The new Professional Women's Hockey League was officially revealed Tuesday with six inaugural franchises and a 24-game regular season that begins in January 2024.
The PWHL will feature three teams in the U.S. and three teams in Canada. The American franchises are located in Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul and the New York City area, which could include Connecticut and New Jersey. The Canadian franchises are located in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, Ontario.
Details on home arenas, team names and logos are forthcoming. The PWHL will play its games in a variety of facilities, from NHL-sized rinks to minor and junior league arenas. The league plans to stream each game digitally, but also hopes for linear television coverage.
The 2024 season schedule will be announced in the coming months. It's expected to run from early January through late May or early June. It will include a break for the IIHF Women's World Championship in April. Subsequent seasons are expected to start in November and run through the following May.
Stan Kasten, president of the Los Angeles Dodgers and a PWHL Board member, said that teams may not play all 12 home games in the same venue. The 2024 season will feature a number of neutral-site games scheduled in collaboration with the NHL.
"That means games in other cities that are not cities in our 'Original Six,' both NHL cities and possibly even non-NHL cities," Kasten said. "In some of our markets where we are not playing [home games] in the bigger NHL venues, we will probably have events in those venues. We'll be promoting those as special events."
The PWHL is planning on having a presence at major NHL events like All-Star Weekend in Toronto and its outdoor games.
"The National Hockey League congratulates the Professional Women's Hockey League on today's announcements," the NHL said in a statement Tuesday. "We remain committed to supporting the women's game and look forward to working together with the PWHL to grow our sport."
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman previously said his owners did not want to get involved when there were two competing women's hockey leagues but would consider supporting one consolidated pro league.
Kasten said the NHL's relationship with the new league is "consultive" at the start, helping the PWHL to identify markets and potential venues for teams.
"They're not trying to push anything at us. They're just giving us the help that we think we need," he said. "I think that is one of the elements that hasn't been there in all prior iterations of a pro women's league. [That support] is a major differentiator and a major reason that I'm so confident about our long-term success."
Kasten said the league's business plan extends 10 years. "We understand that this is gonna be expensive, particularly in the early years. But we're prepared for that," he said. "We didn't do this for the short term. We didn't do it for the long term. We did it to be permanent."
Rosters for the inaugural season will start forming during an initial free agency signing period starting Sept. 1. The majority of the league's founding players will then be selected during the 2023 PWHL draft Sept. 18.
The PWHL says it is in the "final stages" of securing six general managers for the franchises, all of which are owned and operated by the league. The PWHL said it has received interest from independent potential owners for franchises but has opted to keep the teams under one umbrella for the inaugural season.
"We want to get our model right first, make sure we had the people in place and the right processes in place," Kasten said.
The PWHL is fully funded by Dodgers co-owner Mark Walter and his wife, Kimbra. The Mark Walter Group purchased assets of the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) in June to effectively dissolve that league in order to launch the PWHL as the only pro women's hockey league in North America.
The PHF was founded in March 2015 as the National Women's Hockey League, which at the time was the first women's professional hockey league to pay its players. It was rebranded in September 2021. Five of the six PWHL franchises are in cities that had PHF teams during the 2022-23 season, all but Ottawa.
The demise of the PHF ended a multiyear feud between that organization and the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association, which was composed of stars from the U.S. and Canadian national teams. Those players were unwilling to join either the NWHL or the PHF, citing a lack of faith in their business models. The PWHPA toured North American arenas, playing a series of USA vs. Canada exhibition games in preparation for international tournaments.
The PWHPA had been working with the Mark Walter Group and Billie Jean King Enterprises for over a year to create a league of their own to compete with the PHF. Instead, the years-long journey to "one league" ended with the disbandment of the PHF with the formation of the PWHL.
The new league is supported by a board of directors that includes King, Kasten, sports executive Ilana Kloss, and Dodgers senior VP of business strategy Royce Cohen.
"On behalf of ownership and our board, I am honored to announce the official name of our new league, and to unveil the blueprint for this historic inaugural season. And we are especially proud to be providing this new platform for elite women athletes," Kasten said. "Our great game has the power to captivate and connect sports fans everywhere, and we are thrilled to plant roots in six of North America's most passionate hockey markets."
Teams will have staffs of 11 to 13 people, with the majority being full-time employees.
Jayna Hefford, the commissioner of the now-defunct Canadian Women's Hockey League, is the PWHL's senior VP of hockey operations. Longtime NHL executive Brian Burke, who was fired as Pittsburgh Penguins president of hockey operations in April, will help run the PWHL Players Association.
Burke met with players Tuesday night, many of whom previously played in the PHF.
"We are committed to a platform of fairness and equity and equality. The core values that have started this league will not ever change," Burke said. "We don't care where you played before you got here. We're excited to have you here. If you can play here, you can play."
Any players interested in the 2023-24 PWHL season must declare for the draft by Sept. 3. There will be a 10-day free agent period Sept. 1-10 ahead of the draft in which teams can sign as many as three players each. Current or graduating NCAA or collegiate program players aren't eligible for this preliminary free agency period.
Per the PWHL collective bargaining agreement, teams can have up to 20 players signed in advance of November's training camps. Six players on each team will be signed to three-year contracts of "no less than $80,000 per league year."
Hefford said the league's CBA is one reason she's optimistic that the PWHL will thrive where other leagues did not.
"We aren't looking back at this point, but there were a lot of situations that just weren't professional environments. We're a first-class environment for athletes. So all of it's going to be different - from the way they show up at an arena, the facility they're in, their permanent training space, the resources and staff around them, to their meals and the marketing put behind what they're doing. Everything is changing," she said.
The CBA still has aspects that need ironing out. For example, Hefford said the PWHL is working on its "transgender policy" that will be in place soon and available to the public. She declined to specify which organizations the league was partnering with in establishing a gender inclusion policy.