Happy New League

There’s all of two professional hockey gamess beiing contested in North America as 2024 opnes, but they’re both historic.  In Seattle, under the “bluest skies you’ve ever seen” only if you happen to be color blind, the Kraken will become the 29th of 32 NHL teams to compete in a Winter Classic, as they host the Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Park,  For the fine and exceptionally loyal hockey fans of Washington state, who tasted some surprising early success of their own by winning a playoff round in only their second season last spring, it’s historic and will be a nice way for the hockey world to see how quickly a relatively new team can produce enough fans to even fill a baseball stadium.

The other will be contested in Toronto, in a much smaller and mundane venue called the Mattamy Athletic Centre.  But if you don’t recognize the name, you might recognize the former one of the building that houses it, the storied Maple Leaf Gardens.  Turns out even after the eponymous team left for the more modern arena that it now shares with the Raptors, it was far safer and more economical to reurpose the building rather than knock it down.  So entering its 93rd year, it will instead serve as the site for history, as the city’s nameless professional women’s team will take on an equally cloaked (different color, that’s all) team representing New York in the inaugural game for the Professional Women’s Hockey League.

Yes, women’s professional leagues have been tried in North America before. As the Associated Press’ John Warwow reported yesterday, for a quarter-century the many ill-fated attempts have struggled and faded into history.  But this time, there’s actual teeth in this tiger.

For all the iterations of women’s hockey leagues past, be it the Canadian-based National Women’s Hockey League that launched in 1999 and eventually became the Canadian Women’s Hockey League that folded in 2019, or the U.S.-based NWHL that launched in 2015 and eventually became the Premier Hockey Federation before being bought out by Walter in June, the PWHL is regarded as having the best chance to succeed.

This time around, perhaps the most iconic and trailblazing name in women’s sports, Billie Jean King, is attached, and she’s brought along her well-heeled friends and business partners who have just dropped a billion dollars on three players for their other big sports venture, the Los Angeles Dodgers.  They’ve also brought along some exceptionally passionate, intelligent and dedicated women who toiled in those now-defunct predecessor leagues as counsel and people in the trenches.  And as Wawrow continued, their efforts, mostly accomplished in record time this fall, have not gone unappreciated:

Not lost on this generation of players is crediting those who preceded them, such as Darwitz and PWHL executive Jayna Hefford, never mind the help of one of women’s sports most influential gender-breakers in former tennis star Billie Jean King, a PWHL board member.  Ultimately, the PWHL would not have been possible without King’s influence and connections, and the deep pockets of Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Walter and his wife, Kimbra.  The Walters, who remain strictly behind the scenes, have committed to spending tens of millions of dollars to finance a centralized league that has a collective bargaining agreement with its players in place through 2031. And there’s the heavy lifting that’s already been done in six short months in which six markets have been established, (Boston, New York/Connecticut, St. Paul, Minnesota, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa), more than 150 employees hired, dedicated locker rooms and training facilities built or renovated, and tens of thousands of tickets sold.

If those six markets look familair, it’s because four of them were part of the NHL Original Six, with the hockey hotbeds of Ottawa and the Twin Cities replacing Chicago and Detroit, where the current NHL teams are having enough trouble attracting attention and crowds these days.  But in the PWHL cities, that’s anything but the case.  In Minneapolis, the team will play its schedule in the same St. Paul arena that the Wild compete in.  And as their hometown STAR TRIBUNE’s Jerry Zgoda reported along with Wawrow, they’re pretty wild about these ladies, too:

Seen and heard,” Minnesota general manager and former U.S. national team captain Natalie Darwitz said.  “So often, it would be could we just get a seat at the table, right? And then, can we speak up at the table?” she said. “And now, you feel good about the table, and how do we grow that table, is kind of the path we’re down.”

The 20,000-seat Xcel Energy Center will be cordoned off for part of the lower bowl and all of the upper deck.  (F)ormer U.S. Women’s National Team’s Ken Klee is Minnesota’s head coach. The team signed as free agents Olympians Kelly Pannek, Kendall Coyne Schofield and Lee Stecklein and selected former Gophers star Taylor Heise with the first pick overall after it won the PWHL draft lottery.

The aggressive start-up schedule has, for the moment, put aside the more tedious and legally drawn out processes of creating team names and copyrights (why do you think it took so damn long for the Washington Commanders to be established?)  For now, the U.S. TV rights are limited to just the teams’ home market RSNs; indeed, the Minnesota team is still finalizing details for games to be carried on the Diamond Sports-controlled Bally Sports Network regional while the baseball Twins are still negotiating their own potential alternative.  Don’t think this team wouldn’t be an ideal companion piece to get things off the ground ahead of opening day.

Which is why on our sister site, Leblanguage.net, I stuck my neck out for saying that given this kind of support, especially at this point in the overall popularity and potential of women’s sports, this fledgling league could be a catapult for an actual new idea that might have greater potential than some of their other more struggling efforts:

The PWHL needs a national linear TV home in the US.  There’s a lot of empirical evidence that other women’s sports are working.  ESPN saw ratings climb again for the WNBA, a league that will finally be expanding next year.  They have the espnW brand online to use seamlessly.  To me, swapping out ESPNU for this is a no-brainer.  And if they’re too reluctant to do so, hey, FOX Sports, you’ve got an FS2 that could use a refresh.  They drew half of ESPNU’s average audience and ranked 138th.

And, hey, if you’re looking for a strategic and research expert who might actually qualify as a diversity hire, look no further than me.

Happy New Year and best of luck, ladies.  Now go kick some ice.

Courage…

 

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