through 2031. It calls for a preseason to begin November 1; 28 players per team; calls for 6 teams, spells out salaries and future increases through the duration of the CBA; lists a compensation schedule for League and Team awards and championships; provides a housing stipend, moving expenses and per diem meals while traveling and also a relocation reimbursement.
The new league leadership includes Jayna Hefford, advisor to the PWHPA and Reagan Carey, who served as the PHF commissioner.
There will be a Player Evaluation Advisory Committee formed to assist in the player selection process.
The National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), now Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) was formed in March 2015 by Dani Rylan (Kearney) as the first professional women’s hockey league in the United States and Canada. They opened with four league-owned teams including the Buffalo Beauts, Boston Pride, New York Riveters and Connecticut Whale. As the league moved forward they added the Minnesota Whitecaps, Montreal Force and Toronto Six. They also rebranded themselves as the Premier Hockey Federation in 2021. They vie for the Isobel Cup as their championship trophy.
In May 2019 the players formed the Professional Womens Hockey Player Association (PWHPA) to push for a league that provided financial and infrastructure resources to players, health insurance, and supported training programs for young female players. Their mission, as stated on their website, was:
To promote, advance, and support a single, viable professional women’s ice hockey league in North America that showcases the greatest product of women’s professional ice hockey in the world.
To provide a united voice to players advocating for the creation of a sustainable professional league.
To coordinate training needs and programming opportunities during the current season.
To collaborate with like-minded organizations to make hockey more inclusive for women today and for the girls of the next generation.
In April 2022 talks between the PHF and PWHPA broke and players from the PWHPA went on their own to play showcase games across the US and Canada.