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With optimism abound, the PWHPA is as united as ever

While the eyes are on what’s next, the players remain committed to what they set out to do three years ago.

Canada v United States Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

After their last game at Montreal’s Quartexx PWHPA showcase, Loren Gabel and Bailey Larson spoke about their last game of the season and laid out the plight of the average post-university women’s hockey player for everyone to see.

“For a lot of the girls in our locker room it was the last games of their hockey careers,” Gabel said. “Girls have jobs that they don’t want to end. They need to push forward in their own careers outside of hockey and that’s what you need to take into account too. We’re not in the NHL, we’re not making millions of dollars. That’s not what we’re asking for either, but it’s your life after hockey and that’s something you have to look at as well.”

Gabel, who normally plays for Toronto but played for Boston in Montreal said that she is committed to continuing her hockey career. The 24-year-old had just graduated from Clarkson University and was with Team Canada for the 2019 World Championships when the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) folded. Larson, 25 and a graduate of Colgate University, was not ready to commit either way.

“A lot of girls that we played with [today] have built this foundation for the younger group. They played in the CWHL. They played in the PHF. They’ve put in effort and work. A lot of them are happy to see where it goes but for a lot of them they need to take that next step in their lives,” Larson said.

Both players graduated the year that the CWHL folded and both chose to join the PWHPA rather than play in the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF), known as the NWHL at the time.

Larson, who plays with the group in Boston, said that the players in Boston have been through a lot.

The PWHPA group in Boston is quite unique in that it includes players who have been part of Clarkson Cup championships with the Boston Blades, who have been part of the Blades teams that have struggled after the exodus to the NWHL, and players who played in the NWHL and then joined or re-joined the PWHPA.

“We graduated three years ago, so at the start of this so we got thrown into it not knowing what we were getting ourselves into so it was just sitting in the back seat and watching what these girls are doing and why we’re doing it because we didn’t experience the stuff they had, from the lack of locker rooms or the long bus rides [...] the payments they didn’t receive,” Larson said. “We were there to support them and see all the hard work they’ve put in over the years and they’ve stuck it out because they know there’s a brighter future at the end of it. It’s important for us to be there to be there for them. We obviously want that too even though we didn’t experience the stuff that they did. Uniting as one is really important.”

The players in the PWHPA have all had been steadfast in what they want from any league that they join or that they create. They want a living wage so that if they do have to move to a different location to play, they can afford rent and expenses without needing a second job. They want benefits in case they get hurt and cannot play. The PHF has pledged salary cap increases and expansion but one league would still limit the ability for most of the players currently in the PHF or PWHPA to have a spot. The minimum salary in the PHF also would not classify as a livable wage for the 2022-23 season.

There are strong reports that it is a matter of when, not if, a new league is announced with several media members saying an announcement is imminent. The players over the weekend in Montreal were tight-lipped, but optimistic, but even that is somewhat bittersweet for some players.

“We’re optimistic that there’s going to be a league,” said Calgary’s Hanna Bunton after her team won the season-long Secret Cup championship. “We’ve gone a whole three years hoping there would be a league. I think for Calgary the mindset is a bit different. We know we’re far out on the West and the chances of actually having a team out there would be pretty slim. We went into [our final game] knowing that there was a chance if there was a league next year we would probably be split up so we went out there assuming it could be the last chance the group’s together.”

With both the PWHPA and PHF seasons over, as well as university leagues in the United States and Canada, we have officially entered the off-season for women’s hockey. Everyone’s eyes are on what will happen next, which, pending any announcements, will be a summer women’s World Championship for the first time in an Olympic year.