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The PWHPA’s second season gets a shot of optimism

Secret’s million dollar investment was the latest sign of growth in women’s sports.

Shanna Martin

The Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association announced on Thursday that Secret was making the largest corporate commitment ever to professional women’s hockey in North America. The $1-million commitment will allow for the second season of the Dream Gap Tour to feature prize money and a trophy (the newly minted Secret Cup) for the first time.

It’s the latest show of support for women’s sports amidst a pandemic that has even men’s leagues scrambling for financial security and has affected businesses inside and outside of sports.

The PWHPA’s second season has been built around a more structured approach, first announced in May. Team rosters — based in five regional hubs (Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, New Hampshire, and Minnesota) — will remain the same after requests from players to have the regions run more like teams.

COVID-19 obviously poses many logistical issues. The Canada/US border remains closed to non-essential travel, and the bigger problem is the mandatory quarantine. Even if players were able to cross the border, the 14 days required is an impossibility as most players (if not all) have off-ice commitments. Even top men’s professional leagues were not able to work around these restrictions.

It also brings practical issues. The Montreal chapter, as an example, has not been able to practise as a team since October 8 when the Quebec government added additional restrictions. The restrictions are supposed to last for at least 28 days.

Adding to the disappointment was that the group had just finished its first week in their new home.

First announced in 2017, the renovations to the Verdun Auditorium were completed recently. The arena will serve as the home base not only for any future professional women’s hockey team in Montreal, but the high performance centre that is in the works and will focus on wide-ranging support for elite women’s hockey players in the province.

After a summer of working out from home, and finding different ways to stay in shape while gyms were closed, their home rink opening allowed for a bit more normalcy.

“[We] had a routine established,” said PWHPA member Karell Emard. “We were training in the morning, working all day, and practicing at night the last week in Verdun. We were getting into that groove. It was good to see the girls and it’s motivating to get out of your own places, and just be somewhat normal. I wouldn’t call it normal... we’re walking into the rink with masks on and a thermometer gun is taking our temperature but that was the reality.”

With the current restrictions in place, players can only be two at a time on the ice but on separate sides of the rink with no coaches and no interaction. It doesn’t allow for the preparation as a team but it does provide some glimpse of what having their own permanent home will bring. Advantages are as simple as no longer having to transport their hockey bags to and from practice as well as the team having first priority when setting their schedules as opposed to taking what is available and working around other events.

Aside from the physical challenges faced by closed gyms and arenas, there are mental challenges that come from the isolation that is not unique to the players. Restrictions on any social gatherings mean that teammates who often spend so much of their time together are resigned to socially distanced walks.

The news of Secret’s sponsorship and the PWHPA’s reveal of rosters for the 2020-21 season has answered some of the uncertainty, but much of it remains both in the short and long term. Players in Montreal are not only wondering when their next game will be, they want to know when they’ll be able to skate together.

All that is added to their fight for a single, viable professional women’s ice hockey league in North America.

“We’re working to get over that hill,” Emard said. “We’re climbing. I can’t see the top — it’s still pretty foggy, but we’re climbing and we’re not stopping.”