Rule changes, merchandise sales next on the docket as PWHL races to puck drop

Nine pre-season games hosted in upstate New York last week offered the first opportunity for Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) players to scope out the competition, and for general managers and coaches to make final roster decisions ahead of the league’s inaugural season.

But for the league’s hockey operations office, it was a chance to experiment with a series of potential tweaks to the NHL rulebook, which the PWHL will use with a few alterations in the upcoming campaign.

Potential rule adjustments ranged from long changes in the first and third periods, to two-minute penalties being served in their entirety, even if the opposing team scores during a power play.

Now, Jayna Hefford, the hockey hall of famer who serves as the PWHL’s senior vice president of hockey operations, has to figure out what might stick ahead of the first regular-season game on Jan. 1, when Toronto will host New York.

“We’re going to have to look at the data and see if it actually created more scoring chances or more goals, which of course I think is the goal,” Hefford told CBC and Radio-Canada last Thursday.

“We’ll debrief the event and really understand the pros and cons, and see if it makes sense to implement any of them.”

The PWHL experimented with rule changes during nine pre-season games held last week. (Heather Pollock/PWHL)

PWHL rosters are set ahead of puck drop on New Year’s Day, but behind the scenes, there’s still lots on the to-do list. League staff are still working on a number of regulations and policies, including exact details on how the long-term injury reserve, which already has one player on it, will work.

As of last Thursday, the PWHL was also still assembling its player discipline committee, the group that will review plays and hand out discipline when warranted. That needs to be in place by the time the first games begin.

But officiating might be one of the most important to-do items in a sport where female players have often dealt with inconsistency in that area.

Three people from the league’s officiating department were on site in Utica, N.Y., last week to help navigate issues around rules and officiating, which Hefford described as a priority. The PWHL will use a pool of officials from the American Hockey League, Hockey Canada and USA Hockey this season.

“We want these players to know every game, regardless of where they’re playing, that the rules will be called the same way, and then they know what they can expect,” Hefford said.

The nine games played in Utica didn’t count in the standings, but you wouldn’t know it based on the intensity on the ice.

Body checking isn’t allowed, but there was lots of physical play along the boards. While Hefford said the league doesn’t want dangerous plays, slashes and high sticks, physicality will certainly be part of the game. 

“[Players] want to play a physical game,” she said.

Whether to mandate neck guards has also been a conversation within the PWHL, and as of last Thursday, Hefford said they weren’t mandatory but strongly recommended.

She said they’ll be available for players who want to try them. Some players wore them during pre-season action.

“I was pleasantly surprised with the number of players who said that they would be interested in trying one and open to wearing one,” Hefford said.

Four of six teams will make playoffs

The league’s six teams will each play 24 games in the first season. International breaks have been worked into the schedule, including a long break for the Women’s World Championship in April.

Playoffs begin in early May, and Hefford said four of the six teams will make the playoffs. The top-seeded team will face the fourth-seeded team, while the second- and third-seeded teams will face off. Both will be a best-of-five series.

The winners will face off in the championship series, which will also be best of five.

For the regular season, single-game tickets went on sale in Boston, Minnesota, New York and Ottawa on Wednesday, with Montreal and Toronto set to follow on Thursday.

A team of female hockey players in red jerseys celebrate on the ice.
Single-game tickets are on sale this week across PWHL markets. (Heather Pollock/PWHL)

“We go into this understanding that we’re building a league, we’re launching a league,” Hefford said last week after Toronto sold out its season ticket packages at Mattamy Athletic Centre.

“We’re not going to fill every building every night, so we have pretty conservative projections, I would say. But in initial days into ticket sales we’ve exceeded our projections, which is really great news for us.”

The next step is to have merchandise available, including replica jerseys, in an online store. That could happen as early as this week. Merchandise will also be available in arenas when the season begins.

Names, logos: ‘We’re going to get it right’

Walking around the Utica University Nexus Center last Tuesday, with fans in the stands for a pre-season game between Ottawa and New York, Stan Kasten’s mind was blown.

It’s been more than a year since Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Walter asked him to work on getting a league off the ground, telling him he’d made a commitment to tennis icon Billie Jean King to get it done.

Since July 1, when the ownership group moved to buy and shut down the Premier Hockey Federation, setting in motion plans to launch the PWHL, Kasten has been in fast-forward mode.

“To see it really coming together, I can’t describe it,” said Kasten, who sits on the PWHL’s advisory board.

He said he’s in awe of the talent he’s seen on the ice and proud that the PWHL has been able to offer a professional environment.

“I’m not talking about the [Premier Hockey Federation], who still deserves a lot of credit for setting the foundation that we could build upon,” he said.

“The role they played was very important. They deserve a lot of credit for it, and I give them a lot of credit for it. But what we have been able to add — I use the word proud because that’s how we feel about having done this.”

At least for the beginning of the season, the jerseys the players will be wearing and the league will be selling will have the city name written across the chest. Those jerseys needed to be ordered months ago in order to be ready in time for January.

A smiling female hockey player holds up the edges of a burgundy red jersey, which has the words Montreal written across it.
Marie Philip-Poulin wears PWHL Montreal’s new home jersey. (PWHL)

As for team names and logos, Kasten said the league might use some of the names they’ve been looking at, but they also might not. He said the PWHL recently hired someone new to work on branding, who works with the director of business operations.

“I don’t know that she gets it done by opening day,” Kasten said. “At this point I suspect not, but I don’t care. We’re going to get it right.”

Kasten often says he knows the league will make mistakes in its first year. It’s something he’s warned players, staff and reporters about over the last few months.

But with players on the ice and fans in the stands around him last week, he felt certain the league got the players, coaches and GMs right. 

“This will be the league with the highest level of skill for women hockey players ever in the history of the world,” Kasten said.

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