TORONTO — The line began at the gates of Mattamy Athletic Centre and stretched a full city block. Women’s hockey fans, after decades of waiting for a best-on-best league, were happy to wait a little longer for the doors to open for the first-ever Professional Women’s Hockey League game.
The line was dotted with reminders of the past. There was a Natalie Spooner Toronto Furies jersey from her time in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. Several Toronto Six jerseys representing the Premier Hockey Federation and some from the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association exhibition stops. The people wearing those jerseys from previous eras of women’s professional hockey were on their way into the old Maple Leaf Gardens to celebrate something new: the inaugural game of the PWHL between Toronto and New York.
Later, inside the arena, two young girls were locked in. Ella Shelton was on the ice, and the girls — who wore matching Shelton jerseys and waved homemade signs — wanted her attention. Not long before New York left the ice, Shelton finally locked in on them and flipped them a puck.
She made their day. Less than an hour later, she made history.
The Team Canada defender from Ingersoll, Ont., scored the first-ever PWHL goal less than 11 minutes into the game. The puck and her stick are headed for the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Ella Shelton with the first goal in PWHL history gives New York a 1-0 lead pic.twitter.com/nzJNz48ygd
— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) January 1, 2024
“We’ve come a long way as women’s players and we’re very excited to be a part of that historical moment,” Shelton said after the game.
“I hope that young girls look up and go, ‘I want to do that one day and be just like her and play in this league.’”
New York ultimately won the game 4-0 — starting goalie Corinne Schroeder’s stick is Hall of Fame-bound, too. The game, between two teams featuring the best players in the world, was a long time coming. The league itself came together in a six-month sprint — a whirlwind of logistics, decision-making and, occasionally, compromises.
How do you build a pro sports league in just half a year? The Athletic talked to the people behind the scenes — from the league-builders to the players and staff — to find out.
Kendall Coyne Schofield gave birth to her son on July 1. If he’d been born any sooner, the landscape of women’s professional hockey might look much different than it does today.
“If Drew came earlier I don’t know if we’d be here,” Brianne Jenner said with a laugh. “She was that integral.”
Instead, Coyne Schofield had her son the day before the PWHL and the players’ union ratified a landmark collective bargaining agreement on July 2 — a document that Coyne Schofield “was an engine” behind, according to Jenner, and spent her second and third trimesters negotiating.
“There were definitely late nights, early mornings, constant emails, constant phone calls,” Coyne Schofield said. “Every sentence, every word, every letter was so important to all of us.”
The players’ union was officially formed in February 2023, months before Mark and Kimbra Walter purchased the PHF, the league ceased operations, and a new women’s pro hockey league was announced in its place. CBA negotiations began shortly after between future league leadership — including Stan Kasten, Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss — and a player-led bargaining committee that included Coyne Schofield, Jenner, Hilary Knight, Sarah Nurse and Liz Knox.
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According to Kasten, it was Mark Walter, billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and PWHL owner, who really wanted the players to organize and have a collective bargaining agreement “so that the problems we’re trying to fix are memorialized.” Starting with a CBA — which had never been done in a major women’s professional sports league — was part of the players’ long-term vision for the league, too.
“So often what we’ve seen in other professional women’s sports leagues is they start off with a league and they’re told, ‘These are the conditions in which you’re going to participate and you don’t have another option, and be grateful for what you have and go play,’” Coyne Schofield said. “We didn’t want to be like that. We wanted to start with our voices at the table and work to build this together.”
And while the process was highly collaborative, it still took around six months to finalize, given they were drafting a document from scratch. Some weeks, the two sides breezed through multiple items. Other times, the process would stall. There were some contentious moments, of course, but also funny ones. Coyne Schofield recalled that when players asked for meals to be provided after games and training, they were met with surprise.
“They were like, yeah, obviously, you have to eat,” she said, laughing. “But that hadn’t been obvious to date.”
The eight-year CBA is over 40 pages, with 30 articles covering everything from player salaries and player-related expenses; benefits; player movement; travel; and safety and working conditions. Specific items covered in the document range from league-minimum salaries to meals, hotel accommodations, per diem, housing, relocation expenses, health insurance, pregnancy benefits, parental leave, a 401(k) program, nursing accommodations and more.
“If we weren’t working with people on the other side that had the best intentions for this league and for these players, the CBA wouldn’t look how it looks,” said Coyne Schofield.
League leaders gave themselves roughly six months.
