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Montreal’s PHF team needs to find its place in the city’s women’s hockey landscape

While some see the team as a return of top-level pro women’s hockey, others see it as a part of a tiered system.

Premier Hockey Federation

When the Premier Hockey Federation was finally confirmed in Montreal on Tuesday, it raised the question of how the new team will fit within the women’s hockey ecosystem in the city.

When the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded after the 2018-19 season, the then-NWHL (now PHF) teased expansion to Toronto and Montreal. Players formed the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) as they didn’t feel that league was viable long-term solution. Since then, the league expanded to Toronto in 2020 before coming to Montreal for the 2022-23 season.

Montreal’s women’s hockey community has been close-knit and has largely stuck together. No full-time player who has played for the Canadiennes in the CWHL or was a part of the Montreal chapter of the PWHPA has jumped to the PHF so far.

Now that there is a team in the city, that likely will change. PHF team president Kevin Raphaël has relationships with many members of the PWHPA.

Raphaël says that he considers himself neutral, despite choosing to join the PHF team, and says that the conflict between the PHF and PWHPA has nothing to do with him. He says that some PWHPA players have reached out to him, and he said he welcomes talking to them or answering their questions.

Centre 21.02 is the only high-performance training centre for women’s hockey players in Canada. It is run by Danièle Sauvageau, who is also the manager of the PWHPA region in the city. Due to the pandemic, the focus of the centre has mostly been on the senior players with the PWHPA and the Canadian National Women’s Team. Long-term, the Centre is set to play a key role in the development of women’s hockey in Quebec.

The Centre signed a two-year agreement with the PHF Montreal team, and Sauvageau herself was mentioned in the release. The agreement will allow the PHF team to practice at the facility, but not play there, forcing the PHF team to tour Quebec for their home games. Sauvageau explained more in this radio hit on 98.5 FM (in French). For her, it’s all a part of building a development system.

“We talk about development with the Montreal Canadiens, but in the pyramid of women’s hockey there are 23 players who make the national team and the best in the world are part of the PWHPA,” Sauvageau said. “This PHF franchise that was announced will practice and train on and off ice at the centre and they will play two games against, say, Boston, in Quebec City, in Sherbrooke, in Gatineau, in Laval.”

This has the dual purpose of bringing the game to more places in the province, and allow a place for more women to play hockey after university, two things that were recommended by the Quebec Committee on Hockey Development. However, establishing itself in the Montreal market itself remains a question mark.

The PHF team will not replace the goals of the PWHPA, but will complement it. Sauvageau sees it as a way to develop the amount of talent that comes out of the four universities in the province — McGill, the University of Montreal, the new program at Bishop’s University in nearby Sherbrooke, and the reigning national champions at Concordia — as well as the many Quebec-born players who play NCAA hockey.

“We’ll have players who graduate university who will play for this team and the best players in the PWHPA will continue to work towards a league where the best in the world will come play in Montreal and that team will play [at the Centre in Verdun],” Sauvageau said.

Marie-Philip Poulin says that she will not play in the PHF, saying that she will continue her work with the PWHPA.

“I started day one with the association that we created,” Poulin said. “We have good people behind us and we’ll go forward with that.”

She doesn’t see two teams as a problem.

“There are players who graduate from university year after year. There’s potential that is coming, and this is something created where people can continue to grow,” Poulin said.

While women’s hockey players can go to Europe to play professionally, there aren’t as many options for women in Quebec, or even Canada, to develop.

“For boys in Quebec, when you can graduate from the QMJHL you can play for the Lions, you can play in Europe, you could play university hockey, you could play for the Rocket, and you can be drafted and play in the NHL,” Sauvageau said in the same radio appearance. “In women’s hockey, if we want to have the best of the best play on six, eight, 10, 12 teams, we need to have a feeder system, a level to ensure that we have players that can continually come up and maintain it.”

“It gives more opportunities for players to play,” said Raphaël about the potential of two teams in the city. “If there are two teams, that means there are 46 players. That’s 46 players who will make a salary.”

The Montreal PHF team is already behind the other six teams in the league. Raphaël confirmed on Tuesday that he had yet to speak to any players. He also does not have a general manager or coaching staff announced. Over 60 players have already signed publicly with PHF teams. Many others have signed unannounced contracts, making it hard to fill out the roster with established PHF veterans.

How much buy in he gets from veteran professional players in the city — and which ones — will be interesting to watch. Raphaël mentioned in his press conference that he expects to spend up to the $750,000 salary cap and doesn’t expect any player to make a league-minimum salary.

Raphaël was also asked how he felt working for a team that was owned by BTM Partners, of which John Boynton is part of. Boynton, who is also the chairman of the PHF board, is the director of the board for Russian company Yandex, Russia’s largest tech company. Yandex has been involved with promoting propaganda and suppressing factual information about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“You came from the top rope with that question,” Raphaël said to NBC Sports reporter Alex Azzi, who asked the question. “I understand what’s going on with whatever, whoever. But at the end of the day, my goal is to treat the players as professionals, to make sure they get paid for all the efforts they make.”

BTM Partners currently owns four of the seven teams in the league, and the PWHPA has been reported as saying they do not want to work with the PHF in part because of its connections to the Russian company.