A new women's professional hockey league will begin competing in North America in January after a deal was brokered between rival factions in the sport.
Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Mark Walter and wife Kimbra, team president Stan Kasten and tennis legend Billie Jean King will help run the league after Walter's firm purchased assets of the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF).
The agreement announced Friday ends a yearslong feud between the seven-team PHF and the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association, a group that includes many U.S. and Canadian national team members who were unwilling to join the league formerly known as the NWHL.
"I am extremely proud of our PWHPA group, which has remained committed to our vision and steadfast in our efforts to change the landscape of women's professional hockey forever," PHWPA member and U.S. women's star Kendall Coyne Schofield said in a statement. "Over the past four years, we have worked tirelessly to close the gap on what young girls and boys could dream to become in this sport."
It also could bring the NHL to the table in a support role. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said he and team owners did not want to get involved in a dispute between leagues but would throw weight behind one once it was formed.
"The National Hockey League congratulates the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association and the Premier Hockey Federation on their agreement," the NHL said. "We already have initiated discussions with representatives of this unified group regarding how we can work together to continue to grow the women's game."
The PWHPA had been working with the Mark Walter Group and Billie Jean King Enterprises over the past 14 months in a bid to launch its own league.
"This is an extraordinary opportunity to advance women's sports," King said in the league's statement. "I have no doubt that this league can capture the imagination of fans and a new generation of players."
The PHF had been scheduled to begin its ninth season this fall. Instead it is expected to cease operations. The new league will bring together North America's most accomplished female players and is likely to include talented players from Europe and Asia who had played in the PHF.
The new league is expected to feature PWHPA chief Jayna Hefford and PHF commissioner Reagan Carey in leadership roles.
"This is another step forward for the women who play professional hockey and the girls who dream of it every day," said Johanna Boynton, who along with co-PHF governor John Boynton will also be part of league leadership.
Among the many issues that need to be sorted out is the number of teams and where they will play. The PHF, which had doubled each team's salary cap to $1.5 million entering this season, had teams in Boston, Toronto and Montreal along with East Rutherford, New Jersey; Hartford, Connecticut; Buffalo, New York; and Richfield, Minnesota.
The PWHPA was certified as a union this spring and has completed negotiations on a collective bargaining agreement. A 62-page CBA was presented to PWHPA members Thursday night, and they have until Sunday night to ratify it and the new league's constitution, according to a person familiar with the details who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity before the deal was announced.
If approved, the deal will run through 2031 and feature a minimum salary of $35,000 for players on active rosters, the person said.
In the meantime, existing PHF player contracts have been voided, though an agreement is in place to pay those under contract a portion of their salary through September, the person told AP. Some players are losing out on contracts they signed worth more than $150,000 over two seasons.
The higher salaries helped the PHF attract several high-profile international players, including Switzerland's Alina Muller, Sweden's Emma Soderberg and former Finland goalie and ex-PWHPA board member Noora Raty.
North American women's pro hockey has seen leagues come and go this century, with the Canadian Women's Hockey League folding in 2019 after 12 seasons featuring some of the best players in the world. Dani Rylan Kearney launched the NWHL in 2015 as an investor-funded, four-team league but the league scuffled at times and it was rebranded as the PHF.
The PWHPA was formed in 2019 in the fallout of the CWHL demise. Its members balked at joining the NWHL and instead pursued their vision of a league with a sustainable economic model and better compensation.
Earlier this month, PWHPA board member and U.S. star Hilary Knight insisted that the PHF was not the best model for building the women's pro game, even if the divide in the sport persisted.
"I make this distinction: The more women we can have get paid to do the sport they love, I think that's awesome," Knight said. "What bothers me is the illusion of professionalism and what women's hockey should be, and settling for what it is, right? And I think that's the big distinction is let's call it what it is."