The announcement of the PHF acquisition and the Walters’ plans for a new women’s league came on June 30. While they had considered a potential league start in 2024-25, PWHL leaders ultimately decided on a January 2024 puck drop — even though launching a single expansion franchise in professional sports usually takes two to three years from conception to play.
“We owed it to the athletes to get on the ice and to have a league,” said Royce Cohen, who leads business strategy for the Dodgers and was tapped to help with the PWHL. “And we felt confident that we were going to be able to deliver an improved product.”
The work truly began on July 1, 2023, though Cohen says they did some league-building during the CBA and acquisition talks — examining markets and venues and discussing a marketing strategy.
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The first item on the to-do list was to finalize the original six markets. Discussions had begun in May, and the league spent time looking at everything from population figures to youth hockey participation, women’s hockey history and existing infrastructure across 20 potential markets. Facilities were a major part of the process, as the league had certain standards of professionalism — and availability — it needed to meet.
A women’s pro hockey arena shouldn’t be too big to fill, but it also shouldn’t be so small as to put a ceiling on ticket revenue. You need adequate locker rooms for players. Training facilities. Prime ice-time windows — gone are the days of 10 p.m. practices. Venues, whether training or game facilities, need to be “appropriate for professional/international hockey,” according to the CBA.
Eventually, the league landed on Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Minnesota, Boston and New York. That wasn’t the original “original six,” either. According to multiple PWHL sources, the league looked at Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and London, Ont., among others.
The original six markets were announced in August. Venues weren’t announced until three months later. The delay, Cohen said, was due to signing agreements with the venues — not choosing them. Once the markets were finalized, the league hired six general managers, who then hired their own coaches and team staff. The league also built out its business staff. Some were hired from the PHF or PWHPA. Others came from places like the WNBA, MLB and other professional sports leagues.
The league put together the plan for the Sept. 18 draft in just three weeks, starting at the end of August. The inaugural schedule was released on Nov. 30, barely one month before the start of the season.
There have been some hiccups, of course. The league’s merchandise was criticized for its high price point and lack of inclusive sizing. All six teams are starting the season without team nicknames or logos. Instead, teams will play with their market names printed diagonally across their jerseys. According to Amy Scheer, the PWHL’s senior vice president of business operations, team branding was too important to fit into the league’s tight schedule.
“There are decisions you can make that are fast and if you make an error in your judgment on that decision, it’s easy to walk back, or you can learn from it and move on,” said Scheer, who assumed her role on Oct. 31. “From the team name perspective, it was just better off slowing the process down.”
“(When) you challenge yourself to do something in six months, you really find out what is necessary versus ‘nice to have,’” added Cohen. “We anticipate that people expect a more traditional sort of nickname and mascot and all that fun stuff, which we have been and we will continue to work on prioritizing where it goes in the list of things to do.”
PWHL general managers had just over three months to build their teams — through free agency, the draft and two waiver periods. For Danielle Marmer, the first order of business was convincing Hilary Knight to sign with Boston.
The GM and future Hockey Hall of Fame forward had conversations when PWHL free agency officially opened on Sept. 1. Marmer, she said, could tell Knight wanted to be in Boston, but Marmer needed to sell her on the environment that she, as the first general manager of the Boston franchise, was going to create.
So, Marmer painted a picture of the sports town Knight spent five years in at the start of her professional career — and of why it would be the perfect place in which to, eventually, finish it off.
“If you want to be an elite athlete, you want to do it in Boston,” she told Knight. “The superstars in Boston are the athletes and this is a market that is exciting to be in.
“Think about your legacy and where you are in your career right now,” she added. “Where do you want to finish it out?”
Knight signed a three-year deal with Boston, along with defender Megan Keller and goalie Aerin Frankel. Initially, Marmer didn’t think she would sign a goalie as one of her first three free-agent contracts. And in the days leading up to free agency, the scuttlebutt was that if any goalies were signed it would likely be Ann-Renée Desbiens — and only Desbiens. With so much talent at the position, the thought was that teams would simply wait for the draft.
That was Marmer’s thought until she did more digging. Even though the top goalies in the sport are all excellent, there was, of course, still a ranking within them. Marmer, after spending last season working for the Boston Bruins who have two elite goalies in Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman, didn’t want to be outside the top tier at a critical position. Waiting until the draft was too much of a risk.
“I wanted to make sure I had a lock in each position,” she said. “I was very excited with what I got to start with.”
