NHL providing PWHL with knowledge and experience, but not financial support

Players in the new Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) will likely be playing some of their games inside NHL arenas this upcoming season.

There’s also a good chance you’ll continue to see female players at NHL events like the All-Star Weekend, which will be held next year in Toronto, as the NHL helps market the new league and its stars.

But while the NHL and PWHL have been working together ahead of the league’s expected launch in January 2024, NHL executive Susan Cohig confirmed it’s not a financial relationship.

“They are operating under a single-entity ownership structure with the funding and support of the Mark Walter group, so they have the financial resources that they need,” Cohig, who is the NHL’s executive vice president of club business affairs, said in an interview with CBC Sports.

“Really, I think for us, our priority is to help them be successful in the areas where we can work collaboratively with them, and that’s all the knowledge and experience we have in operating a professional hockey league.”

A man and two women smile and hold up a hockey stick on stage. The words "Maureen Murphy" are written on a screen in the background.
PWHL board member Stan Kasten, right, poses with PWHL Montreal head coach Danièle Sauvageau, left, and Montreal draft pick Maureen Murphy at the PWHL’s inaugural draft. (PWHL)

For years, many thought a professional women’s hockey league could only be viable with significant financial backing from the NHL.

That financial heft didn’t come to previous women’s hockey leagues, including the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, which folded in 2019.

But now, funding from the NHL may not be needed to go along with the PWHL’s financial backing from billionaire owners, according to Ann Pegoraro, the Lang Chair in Sport Management at the University of Guelph.

“I think the financial support from the NHL is not as critical as it would have been a decade ago or even five years ago,” Pegoraro said, pointing to sponsorship deals with companies like Canadian Tire, which signed on as a multi-year partner with the PWHL last month.

“We know that we’re seeing return on investment in women’s sports in other sports, in soccer in particular, that are showing huge growth in franchise values.”

She pointed to the National Women’s Soccer League’s Angel City FC, which was valued in the neighbourhood of $180 million US earlier this year, with about $31 million in revenue this season, according to reporting from Sportico.

NHL has been ‘fantastically supportive’

Things changed this past summer when the PHF was sold to the PWHL’s investors and shut down, and the PWHL was created from scratch.

“This is one league, all the players playing in one league, and that really is the best way for long-term success,” Cohig said when asked about how the NHL’s partnership differs from ones with previous leagues.

“That’s where the fans know they can find the best players in the world and I think that is the difference here.”

Two women hockey players shake hands at centre ice.
Marie-Philip Poulin of Team Canada and American Hilary Knight shake hands after a Rivalry Series game at Climate Pledge Arena, home to the NHL’s Seattle Kraken, in 2022. More than 14,500 fans attended. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

At the PWHL’s introductory press conference in August, PWHL board member Stan Kasten said the NHL has been “fantastically supportive” from the first moment he spoke to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

“They have been just so good to us in terms of their availability, to give us advice, to make introductions, whether it’s to sponsors or to vendors or to media people,” Kasten said in an interview last week with CBC Sports.

“They could not have been more helpful and that continues through our relationship with individual teams.”

PWHL games in NHL arenas?

Kasten wouldn’t comment on a report from The Athletic that says the PWHL Minnesota team will be playing its home games at the Xcel Energy Center, home to the NHL’s Minnesota Wild.

But he said the final piece of the PWHL’s scheduling puzzle involves games in NHL arenas, as well as in cities that aren’t home to PWHL or NHL teams. The schedule will see each team play 24 games during the first season. Kasten said he’s “hoping” that schedule will be released this month.

Cohig also wouldn’t confirm whether the Minnesota team will be playing at Xcel Energy Center, but said PWHL teams will use NHL facilities or arenas ”where it makes sense.”

“I really don’t want to pre-empt any announcements that the PWHL will be making about their home arenas and where they’ll be playing,” she said.

“But what we want to make sure we’re doing, including through all of our teams, is provide support and opportunity where those potential opportunities exist, whether it’s at Xcel Energy Center or other NHL buildings. Certainly to the extent there are opportunities for games in NHL arenas and it makes sense for the PWHL, we want to encourage that to happen and help support where we can.”

There’s evidence that people will show up in big numbers to watch women’s hockey inside NHL-sized rinks: last year, a Rivalry Series game drew a record 14,551 fans at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, becoming the most-attended national women’s hockey game in the United States.

Cohig said the NHL is also helping the PWHL with logistical support including scheduling and answering hockey operations questions, on top of working to help promote the league.

Even though the relationship doesn’t involve the NHL funding the PWHL — something Kasten said the PWHL didn’t come into the relationship “expecting or needing” — Kasten takes issue with the concept that the PWHL doesn’t benefit financially from the NHL’s help. 

“Every contribution they make to us of advice and assistance does help us on our financial side,” he said. “But we are a standalone league.

“We’re no one’s responsibility other than our own.”

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