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Women’s hockey roars back to life in 2022 after tough pandemic years

Women seeing a boost in wages, screen time and recognition
Team Canada players celebrate with their gold medals after defeating the United States in women’s hockey gold medal game action at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. Women’s hockey in 2022 was a firehose filled with change and advancement after the virtual desert of the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Women’s hockey in 2022 was a firehose filled with change and advancement after the virtual desert of the COVID-19 pandemic.

From a women’s league closer to paying a living wage to all of its players, to two major international tournaments in one year, to NHL teams hiring and promoting current and former players at an unprecedented rate, it was a turnaround from the dark days of 2020 and early 2021.

Despite the pandemic hampering its preparation, Canada regained the upper hand in its storied women’s hockey rivalry with the United States by winning an Olympic gold medal in Beijing in February with a 3-2 victory over the Americans. It would be the first of two wins for Canada over the U.S. in a major tournament final in 2022.

The International Ice Hockey Federation introduced a women’s world championship into an Olympic year for the first time. Canada beat the U.S. 2-1 in September’s final in Herning, Denmark, to defend its world title.

While those two countries continue to front-run internationally, Czechia’s bronze at the world championship for its first medal was a breakthrough for that country.

Brampton, Ont., will host the 2023 world championship in April when Canada attempts a three-peat.

Without the corporate and business machinery that kept male pros playing hockey during the COVID-19 pandemic, North America’s top female hockey talent played just a handful of games in the 2020-21 season.

International games and domestic leagues severely curtailed because of restrictions and outbreaks, the women often trained alone or in small groups waiting for normalcy and the chance to grow their game again.

“2020 and 2021 were very hard years,” Canadian captain Marie-Philip Poulin said.

“2022 was a big year for women’s hockey. We kept going. We have the momentum going and I think that that’s huge.

“There’s big news evolving about women’s hockey. That’s something that we take a lot of pride in, and we’ve got to keep going.”

While Poulin and other women’s hockey stars such as Sarah Nurse, Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield haven’t joined the Premier Hockey Federation, that league continues to up the recruitment ante and attracted some Canadian and American players with national-team experience.

The seven-team circuit, with clubs in Toronto and Montreal, doubled its salary cap this season to US$750,000 per team.

The PHF intends to double it again in 2023-24 to US$1.5 million per team, which on a maximum 25-player roster averages out to $60,000 salaries.

“They’re not comparable to the NHL, but they are comparable to other sports franchises,” said Toronto Six president Sami Jo Small.

The Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA), which boasts the aforementioned star players, continues to go its own way in pursuit of league by playing showcase games and tournaments.

A league is said to be in the works, with Billie Jean King Enterprises and Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Mark Walter as potential backers.

While women’s leagues have historically come and gone — the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folding in 2019 gave birth to the PWHPA — 2022 was a year in which the players’ dreams of an enduring, sustainable women’s pro league offering a similar competitive environment to the men was closer to reality.

“I think there’s no better time to be a player in women’s hockey because the choices you have, the opportunities you have, are simply endless,” Small said.

“We all together collectively within the game have this incredible power. It’s so visible when we start to work in the same direction.”

Job opportunity in hockey increased for women in 2022.

NHL teams fell over each other announcing promotions and additions of women in hockey operations. Several former and current players were hired.

By year’s end, six women were assistant general managers: Hayley Wickenheiser (Toronto Maple Leafs), Cammi Granato and Émilie Castonguay (Vancouver Canucks), Meghan Hunter (Chicago Blackhawks), Kate Madigan (New Jersey Devils) and Alexandra Mandrycky (Seattle Kraken).

Poulin and Canadian team forward Rebecca Johnston were hired by the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames respectively in player development roles.

The Los Angeles Kings brought former Canadian goalie Manon Rheaume on board in player development.

Four women became pro scouts in 2022 to join others hired by NHL clubs the previous year.

Also, Jessica Campbell of Rocanville, Sask., became the first woman to stand behind an American Hockey League team’s bench full-time when the Coachella Valley Firebirds made her an assistant coach.

Former Canadian team defender Laura Fortino became the first female assistant coach in the Ontario Hockey League with the Hamilton Bulldogs.

Nurse, who set a record for the most points in a single Olympic women’s hockey tournament with five goals and 13 assists, became the first woman to grace the cover of EA Sports’ NHL video game.

The forward from Hamilton shared the cover of NHL 23 with Anaheim Ducks centre Trevor Zegras.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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