The question after free agency was how to build around those foundational pieces through the 15-round draft on Sept. 18.
The plan was to balance the best available players with positional need and to ensure the team wasn’t getting caught up in positional runs. For example, if there was a run on defenders, they would get in only if the right player was still on the board. If there was a drop-off to the next tier of players, the team would take advantage of the focus on defense and grab a top forward.
“If you’re just following each run, you’re never going to head,” she said. “So it was like, let’s take what they give us, let’s be totally prepared, and totally flexible.”
Boston’s draft began with the easy selection of Swiss star Alina Müller as the No. 3 pick. It was no secret that Minnesota was going to take Taylor Heise at No. 1 but Toronto taking Jocelyne Larocque at No. 2 was the best-case scenario for Marmer, she said.
Marmer got in on the run on defenders in the second round, selecting Sophie Jaques, the offensive right-shot defender from Ohio State University. One of the team’s biggest debates came in the third round. There, Marmer hoped to get one of Hannah Brandt or Loren Gabel. When Jamie Lee Rattray was still on the board — they believed she’d be taken by Ottawa by then — Marmer swerved to take the Canadian Swiss army knife forward, at the behest of coach Courtney Kessel.
“We thought when we picked Rattray that we were going to miss out on Gabel and Brandt,” Marmer said.
Boston ended up with all three, along with other stellar picks like Theresa Schafzahl (Round 7), Taylor Girard (Round 9), Emma Söderberg (Round 10), Sophie Shirley (Round 11) and Shiann Darkangelo (Round 12).
That draft class is a big reason why Boston has widely been viewed as the team to beat this season. They are deep, with a ton of top talent at every position and a GM with a vision for not just her team on the ice, but the environment she’s hoping to create off it. Marmer signed all of her draft picks heading into training camp and didn’t invite too many players to camp. She felt comfortable with the work they did in the draft and wanted players to feel confident and settled heading into the season. And she wanted the focus of training camp to be on preparing for the season — not as much about tryouts.
“The team that comes together the quickest is going to be the most successful this season,” she said. “The decision to sign them was to show them we believe in them. Have players figure out what kind of apartment they can go look for, how much they’re making, make sure they’re not in the middle of training camp and trying to build their Ikea bed.”
For many PWHL players, the start of the league required major changes.
Some, like Toronto captain Blayre Turnbull, moved across the country. Ottawa’s Akane Shiga made the move from Japan to play in Canada’s capital city.
For Kali Flanagan, joining the PWHL came with an unexpected departure.
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Flanagan, 28, had spent her entire hockey career in Boston, moving up the youth hockey ranks to a stellar career at Boston College and a defender of the year award while playing for the PHF’s Boston Pride in 2023. So it came as a bit of a surprise when Toronto stepped up in the sixth round of the PWHL Draft to select her.
“My initial reaction was, ‘Oh my God, a new adventure,’” Flanagan said. “I couldn’t have been more excited.”
In October, Flanagan signed a two-year contract with Toronto — which wasn’t announced until Nov. 10 by the league — moved out of her shared apartment with his sister, Kristine, and started apartment hunting in a new city — and country — for the first time.
Her new Toronto teammates were a big help, she said, pointing her in the direction of good neighborhoods and recommending spots to eat. Renata Fast, one of Toronto’s foundational free-agent signings, helped connect Flanagan — and other teammates — to a realtor who was a “huge” help.
Michael Ouzas, who played professional hockey with Fast’s husband, viewed apartments for Flanagan while she was still in Boston and FaceTimed her to show her the spaces. With his help, she found a spot quickly and moved in November, two weeks before the start of training camp, and “spent a lot of time building Ikea furniture.”
The timing allowed Flanagan to find a home and get settled, versus living in a hotel while trying to earn a spot on the roster. That was by design from Kingsbury, who wanted the athletes they knew would be on Toronto’s first roster to have peace of mind and a level of comfort in a new place before the start of training camp.
“It definitely helped,” Flanagan said. “I just think this team and staff and the environment that they’ve created for us so far has been amazing. It feels like a really special atmosphere.”
On Monday afternoon, fans got their first glimpse of a league that was built quickly, but with the goal of longevity.
The puzzle pieces have been put together. Now it’s time to see what the PWHL can really be.
—With files from Sean Gentille
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(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic. Photos of Stan Kasten, Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield: Jayne Kamin-Oncea, Justin Berl, Chase Agnello-Dean / NHLI via Getty Images)