There was a moment during the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) Ottawa home opener Jan. 2 that told me that women’s hockey is here to stay.
It was the second period, and I looked across the row at my two young daughters, aged 11 and 13, and to my surprise they were no longer interested in their bag of Fuzzy Peach candies, dry arena pretzels or texting their friends. Both of them, who don’t typically like hockey, were glued to the action on the ice: dazzled by every crisp pass, blistering shot and spectacular save; hyped by every big hit – and there were many; and moved by the intense crowd of 8,318, which set a record as the most-attended professional women’s hockey league game in the world.
Professional women’s hockey may have just arrived in Ottawa, but it’s already carved out its spot in a fairly competitive hockey market, with both the NHL’s Senators and the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s fighting to put bums in seats. But if Ottawa’s home opener is any indication of what’s to come, the women in red and white should have no problem filling TD Place night after night.
And it’s no surprise that Ottawa’s record-breaking home opener was such a success. Aside from the stellar on-ice product, which ended in a tight 3-2 Montreal overtime win, the thoughtfulness, dedication and, most importantly, funding behind this newly formed professional women’s league is what will give it its lasting power.
The league, which replaces the now-defunct Premier Hockey Federation (PHF), has some decent money behind it and will pay its female players between $35,000 and $80,000 for salaries. It’s nowhere near NHL salaries that are north of $10 million per season, but it’s a good start. Basement salaries in the PHF were $13,500 by comparison.
But what this game did, and what this league is doing, is showing young girls and women what’s possible. Not only is there room for professional women’s hockey in North America but there is a real thirst for it. Young fans were waiting near the dressing room tunnels to high-five their favourite players, and at least one sign read, “I cheer for both sides.” Groups of young girls darted around TD Place, proudly wearing their respective team jerseys. It’s not far off to imagine them one day lacing up to play in front of so many fans. It was a display of all the things that make hockey great – minus the toxic masculinity that has plagued the game for several decades.
I’ve tried for years to get my daughters into hockey – dressing them up in Maple Leafs gear for the playoffs and Team Canada jerseys during the Olympics and taking them to more than a handful of live NHL games, but they’ve never really wanted to strap on gear and try it themselves – until now.
Seeing these fearless women fly around the ice like stars was all my youngest needed to say that she’s ready to give hockey a try.
This is what professional sports can do when you put the right role models in the spotlight they so desperately deserve.