Sports

PWHL hits home stretch as players return from world championship

The Professional Women’s Hockey League enters the home stretch of its inaugural season Thursday when it resumes following the world championship break.

Montreal is at home to Minnesota and Toronto visits Boston on Thursday.

Each of the six clubs has five games remaining in the regular season that concludes May 5 with Toronto hosting Ottawa. The playoffs start the week of May 6.

Toronto (10-3-0-6), Minnesota (8-4-3-4), Montreal (7-3-4-5) and Ottawa (7-0-6-6) were in playoff position. Boston (4-4-2-9) and New York (3-4-3-9) were on the outside looking in.

“Nobody’s been eliminated yet with five games to go. I think that’s a win for the league,” said PWHL senior vice-president of hockey operations director Jayna Hefford. “We’ve created parity across this league. That’s what we set out to do.

“Going into the playoffs for the first time, we’ve seen incredible hockey this year, but I think it’s going to step up from here. We announced the trophy last week. Six weeks, it’s going to be over quick, but it’s exciting times.”

The announcement of team names was still “a work in progress,” Hefford said.

“I think quite honestly, it’s been a blessing in disguise. Everybody talks about the PWHL. Nobody walks around saying ‘NHL’ around teams. We’ve been able to have a whole season where we’ve built the league brand.”

Wide reach in 1st season

The PWHL has averaged 5,334 fans over its first 57 games.

Attendance ranged from a March 6 low of 728 at Total Mortgage Arena in Bridgeport, Conn., to a high of 19,285 in Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena on Feb. 19.

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A sellout is projected for Saturday’s Toronto at Montreal clash at the 21,105-seat Bell Centre, which would set a new attendance mark.

“We’re seeing young girls and young boys and families, but we’re seeing 20-something professionals that are out having a good time at games,” Hefford said. “We’re seeing retired couples who are season-ticket holders. We have a lot of older generation women that never got a chance to be part of something like this.

“Our demographics are more broad than I think we thought.”

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People watch PWHL games across eight different media company platforms in Canada and the U.S., including free streaming of all games on YouTube.

YouTube pulled in 1.3 million unique views and over 27.8 million impressions over the first 37 games, or first half of the season, according to the PWHL.

“The visibility is so important for us, how important that was to making it accessible and free to everyone regardless of where you are, and easy to find,” Hefford said.

YouTube is a key cog in audience-building, which will determine what rights are worth in the future, added PWHL vice-president of league operations and compliance Chris Burkett.

“It’s not so much giving it away. It’s ensuring that people can find the games,” Burkett said.

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“You see with other professional women’s sports leagues where the media rights are incredibly valuable because they built an audience.”

New York will host Boston on both Saturday and April 30 at the Prudential Center.

Playoff seeding quirk

The home of the New Jersey Devils will be the seventh NHL site of PWHL games after Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena, Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena, Minnesota’s Xcel Energy Center, Montreal’s Bell Centre and Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena.

Los Angeles Dodgers controlling owner Mark Walter is the PWHL’s financial backer. The PWHL’s board consists of Dodgers president Stan Kasten, minority owners Billie Jean King and Ilona Kloss and vice-president Royce Cohen.

The playoff format features a PWHL-devised quirk. The top playoff seed will have a 24-hour window to choose between the third and fourth seed for its semifinal opponent.

“We set out to just have an open mind and not be stuck in ‘this is the way it’s always been done,”‘ Hefford said.

“We have this mindset that we’re not going to be afraid to make a mistake. And that comes from the top, from Stan and Billie and those people. It’s OK to make a mistake and if we do, we’ll fix it, but don’t be afraid to make a mistake.

“When this idea came up, we talked about it, we debated it, we talked to other folks. Some liked it, some didn’t, but overall the majority had an open mind.”

Semifinals and the final will be best-of-five series. The higher seeds have home-ice advantage for games one, two, and five.

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In order to keep the two eliminated teams playing for something, the first overall pick in June’s draft goes to the team that earns the most points following its elimination from playoff contention.

Once a team is mathematically eliminated, it starts earning draft order points in its remaining games using the standard points system.

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The 23-year-old forward from Georgetown, Ont., says she’s watched almost every game and is excited to join the league next season.

Over 100 players declared for draft

Over 100 players, including Europeans, have declared for the 2024 PWHL draft, Hefford said.

Canada and the U.S. had a combined 30 PWHL players on their world championship rosters in Utica, N.Y., while another nine played for Czechia, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Switzerland and Japan.

Hefford and PWHL brass were in Utica for meetings with the IIHF and countries’ federations.

“We haven’t had a chance to meet the Finns, Swedes and the people running those teams, so it’s really been [mostly], ‘Hey, this is who we are. How do we continue to work together and build lines of communication?”‘ Hefford explained.

“We hope more and more players come in to be a part of the league.”

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